The world is gripped by the urgent reality of global warming and intense climate protest. Amid the crisis, populist radical-right parties are being forced to integrate the issue into their own ideological, programmatic and strategic framework. This gives rise to variations in approaches within the party family, write Jakob Schwörer and Ana Belén Fernández-García
The Loop’s Future of Populism series has already tackled various myths on populism and the radical right. When it comes to climate protection, conventional wisdom describes the populist radical right as sceptical. Some parties, such as Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, even deny the human impact on the climate.
Hostility to liberal, cosmopolitan and green elites, as well as a rejection of international commitments, fits well with opposition to climate protection as a supposed elite project. However, we also know that some right-wing populist parties support the protection of the domestic environment as a source of national identity, as already discussed on this blogsite. In this reading, climate change can also be a far-right concern, because it threatens the environment of the nation state. The Berlin branch of AfD’s youth organisation, for example, in an open letter from May 2019, urged the party to reject the denialist position. It was not successful.
So, are all populist radical-right parties hostile to climate action?
Our recent Political Studies article analyses party manifestos in ten Western European countries between 1990 and 2022. Our research takes a closer look at the behaviour of populist radical-right parties on climate change. We show that, on average, populist radical-right parties are much more sceptical of climate protection than other party families. However, when we focus on the individual parties, we find a heterogeneous picture.
Italian and French parties support climate protection measures, while German, Dutch, Swiss and British far-right parties oppose them. The 'grey zone' consists of parties in Sweden, Norway and Austria. In these countries, parties are more supportive of climate action, but also express considerable scepticism about the measures and the severity of the crisis. Only a few, such as Vox in Spain, are reluctant to include the issue in their electoral programmes.
Interestingly, populist radical-right parties that support climate protection hardly ever talk about it. Although they see climate protection as a positive aspect, they only mention it in passing. This is not surprising, because other niche and mainstream parties agree on it, and it is therefore not a very polarising discourse.
However, populist radical-right parties that oppose climate action, such as AfD, and the Dutch Party for Freedom and Forum for Democracy, devote considerable parts of their manifestos to the issue. Rejecting climate action in principle is much more in line with what an anti-establishment party would do. It fits well with anti-elitist and nativist discourses that portray climate policies as a conspiracy of the liberal, globalist elites against the interests of the people.
In recent decades, the election manifestos of populist radical-right parties have paid scant attention to climate change. Between 2011 and 2018, less than 0.5% of these parties' manifesto sentences concerned climate-related issues. Since 2019, however, the figure has jumped to more than 1.8%. Clearly, 2019 marks a turning point in the importance of climate change to radical-right parties. Why?
Climate change discourse among their competitors appears to have enticed the radical right into the conversation. The more that other relevant parties talk about climate change, the more the radical right talks about it, too. It is interesting, however, that the existence of a successful green party competitor has little influence on the radical right's climate agenda. This may be because of the ideological distance between the party families and their very different electorates.
In our interpretation, the most important factor is the Fridays for Future movement. Our analysis shows a strong effect of the 2019–2022 period on the frequency of climate references in radical-right discourse. We attribute this development to the increased visibility of the protest movement, which received extensive media coverage in Western Europe. The movement also attracted the attention of international organisations, such as the United Nations.
However, given that Fridays for Future is a green, progressive actor, populist radical-right parties are not adopting the movement's demands. Individual party positions seem to depend on strategic choices and political opportunities. What we can see, however, is a surge of anti-protection references among parties that were already sceptical before 2019.
What can we expect in the future? Given that mainstream parties and the public talk about climate extensively, and radical-right parties have only recently started to address the issue, we can assume that polarised debates on global warming have only just begun. With increased policymaking in this area and extreme weather events, it is very unlikely that the issue will lose relevance.
It will therefore become increasingly difficult for populist radical-right parties to keep a low profile on the issue. While the combination of populism and nativism lends itself well to anti-climate discourse, parties seeking to lead governments and expand their voter base may choose a different approach. By so doing, they would avoid being marginalised by climate scepticism.
In this regard, the radical right faces a crucial decision: either embrace ideological purity and adopt a confrontational stance against the mainstream, or opt for a pragmatic and superficial endorsement of climate action to advance their strategic objectives.
Whether climate-sceptic populist parties will further soften mainstream parties' agenda on climate action (as we have seen with positions on multiculturalism, for example) remains to be seen. But if climate scepticism becomes a trademark of populist radical-right parties, there is good reason to believe that it will.