Notes From the Margins…

Rightwing Populism: Your Climate Change Non-Solutions

  • April 05, 2019
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There are many urgent reasons to oppose the rightwing populist movements that are gaining ground across Europe and beyond: their racism and hostility to minorities, their anti-Muslim bigotry, their authoritarianism, their incipient fascism, their hostility to democracy, the antisemitism that so often seeps through their opposition to ‘globalism’.

But there is another reason that tends to get less consideration.   At a time when humanity is facing multiple threats from global warming, catastrophic biodiversity loss, and mass extinctions, the growth of rightwing populism is pretty much the last thing we need.

These movements are dominated by climate change denialists who believe that climate change is a leftist/liberal concoction and another manifestation of ‘fake news’ that deserves only contempt and derision.  As usual the tone has been set by Trump.  Not only has Trump repeatedly mocked climate change science in his tweets and public statements; he has also undermined the attempts by his predecessors to reduce emissions nationally and sought to derail the search for international mitigation and adaptation.

Other rightwing movements have taken a similar position.   In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has appointed a foreign minister who thinks that climate change is merely ‘dogma’ and a ‘cultural Marxist ploy.’  In the UK,  UKIP has described climate change as ‘one of the biggest and stupidest collective misunderstandings in history.’

The Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) has described carbon dioxide as ‘not a pollutant, but an indispensable component of all life’ and claims that ‘ the IPCC and  the German government are suppressing the positive effects of CO2 on plant growth and thus on global nutrition.’

The least that can be said about these observations is that they are not helpful.  Their knuckledragging imbecility is partly due to ideology; these movements hate anything that smacks of leftism, and they also despise the ‘global elites’ that are supposedly imposing climate change emissions targets etc over the interests of the nation,  through international institutions such as the EU, the United Nations and the IPCC.

Sometimes there are financial and material reasons for their denialism.   Back in 2009 Trump once accepted that climate change was real, and caused by human activity.   Now he doesn’t, and he has done pretty much everything the oil, gas and coal companies that funded his campaign have asked him to.  In Brasil, Bolsonaro has given a boost to the agribusiness industry that donated heavily to his campaign.

More often than not economics and ideology overlap.   In Poland in 2016  the Law and Justice Party’s former environment minister Jan Szyszko – a former forester – authorised logging in the Bialowieza forest, one of the last of Europe’s primeval forests, and rejected international protests which had transformed the forest into ‘ some kind of a flagship for the left-wing-libertine movement of Western Europe.’  By the time logging was halted last year – following pressure from the EU – 10,000 trees in the forest had been cut down.

Rightwing populist attitudes towards climate change and the environment are not entirely homogeneous.  In Hungary Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has recognised climate change as an international problem and called for countries to reduce emissions.  In Italy  the League manifesto states that ‘man and environment are two sides of the same coin. Whoever fails to respect the environment fails to respect himself. Our task is to support the green economy, enabling research, innovation and the development of ecological work.’

Yet Salvini has also tweeted with Trump-like facetiousness that global warming may be a good thing because it will produce ‘more herbs’.   And last month some prominent Lega  supporters were calling for the assassination of Greta Thunberg.  In France, Marine le Pen’s National Rally has described the UN’s climate body as a ‘communist project’ while also supporting the development of domestic renewables in its 2017 manifesto.

In a study of rightwing populist attitudes to climate change and immigration, the German Adelphi thinktank commented on the prevalence of ‘green patriotism’ in the extreme right which ‘strongly supports environmental conservation, but not climate action.’ This tendency includes organisations like Golden Dawn in Greece, which describes the environment as ‘ the cradle of our race, it mirrors our culture and civilisation, and it is therefore our duty to protect it.’

This is the kind of ‘environmentalism’ that the Christchurch shooter espoused in his manifesto when he described himself as ‘an Ethno-nationalist Eco-fascist.  Ethnic autonomy for all peoples with a focus on the preservation of nature, and the natural order.’

There is a long tradition of this kind of environmentalism in the far-right, whose echoes can still be found in the rustic volkisch imagery of its newer variants, such as the UK’s Rural Conservative Movement:



Rural Conservative Movement


Whatever their variants and nuances, these movements draw their strength from an insular, selfish, and often racially or ethnically based nationalism, which generally precludes or openly rejects attempts at multinational and multilateral cooperation on climate change  –  and has little interest in national mitigation either.

In Poland the Law and Justice Party has promoted the coal industry at the expense of renewables in order to reduce the country’s dependence on Russian gas and oil, regardless of its impact on the nation’s health.  The yellow jacket movement in France was initially sparked by a tax on diesel – a tax which admittedly did constitute another economic burden on marginalised sectors of French society.

Nevertheless,  the opposition to Macron’s tone-deaf initiative was partly a reflection of the wider philosophy expressed by the Dutch  Party for Freedom (PVV) leader Marcel de Graaff, who said of the 2016 Paris Agreement that ‘ Sovereign states decide what they want to do with regard to climate change…The elite are laughing here while rubbing their hands. They will benefit from these climate action plans. But the hard-working citizens in the Member States will pay for their electricity, their car, their heating.’

This exclusivity is a major obstacle to developing international polices on climate change. Right now we face collective problems as a species that require international solutions and international cooperation.

Such politicians will never deliver such solutions or even recognise that they are required.  On the contrary most of them will do nothing to mitigate climate change or help us prepare for it, and they may well make it worse.

The only thing they will do is put up walls and fences along their borders to keep out the ‘climate change refugees’ who are likely to become part of even larger movements of people as the century unfolds.  Of course some of those who vote for them may believe that all this ok, as long as they themselves are ‘safe’ inside their own borders.

But let’s be clear: these barriers won’t protect you for long. You can put up as many walls as you like.  You can shoot boats out of the water.  But in the end all of us will be affected by a global problem that requires global solutions.

All of us share this planet in which we have become the dominant species.  If it goes down, we all do. And it would be good to remember that the next time you see Trump gloating about the cold weather, or Salvini tweeting about herbs, or some UKIP MEP telling you that global warming is caused by ‘cosmic rays.’




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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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