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Right-wing populists are targeting European climate policy

Harald Franzen
May 16, 2019

Right-wing populists have been gaining support throughout Europe and many of them deny the dangers of climate change. What does that mean for the future of climate policy on the continent?

AfD election poster
An election poster by the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party that reads 'Save the diesel!'Image: DW/H. Franzen

From Greta Thunberg to the World Economic Forum, how to tackle climate change seems to be on everyone's mind these days. Now, Europe's right-wing populists are discovering the issue for themselves, and that could threaten progress toward protecting the climate.

"We would be stupid not to address this issue," co-head of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party Jörg Meuthen said in a recent interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel: "As politicians, we have to address the things people care about."

And most of Germany is worried about global warming. In a recent survey by the country's ZDF television network, respondents ranked "climate and the environment" as the second most important issue, right after "foreigners and integration" — the right-wing populists' core concern.

Similarly, 77% of respondents to a survey about the European elections, conducted in 11 countries, said political parties should make combating climate change a priority.

Yet most right-wing populist parties in Europe take the position that we don't need to take such action, or even deny climate change is caused by humans.

Read more: How right-wing nationalism fuels climate denial

"We reject the energy transition, the way it is being done in Germany," Marc Bernhard, an AfD member of the German federal parliament, told DW. He said high emissions from other countries made reducing Germany's own carbon footprint pointless.

The AfD in Germany, the British UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) — part of the country's coalition government — are among the most prominent climate hardliners in Europe. They, and many other right-wing populists, reject the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen, head of the French right-wing party Rassemblement national (formerly Front National)
There are still huge differences between right-wing populist parties in the EU. Should they find common ground on climate change, they could seriously threaten European environmental policyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Di Meo

A threat to climate protection?

Climate skeptics are currently a minority in Europe. Yet, having gained support in almost all European countries during recent years, right populist parties could have a growing impact on climate policy.

"If you now consider that more right-wing populists are also being voted into federal and state parliaments, then that means serious headwind for ambitious climate policy," says Stella Schaller from the German think tank Adelphi, who co-authored a study on right-wing populism and climate change in Europe.

Read more: Far-right populists and climate policy: An attempt to move the goalposts

Right-wing populists seek to derail climate agenda (2018)

These parties hold seats in many national parliaments, and in countries like Italy, Austria, Poland and Hungary, they are part of government coalitions — sometimes even the biggest party.

"Right-wing populists are being allotted more time to speak in European Parliament, they get seats in commissions and head them," Schaller told DW. "They can submit resolutions and generally establish parliamentary resources."

In recent years, most right-wing populist members of European Parliament have consistently voted against climate protection measures, such as a European CO2-tax.

Read more: Climate protection: Where do the EU's right-wing populists stand?

Matthew Lockwood, senior lecturer on energy policy at the University of Sussex in the UK, says there is also a danger of center-right parties shifting their policies closer to those of the populists.

This effect has already been seen with the influx of migrants to Europe that began in in 2015.

As the number of refugees arriving in Europe soared, significant numbers of voters turned from the established political parties to the right-wing populists calling for Europe to keep refugees out. Many mainstream political parties, and governments, responded with more restrictive policies, and increasingly anti-migrant rhetoric.

Sea-level rise or cost of electricity?

Adelphi's Alexander Carius, who co-authored the report with Schaller, says that rather than adopting the the populist right's regressive policies, mainstream parties need to win the political debate.

"I think climate and environmental policymakers really have to prepare to engage these parties on the issues," he told DW. "And that requires reflection: What are the issues they are addressing?"

The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg at a Fridays for Future demonstration in Hamburg
While climate activists like Greta Thunberg talk about climate catastrophe, right-wing-populists tend to focus on tangible fears over driving bans, CO2-taxes and threats to jobsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt

While scientists and climate activists warn of the catastrophic consequences of half-hearted climate protection — sea-level rise, extreme weather and so on — right-wing populists tend to focus on very different aspects of the climate debate — restrictions on driving and higher electricity prices, for example — and play on fears over economic insecurity.

"The base of the new populist parties is among manufacturing workers, who have lost out in terms of jobs, or wages, or both," Lookwood says. "They see the climate agenda as part of that, especially in energy-intensive industries: The idea that climate policy is going to hurt them."

The established parties have to come up with convincing arguments to ease those fears, and they have to cushion the impact of cutting emissions on ordinary people, Carius says.

"If they fail to present a positive vision of the future and the benefits of protecting our planet," he warns, "we will have a shift to the right, then we will have a roll-back of climate and energy policy, and I think that is dangerous."