Climate policy and the populist right

Q&A with Mahir Yazar, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Climate and Energy Transformation (CET), University of Bergen. Conducted ahead of the EU Parliament elections. 



Along with professor Håvard Haarstad, Yazar has studied the climate policies of three European populist parties on the far right:

  • The Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE)
  • Polish Law and Justice (PiS)
  • Alternative for Germany (AfD)

The researchers have used As sources speeches, various political documents, press releases, and newspaper articles as sources.

Mahir Yazar and Håvard Haarstad: Populist far right discursive-institutional tactics in European regional decarbonisation. Political Geography, 2023.

Does European right wing populist parties care about climate policies?

The simple answer is no, they don’t. Climate (or environmental) policies are very broad and spanning from transportation to agriculture. European Green Deal has been mandated by the European Parliemant with long negotiations; but has been receiving different backlashes from individual European countries. The last example is the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) in the Netherlands, an agrarian and right-wing populist party, which received high voter turnout in rural regions. Farmers in these areas are opposed to negotiating with EU-driven quotas on nitrogen use in agricultural activities. Similarly, local protests supported by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) opposing diesel bans in the city centers of major German cities, and the People's Party (FNB) in Norway advocating for the abolishment of road tolls in cities, exemplify that populist parties are creating contensions against progressive climate agendas. 

How could a strengthening of the right wing populists affect the EU climate goals and policies?

A possible hard-right unity between the ID and ECR parlimantry groups in the European Parliamant after the EU election could steer the direction of critical EU policies including climate change. These two groups are known for their nationalist, right-wing populist, and Eurosceptic stances. Therefore, their potential coalition would further delay the implementation of the European Green Deal by using populist strategies. They associate climate policy measures with issues unrelated to climate change. They generate rhetoric suggesting real threats are not from the impacts of climate change, but from specific ethno-racial groups due to immigration. Thus the focus will be on energy security through reliance on fossil fuels - due to the war in Ukraine - and prioritizing strong anti-immigration rhetorics and measures. 

To what extent has the rise of right wing populists had an effect on EU climate policies so far?

What we know is that populist debates on decarbonization - aka transitioning from fossil to clean energy production -  have shifted from denial to delay to influence public opinion against climate and energy transformation in individual European countries. Our research found that populist discontent amid regional decarbonization processes are already being materialised in far-right populist parties’ agendas, especially in Germany, Estonia and Poland. Far-right populist parties in these countries have intensified their backlash politics as a form of contention to delay regional decarbonisation actions by positioning decarbonization as an attack on historical traditions, regional identity and above all, the traditional family.  Overall, the far-right uses some common elements in different European countries to delay decarbonization and undermine climate policy, such as politicizing decarbonization, reframing cultural values to form alliances with anti-decarbonization movements, and dismantling key decarbonization institutions. All these elements, for instance, have been observed in Poland, which has been ruled by the populist-nationalist PiS party from 2015 until the recent liberal government took the control of the government in the recent election. 

Are there groups of right wing populists that are more positive to climate policies than others? 

I wouldn’t say any of these right-wing populist parties are really pro-climate policies. These parties make a value-based discourse and reframe climate change as an elite issue and decarbonization as counter to the interests of “the people”. But they don’t go beyond this elite vs. people rheotic, and not suggesting any solid actions to tackle with the impacts of climate change.  A scenario analysis of what the European Parliament would look like if it were elected today shows gains by two right-wing groups: the ID (Identity and Democracy Group) and the ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists). However, there is a definite rally within these two right-wing populist groups to have more influence in the European Parliament and in policy decision-making, including climate change.

The radical far-right, represented by the ID group, for instance, is toning down its radical-right sentiments to attract more mainstream votes from their national supporters (e.g., the National Front led by Le Pen). Le Pen even claims that the party is not radical-right and supported the ID group's expulsion of the German AfD. The ECR, and its rising star Meloni from Italy, remains silent on whether they will join forces with the ID group to oppose the EPP (the center-right European People's Party) and its current socialist and liberal coalition partners in the European Commission, or if Meloni and the ECR might collaborate with the EPP and Ursula von der Leyen. We shall see the outcomes of the election first.

There is an assumption that that right wing populists are more skeptical towards climate policies, is that correct, and why is it so?

The discourse surrounding climate change and energy transition within populist right narratives have increasingly shifted from the realm of rational scientific debate to the domain of nationalist ideology and myths. Thus, a key populist right-wing tactic reframes the energy transition, such that climate change shifts to core populist narratives, like Euroscepticism, ethnonationalism, and national security and interests. This, in turn, serves to increase political polarization regarding conditions and processes of decarbonization policies and actions in carbon-intensive regions.
Some populist parties denies the human cause of climate change and represented climate change as an outcome of biophysical changes. For example, the AfD in Germany has been advised by a climate-skeptic research institute to claim that co₂ is beneficial for human well-being. However, what we are seeing now is a shift from skepticism (or denialism) to efforts to delay (or obstruct) climate measures. Such obstruction aim to use rhetoric and institutional tools to delay the implementation of climate policies and actions, which is broadly used by these right-wing populist in different European context.