Curb your climate enthusiasm, here come the populists!

Far-right populist parties have become crucial actors in shaping domestic policymaking across European democracies. Vlad Surdea-Hernea argues that populists have sensed an opportunity in the increasing salience of climate change. They have turned their attention towards limiting ambitious climate policy, impeding or even reversing pro-environmental progress

Novel entanglements: the far-right and climate change

Over recent decades, far-right populist parties (FRPPs) have gained ground in European democracies, becoming entrenched in national policy-making processes. This has significantly affected policy fields including trade, immigration, and welfare, among others. With a relatively thin ideological base, FRPPs have adapted their focus to emerging political conflicts, framing them as examples of liberal elites' failure to address the real needs of the population.

In countries across Europe, populists have promoted climate-sceptic narratives and translated them into policy

The latest victim of the assault initiated by FRPPs on progressive politics? Climate change, and ambitious climate policies aimed at combating its effects. From Germany to Poland, and from France to Hungary, populists have insisted on promoting climate-sceptic narratives and translating them into policy. By so doing, they remove the sense of environmental urgency from EU member states' party systems.

The populist playbook for influencing public policy

How far have FRPPs limited the scope and effectiveness of national climate policies across Europe? Which tools have they used? Before answering these questions, we should examine the broader framework in which these parties have sought to influence policymaking. My research identifies three distinct, but interconnected, channels of FRPP action.

  • First and foremost, upon securing parliamentary seats, FRPPs' long-term viability is greatly enhanced by tapping into new streams of public funding. As parliamentary parties, they can influence legislative developments, unite diverse voices in the legislature to obstruct legislation they oppose, and promote their populist leaders through media exposure. The latter is particularly vital, because inclusion in the formal legislative process allows FRPPs to shed their outcast status, and influence broader segments of public opinion.
  • Second, when FRPPs secure enough votes to render them eligible to participate in a governing coalition, or even to govern independently, their hold on domestic policy becomes even more pronounced. As members of the executive branch, populists now determine which policies receive adequate funding, and which face obstacles to implementation. Thus, their executive position enables them to circumvent numerous legislative challenges and hinder a policy's effectiveness, even if it appears theoretically ambitious on paper.
  • Finally, and in a more subtle way, FRPPs can influence the range of policies offered by mainstream parties when the latter adopt accommodating electoral strategies. Recent scholarship shows that once populist parties gain traction through their extreme discourse on trade, immigration and multiculturalism, they force mainstream parties, particularly those on the right, to scale back their ambitions in these areas. In essence, this suggests that even if FRPPs are effectively isolated in the legislative and executive branches, as long as their rhetoric continues to galvanise the electorate, other political actors will likely seek to capture these voters by emulating populist behaviour.

The playbook in action: low climate ambition

Knowing these channels, we can now investigate their tangible impact on climate action. My research discovered that an event as minor as a single FRPP making electoral gains between elections in one region of a country leads to the equivalent of introducing 200 energy-intensive households to that nation's economy. This 'populist shock' results in an astonishing 2,700 tonnes of extra CO2 emissions!

Misfortune never comes alone. I analysed all national elections held in current EU member states since 1990. I found that it is exceedingly rare for FRPPs to make gains solely in an isolated region of a country, or even in just one country. More than 75% of elections in my analysis experienced populist waves. FRPPs made significant gains throughout many regions of different European countries. This will result in tens or even hundreds of thousands of additional tonnes of CO2 emitted into the Earth's atmosphere in years following national elections.

A single far-right populist party, making electoral gains one region, leads to the equivalent of an additional 2,700 tonnes of CO2 emissions

In light of this, how do FRPPs advance the (re)carbonisation agenda? What we know so far is that both legislative and executive channels play a crucial role. Moreover, their significance is not confined to a specific region of the EU. Wherever FRPPs secure prominent parliamentary positions, or gain control of a country, populists seem determined to halt ambitious climate action. This is an alarming discovery, particularly given that climate change was not a high-priority issue until recently.

On a more positive note, my research also indicates that, for now, mainstream parties are not adopting FRPPs' climate-sceptic narratives. Rather, there is limited evidence suggesting that mainstream parties adopt oppositional stances. That is, they advocate even more fervently for pro-environmental agendas in the presence of FRPPs.

The reverse of the medal

Might the reverse be true? If FRPPs lose their power, does a country accelerate its decarbonisation efforts? The answer undoubtedly depends on the specific circumstances faced by decision-makers at any given moment. However, my research generally suggests that the answer is no.

Mainstream parties are under pressure to establish a distinct party identity that contrasts with climate-sceptic populists

The reasoning behind this appears to be quite straightforward: implementing ambitious environmental protection measures is often costly for at least one segment of the population. Mainstream parties are under pressure to establish a distinct party identity that contrasts with climate-sceptic populists. If this dissipates, mainstream parties become less inclined to pursue the green agenda, especially given the primary beneficiaries are often generations yet-unborn.

What comes next?

Populists have become deeply embedded in climate change discourse, and FRPPs' effect on decarbonisation is undoubtedly negative. As the climate crisis begins to wreak tangible damage on human lives, mainstream political actors have become even more crucial. Their efforts must not only compensate for decades of inaction – they must also confront the growing populist opposition.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Vlad Surdea-Hernea
Vlad Surdea-Hernea
PhD Candidate, Central European University

Vlad is a political economist with a particular interest in combining quantitative and qualitative methods to explore complex social phenomena.

He is enthusiastic about causal inference, formal modelling, and, more broadly, applications of mathematics in social sciences.

His substantive work lies at the intersection of environmental sciences, applied microeconomics, ethics, and political behaviour.

He tweets @vlad_surdea

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