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How populism benefits from transition issues
Blog...How populism benefits from transition issues

How populism benefits from transition issues

Green News
factory releasing pollution
This article examines how populism reshapes global climate policies by framing environmental actions as elitist.
Green News
factory releasing pollution

As climate change and its impacts grow increasingly severe, global efforts to address it face unexpected hurdles from within our political landscapes. Populism, a political strategy that champions the cause of the "common people" against perceived elites, is experiencing a resurgence in the 21st century. With its narratives now intersecting with the climate discourse, the implications for environmental action are profound. This article explores how populist movements - especially those leaning right - are reframing the environmental narrative, the economic challenges they highlight in green transitions, and the resulting impacts on global climate policies.

👉 This article examines how populism reshapes global climate policies by framing environmental actions as elitist.

What is populism?

Populism is a political approach or movement that seeks to appeal to the interests and concerns of the general population, often by opposing the perceived interests of the “elite” or established groups in society. It characteristically frames politics as a battle between the virtuous "ordinary" masses and a “corrupt elite”.

Populists claim to speak for the "common people" and argue that their voice and will should have greater influence on policy and governance. The specific issues and policies championed by populist movements can vary widely, from left-leaning economic proposals to right-wing cultural positions, depending on the cultural and political context of the country in which they arise. Despite the differences in policies, what unites populist movements across the spectrum is their claim to represent the unified will of the people against a self-serving elite.

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Populism in the 21st century

Populism has seen a resurgence in recent years and has found a home on both sides of the political spectrum. In Latin America, left-leaning figures like Venezuela's late President Chávez embodied the spirit of populism, while in Europe, parties like Spain's Podemos and Greece's Syriza showcased a similar trend. 

However, the most successful populist movements in recent years, particularly in the US, UK, and Europe, have skewed towards the right, blending populist narratives with nationalist and often authoritarian stances. Figures like Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Donald Trump in the US epitomise this trend. This blend of populism with anti-immigrant sentiment and authoritarianism has been a subject of focus for political scientists over the last few decades, but the traction these movements have gained has notably accelerated in recent years.

Several factors have contributed to the rise of populism in the 21st century. Experts often cite societal shifts, such as multiculturalism and globalism, as backdrop forces. However, concrete crises have also fueled populist sentiments, particularly in Europe. For example, support surged for these parties between 2008 and 2011 during the global financial crisis - a period when the banking elite were largely blamed for widespread societal challenges. 

Dr. Moffitt, in his book "The Global Rise of Populism", suggests that a consistent feature of populist leaders is the perpetuation of a state of crisis, always appearing on the attack. This stance is crucial for them to maintain a distance from the "establishment" and convince their supporters of their anti-elite position. As Professor Nadia Urbinati from Columbia University observes, populism often thrives on opposition - whether it's anti-politics, anti-intellectualism, or anti-elite. This inherent adaptability makes populism a formidable political strategy, capable of moulding itself to varying contexts and challenges.

Building on this idea, it's evident that populists are continuously evolving in their search for adversaries. Recently, they have identified a new battleground - the environment.

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Populists vs climate change

Right-wing populist movements around the world are increasingly framing climate action and environmentalism within the context of broader culture wars. Notable figures from various countries have cast environmentalism as an elitist or even globalist agenda, rather than a pressing global concern. In the U.S. for example, figures like Lauren Boebert critique environmentalism as being contrary to American interests, while in the UK, rhetoric from Brexit proponents such as Suella Braverman targets a so-called "tofu-eating wokerati". Spain's far-right Vox party similarly dismisses the U.N. climate agenda as "cultural Marxism".

Climate action (or climate scepticism) was also a defining discussion point during the recent Dutch election, which culminated in a controversial win for the far-right Freedom Party headed up by Geert Wilders. This strategy of framing climate action as a tool of the elite, or as an overreach of international organisations, not only polarises the issue but also downplays the urgency of combating climate change. Sadly it seems to be working. Recent polls show that voter support for climate change policies dwindles as they feel the impact on their income and lifestyle. This presents a tall challenge for policymakers who must try to convince voters to support the green transition during a time of increasing financial pressure.

However, admittedly there's more to the populist rejection of environmentalism than just rhetoric. The economic ramifications of transitioning to a greener economy are vast and will inevitably create both winners and losers. Populist movements, particularly on the far-right, recognise the potential to rally those who feel left behind or threatened by this shift. By portraying green policies as the culprit for economic hardships, such as the recent energy crisis in Europe, populists gain a potent tool to galvanise support and potentially win votes. Furthermore, online discourse has increasingly shifted from traditional climate denial to critiques of the hypocrisy and elitism of climate activists.

Yet, amidst this contentious climate discourse, there are glimmers of nuanced perspectives from the right. Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, for instance, emphasises a vision of environmentalism rooted in conservative values, aiming to strike a balance between nature preservation and economic prosperity. While this perspective is more receptive to environmental concerns, there remains a caution among climate activists. The worry is that the undercurrent of prioritising business and nationalistic interests over decisive climate action, even if not explicit climate denial, could result in comparable setbacks for global climate initiatives.

👉 To learn more about the impacts of climate change why not check out our article outlining everything you need to know.

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The impact of populism on climate change action

Research has demonstrated a concerning link between right-wing populist parties and a regression in climate policy. A comprehensive study conducted by the University of Sussex and the University of Warwick analysed climate policies across more than 25 nations spanning over a decade. The researchers crafted a climate policy index which, when compared against a centre-right government baseline, showed a decrease of about 25% in the presence of a right-wing populist party.

Prominent examples of such policy reversals include President Donald Trump's decision to exit the Paris Agreement and endorse coal, and Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott’s, decision to eliminate the nation's carbon pricing.

A growing worry is the potential rise of such populist movements in the post-Brexit UK, particularly amidst the backdrop of global crises such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict and rising living costs. Populist parties have historically been able to capitalise on such crises. Experts caution about the possibility of these same factions now opposing climate action, emphasising that the UK is more susceptible to such a shift due to its electoral system.

👉 Discover why the Paris Agreement is so important in our article.

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The UK’s recent green policy U-turn

Sadly, these fears seem to be becoming a reality. Despite a chorus of objections from scientists, businesses, and even politicians, the UK government has recently taken the significant step of pulling back from major climate policies. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, in a recent address, revealed the UK’s intention to postpone several key environmental initiatives. These include the proposed 2030 ban on the sale of petrol-fueled vehicles, the end of fossil fuel heating in off-grid homes, and the ban on installing gas boilers in new properties. Sunak justified these retractions by emphasising the role of individual choice in transitioning to greener alternatives, attributing the decision to economic strains faced by the population.

This abrupt policy reversal gravely endangers the UK's aim to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050. This setback has not gone unnoticed by the Climate Change Committee, an independent advisory body, which has repeatedly criticised the UK government's lax approach towards its climate goals. In a letter released earlier this year, its chair, Lord Deben, admonished the Prime Minister, stating that the UK had "lost its clear global climate leadership." He called on the UK Government to correct its course quickly. This latest policy retreat only adds to the string of disappointments, causing disarray and despair amongst businesses and stakeholders, many of whom had planned their strategies around earlier green commitments.

It appears that internal politics and the upcoming elections might be playing a role in these decisions, as the Conservative Party, under pressure from current poor polling results, tries to appeal to a broader base. What's tragic is that climate policy, an area where the Conservative Party had previously built some credibility, is now being sacrificed in the tumult of current political dynamics.

👉 Read more about Rishi Sunak’s recent policy U-turn in our article

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Problems elsewhere

Populism, driven by concerns over the economic implications of environmental policies, is not a phenomenon that’s limited to the UK. In France, the "gilets jaunes" protests, which emerged prominently due to increases in green fuel duties, highlighted the tension between economic concerns and environmental goals. An often-cited sentiment from the protesters encapsulates this conflict: "They discuss the end of the world, while we worry about making it to the end of the week." Such sentiments show that while many agree with the importance of climate action, the immediate financial burdens associated with transitions can be deterrents.

In Germany, a similar wave of populism is on the rise. The government's decision to phase out gas boilers, and replacing them with heat pumps, resulted in significant backlash from consumers alarmed at potentially soaring bills. This discontent subsequently fuelled support for the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which criticises what they term the "green fascism" of the mainstream German leadership. Consequently, the government had to reconsider its pace of transition to environmentally friendly alternatives. 

At the EU level, the ambitious "Green New Deal" is experiencing significant challenges. Several of its pivotal provisions are either being diluted or postponed, largely due to pushback from various sectors like industries, farming, and corporate entities.

The situation in the United States mirrors these European dynamics. President Biden's plans, often termed 'Bidenomics', aim to boost green industries through governmental subsidies, hoping to generate a large number of well-compensated jobs in the sector. While this sounds promising on paper, the existing workforce, especially in the automotive sector, fears significant job losses during the transition from gasoline to electric vehicles. The populist right in the US has capitalised on these fears, presenting net zero initiatives in a negative light. Potential electoral implications can be foreseen, with figures like Donald Trump possibly exploiting these sentiments in upcoming elections. 

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Looking forward

The intersection of populism and climate change reveals a larger trend in global politics: the challenge of balancing immediate, populist concerns with long-term, global necessities. Populism's traction is rooted in addressing tangible, immediate grievances; climate change demands a forward-looking, often sacrificial perspective. As populist movements worldwide harness the anxieties stemming from green transitions, it underscores a need to communicate and implement climate policies in ways that resonate with citizens' daily realities. 

If climate action is consistently framed as an elitist or distant concern, it risks stalling. Addressing this requires not just policy shifts, but a fundamental reimagining of how we present and champion the case for a sustainable future in a populist age. As the world grows more interconnected, yet politically fragmented, the challenge lies in making the long-term, global good as compelling as the short-term, local one.

What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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