Populism and climate change were supposed to be among the most crucial topics of 2020, if not of the entire decade that just started. Then the pandemic cancelled every other topic from the public debate, but climate change did not simply ‘stop’ when swans (allegedly) came back to Venice. Actually, it will be interesting to study the link between air pollution and the diffusion of viruses, because it seems like air pollution is likely to increase coronavirus’ death rate.
After this emergency, the populist management of climate change will re-become central in the public debate not only because – separately – populism and climate change are both extremely relevant, but also because they are strictly connected to each other. Articles, studies, and reports are increasingly focusing on the issue, making a connection between the two phenomena. For example, thirty percent of global emissions come from countries led by populist nationalist leaders, and “resistance to climate change policies has become a feature of the populist agenda.” This, however, does not mean that populist leaders have an interest in fighting climate change. In fact, action on climate change is often seen as an elitist attempt to take away jobs and to impose new taxes. And even those right-wing populist parties that engage in some sort of ‘green patriotism’ – which strongly supports environmental conservation – do not support climate action.
Given the relevant role of populist parties in parliaments across the world, some even argue that a left-wing variant of ‘environmental populism‘ could be a solution. So far, however, this has not been the case, while right-wing populists have ‘successfully’ ignored the issue by pretending to defend the jobs linked to the coal industry. The right-wing populist ideology, based on the antagonism between ‘the people’ and a cosmopolitan elite, goes well with skeptic positions on climate change. Meanwhile, Jair Bolsonaro insists on deforestation, which could push the Amazon rainforest to an irreversible “tipping point” within two years (in his view also coronavirus, like global warming, is just a “media trick“). And in January, while Australia was literally on fire, coal helped Pauline Hanson secure a seat in the country’s Senate, where she staunchly defends Queensland’s coal industry.
Robert Huber is one of the best scholars on populism, and he recently published an excellent article about the association between populist attitudes, climate skepticism, and support for environmental protection. Let’s hear what he has to say.
POP) Robert, you write that right-wing populist supporters, parties and leaders “often express climate skepticism and hostility towards climate policy.” Is it possible to claim that climate skepticism and lower support for environmental protection derive – at least partially – from a distrust towards the elites?
Robert Huber) To some extent, yes. Eventually, these aspects are interrelated. Because of its nature, climate change seems to be an ideal target for populism. It is abstract, elite-driven, temporally and cognitively distant (so we rarely see consequences of climate change in the short-run). Hence, we could expect populists – regardless whether they are left or right – to be skeptic about the whole phenomenon for two reasons. First, existing research by Castanho Silva and colleagues emphasizes that populists embrace conspiracy theories. The above-mentioned key characteristics of climate change invite conspiracy theories, skepticism and denial about the existence of the issue to begin with. Second, climate policy was an elite phenomenon for a long time. Climate policy was mostly discussed in international fora. The public, but also citizen groups, were somewhat excluded and the issue was not salient in the media. This aspect invites criticism that climate change is an elite project.
However, for right-wing populists a couple of additional mechanisms are plausible. Existing research suggests that right-wing individuals (and parties) are substantially less enthusiastic about climate and environmental policy. With a focus on the US, Dunlap and McCright suggest that Republicans (as more right-wing actors) support free-markets and thus perceive environmental protection as interference with the free market. This is one potential explanation for why right-wing individuals, tend to oppose climate policy. More specifically, Lockwood argues that right-wing populist voters are often directly affected by these policies. According to his argument, right-wing populist parties represent voters who commonly work in low-skilled manufacturing sectors. In Western Europe, environmental regulation might undermine their company’s competitiveness. This threat could lead to wage reduction or in the worst case, job loss. Thus, it might be rational for them to oppose climate policy. All these mechanisms can explain how partisanship and political ideology relate to climate and environmental attitudes.
The mechanism you emphasize – distrust towards the elites – should drive climate skepticism independent of – and additional to – ideology. My article’s central message is that we need to disentangle populism and ideology to understand what drives citizens’ attitudes towards climate change.
POP) Citizens refuse to support measures for environmental protection, among other things, because they imagine the negotiations about climate change as some abstract, elitist ballet to which they are not invited. Do you think there are realistic ways in which they could be included in the decision-making process? Would this make any difference?
RH) This is certainly one of the most pressing questions. Not only from the perspective of populism and climate skepticism, but also from a more general climate mitigation perspective. Phenomena such as the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement in France suggest that effective climate policy is futile without citizen inclusion. The Gilets Jaunes are not even against climate policy, per se. However, they want their interests to be represented and considered in the making of climate policies, such as the carbon tax that was imposed and then withdrawn in France due to the pressure from the Gilets Jaunes. I think there are at least two ways forward.
On the one hand, there are economic mechanisms that would allow compensating those that are affected negatively by climate policies. For example, combining progressive income tax cuts with the introduction of a carbon tax could bolster public support for climate policies. More generally, combining different policies might help overcome some obstacles.
On the other hand, active citizen inclusion, such as citizens’ assemblies on climate change, might help to integrate citizens in the debate. The UK recently started a first citizens’ climate assembly, France implemented a similar model to address the Gilets Jaunes protests. I remain skeptical whether this will change policy outputs, mainly because technical and complex issues, like climate change, benefit from expert involvement. However, contrary to direct democratic votes on climate policy, citizen assemblies could be one instrument to make climate policy more accessible and acceptable, and thus boost public support to tackle one of the most prolific challenges to liberal democracy in the coming years.
POP) In an era of post-truth and fake news, even solid scientific proof is often irrelevant. To complicate things even further, people with strong populist attitudes often tend to believe in conspiracy theories. This means that providing scientific evidence about the human impact on climate change is not enough. Which other strategies would you propose? What kind of argument could convince citizens with populist attitudes to change their minds about climate change?
RH) In a new and exciting paper, Eric Merkley argues that anti-intellectualism (something populism scholars might call anti-elitism) explain opposition to scientific positions on a variety of issues, such as climate change. He further shows that populist rhetoric increases citizens’ negative views towards scientific consensus.
In a follow-up research project to my work on the topic, we focus on how policymakers could convince individuals’ to support far-reaching climate policy. Our findings suggest that emphasizing responsiveness, i.e. ensuring that the average citizen feels to be cared about, could be significant. This point relates to the citizens’ assemblies mentioned before. If elites manage to include citizens in the process and credibly demonstrate that they will implement the outcomes of these assemblies, they might convince some skeptical citizens that climate policy is necessary and in line with what average citizens think. However, this is by no means easy and one of the major challenges in future climate policy efforts. So far, we mainly tried to implement the low hanging fruits in terms of far-reaching climate policy, such as plastic straws and diesel bans that will not be implemented in the next 20 years. Harder, more coercive policy measures might lead to similar or worse outcries as in France. What is more, movements like the Fridays for Future (FFF) ultimately increased societal climate concern but also lead to some backlash, precisely because FFF is perceived to be somewhat elitist.
POP) Populism is theoretically orthogonal to the left-right spectrum. Do you find any difference between people who are ideologically right or left about their support for environmental protection? In other words, do you find that introducing populism in the equation gives us a more comprehensive view on the phenomenon?
RH) From a theoretical perspective, several fantastic scholars have focused on political ideology, mainly in the US. This literature has focused primarily on partisanship, conservatives vs liberals, and right-wingers vs left-wingers. Adding populism to the equation opens this rather narrow, one-dimensional definition of political ideology. While there are other aspects (like authoritarianism) that might further broaden the scope of what we understand by political ideology, considering populism already allows for a more comprehensive understanding of how political and climate attitudes relate.
Empirically, it seems populism indeed explains substantial variation in climate and environmental attitudes independent from ideology and partisanship. In statistical terms, I do not observe a strong interaction of populism and ideology in the UK. This result substantially means that the correlation of populism with climate and environmental attitudes is similar across the left-right spectrum. The association of populism and climate attitudes is not driven by being a voter of a specific party or having a particular ideology.
There are several explanations for this. For example, in contrast to the US, climate policy is much less polarized and (most) established parties do not openly deny climate change. Hence, there are fewer conflicting party cues, which structure how voters would think about the issue. In return, climate skepticism is less socially acceptable in the UK compared to the US. We could observe an amplifying effect of populism if there is evident polarization regarding climate and environmental issues. The findings from our follow-up study in the US are consistent with this view. In the US, climate change is polarized along party lines (see here and here). Our findings suggest that populist Democrats are even more concerned about climate change and willing to support far-reaching policies than non-populist Democrats. For Republicans, we find the opposite, namely that populist Republicans discard climate change and oppose climate policies. While those are only two (exceptional) countries cases, these findings suggests that taking political context, i.e. polarization and party cues, into account might be particularly important in this case to disentangle supply and demand of climate attitudes. From that perspective and with this research in mind it seems that populism matters for climate and environmental attitudes and adds to the equation to get a more comprehensive understanding of how political ideology (with populism being one aspect) relates to climate and environmental views.
POP) Green parties have obtained very encouraging results in the last years. Already in the 1990s they were considered as the ‘new thing’, but they continued to struggle for a long time in the shadow of mainstream, catch-all, and populist parties. Do you think we are reaching a turning point, in which green parties can seriously compete with right-wing populist parties for the votes of disillusioned voters who no longer feel represented by mainstream parties?
RH) Concern about climate change has increased substantially in the last couple of months. Green Parties profit from these developments. Potentially, they profit most from those who feel that mainstream parties are not active enough to mitigate climate change. However, there is a lot that sets Green Parties and right-wing populist apart. Beyond obvious spatial arguments (Greens tend to be more to the left), the political discourse and emphasize on pluralism is vastly different for both party families. Greens tend to emphasize an open, plural society; something populists directly oppose. Hence, I remain skeptical to what extent Greens and populist radical right parties try to attract the same voters from mainstream parties. However, this nonetheless increases pressure on mainstream parties since they may lose different voters to different challengers.
I think a comparison to left-wing populist parties might be more fruitful. On many issues, left-wing populists and green parties are quite similar. Future elections and research will show whether and how these two compete for voters. Some left-wing populist parties, like Podemos in Spain, explicitly take progressive, pro-environmental positions. Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy also push pro-environmental positions very actively, although they are hard to pin down in terms of left-right ideology. We will need more research to fully comprehend how populist parties and their voters think about climate change and to what extent they are an obstacle to far-reaching climate policy.
Robert Huber is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Salzburg. His research focuses on challenges to (liberal) democracy, induced by populism and globalization, such as climate change, environmental degradation, and trade liberalization. He received his PhD with a dissertation entitled ‘Climate Policy between Responsiveness and Responsibility’ from ETH Zurich in 2019. Among other journals, Robert’s work has published articles in Environmental Politics, European Journal of Political Research, Environmental Politics and Political Studies. Robert is on Twitter: @Robert_A_Huber.
**The “I do not believe in global warming” mural that illustrates the article was realized in 2009 by Banksy (read about it here).