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Populist Parties in Europe Are Now Talking About Climate Change

An interview with
Marine Le Pen debates at the European parliament

The political right is changing its attitude toward climate change in Europe. Populist parties no longer deny the existence of climate change. Instead, parties like AFD (Alternative for Germany) and the National Front in France are starting to use climate change as a way to attack the EU and to drum up anti-immigrant sentiment.

Catherine Fieschi is the director of Counterpoint, a U.K.-based group that carries out research on political trends and the dynamics of dissent and consent.

FIESCHI: Talk of climate is starting to feature in populist discourse, though slightly differently in Europe and in the United States. In the United States, populism and climate denialism — or at least very hard skepticism — still go hand in hand, partly because the United States is just a much more polarized society than most European societies. 

Denialism No Longer Has Currency in Europe

In Europe, whereas populist parties are quite skeptical vis-à-vis climate policy, especially if it’s being mandated by the European Union, which they hate, there is little climate denialism. It is really a disagreement about who is responsible (do humans have anything to do with it), and what to do about it. So it is kind of a softer stance — though far from constructive. 

In Europe, the populist parties felt that they couldn’t just duck out of the climate conversation; denialism doesn’t have currency. So, they’re being critical of the climate policies being put forward by the EU, rather than denying that there’s a problem. 

There’s quite a range. For example, the Polish populist party in government (PiS) is much more climate skeptical than, say, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National in France. But by and large, what they all have in common is that they’ve realized that they need to talk about this, but they don’t like the way that the EU or that national governments are proposing to talk about it.

We may end up with a populist government that’s going to be terrible on very basic rule of law and human rights issues, but quite good on climate policy because the deal will have been so sweet, in fact, impossible to turn down.

BRINK: So are we seeing a political philosophy that combines environmentalism with hard-right policies and anti-immigration? 

FIESCHI: I don’t think any of them have adopted modern environmentalism — or ideas about the necessary energy transition, but there’s always been a romantic conservative notion about a people being linked to the land, and land deserving respect because it is linked to the “soul” of a people. The German Conservative Revolution, for example, closely linked the landscape to the nation. 

There was always a resonance there about environmental protection in those terms. But this is a far cry from environmentalism — in part because in the conservative romantic vision, it is still all about humans (men in this instance) dominating nature.  

There is huge disagreement over, say, wind turbines and anything that is perceived as threatening an iconic version of nature. There has been no mobilization in favor of any kind of climate policy: All the policies are invariably depicted as misguided or going against the interest of the least well-off. 

The Right Is Linking Climate Change to Migration

There’s a very real connection between climate change and migration, as resources become scarcer in places where there’s already instability and corruption. The Sahel region is a perfect example: The combination of resource wars, corruption and instability, for instance in areas like the one around Lake Chad, has the potential to trigger the mass movement of millions and millions of people. We thought a million Syrians was a lot. We’re looking at four to six million people from that area being driven out, in a sense, by conflict.

So one might think, therefore, that populist parties might adapt their rhetoric and their narrative around this, and say, “Well, it is important to address climate change on a planetary or global level, because otherwise we will get mass migration.” 

But that is not yet happening.

Instead, what most of them are doing is, in a sense, much less rational, and at the same time, much less sophisticated than that. Which is to say, “Well, we don’t think we should be spending so much time addressing the threat of climate change because the real threat is the threat to our borders.”

They haven’t yet said, “Look, we’re trying to take climate change really seriously, because otherwise, we’re facing massive immigration waves.” They haven’t got to that point. They still see it as a policy tradeoff. We either focus on climate change or we focus on migration. 

The Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen’s party, has been quite clever in the way that it talks about this; it has formulated a vision of climate that allows them to say, “Look, we understand that there’s a problem, but what we want” — and they use this expression, they say, “is a humanist climate policy.” What they mean by this is, we want a set of policies that puts humans first — the planet is an afterthought. 

There is an undercurrent of a conspiracy theory that goes something like this: “These elites in Brussels or national governments want you to focus on climate, but it’s to encourage you to take your eyes off the main problem, which is migration and immigration. Which are at the root of the problem, and they have not been able to fix it.” 

The EU Is Making Climate Policy a Condition for Funding

BRINK: Is there any willingness by the populists to accept that there has to be sweeping policy changes?

FIESCHI: I think given the amount of money that the EU is making available (as part of the COVID recovery package) but is conditional on implementing its climate framework (Fit for 55), some parties will eventually rally to these policies.  

Poland, and the attitude of the governing PiS party, is interesting: It is locked in a war with the EU over issues of the rule of law (and specifically anti-gay discrimination), and it hates to be told what to do in terms of climate policy, especially as it still has an important coal industry. But it will eventually have to accept to implement some of the “Fit for 55” package or lose billions of Euros. They will be bribed into converting. But we are a long way from changing attitudes toward climate. 

Climate Delayers Not Deniers

We may end up with a populist government that’s going to be terrible on very basic rule of law and human rights issues, but quite good on climate policy because the deal will have been so sweet, in fact, impossible to turn down. And they will still be resentful of elites that are making them jump through these hoops (all they talk about is the “humiliation” inflicted upon them by these climate demands).

BRINK: Is any of this getting traction among voters? Is this a winning strategy, do you think? 

FIESCHI: If you mean popular support for populists, I think that it is a winning strategy with some of their voters, because it allows them to claim both a kind of victim status, but also that they did the right economic thing for their people. “We are doing it and we are doing it for our people, but we’re doing it against our will.” 

We’re seeing a version of this, not just in populist parties, but in relatively mainstream conservative parties in Europe. The conservative party candidates running in the presidential election here in France, all of them, though they are not climate deniers, they’re certainly climate delayers. They too, they would tend to agree with the populists, that this is a hysterical reaction to something that actually technology and science can fix.

Catherine Fieschi

Director of Counterpoint

Catherine Fieschi is a leading European politics expert whose main focus is on populism and other contemporary forms of mobilisation and protest. She is the director of Counterpoint, a London-based research and advisory group that provides businesses, governments and NGOs with strategic insights on how to manage new forms of social and political risk. A native speaker of French, Italian and English, she holds a Ph.D. in comparative politics from McGill University and lives in Paris.

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