Domestic fossil fuel reserves help determine right-wing populist positions on green policies

Right-wing populist parties have divergent positions on policies that seek to combat climate change. Key to understanding why, writes Mehmet Haşim Çevik, is whether the country relies on domestic fossil fuels

Populism and climate change

Addressing the impacts of climate change demands rapid transition. Countries must adopt globally accepted climate norms to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Government policy plays a crucial role in achieving national greenhouse gas emission targets. Governments in developed countries attract criticism for not doing enough. But a growing populist backlash has emerged against progressive climate agendas.

Interestingly, these populist movements have emerged at both ends of the political spectrum. Examples include the gilets jaunes in France, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) in the Netherlands, and the 'No to More Road Tolls' People's Movement in Norway. However, it is right-wing populist parties that are most associated with climate-scepticism and resistance to climate protection measures.

Scholars often argue that climate change is a valence issue. However, recent findings show it has become positional. Fay M. Farstad argued that left-wing parties are more inclined to support pro-climate change policies. Yet, studying conservative parties, Sondre Båtstrand found that these parties do not uniformly oppose climate change policy. Rather, it is the relative availability of fossil fuel resources that shapes political parties’ positions – and this appears particularly important for right-wing parties’ climate policies.

Framing anti-climate discourse

Populism is based on a basic societal division between a 'corrupt elite' and the 'pure people'. Often seen as a ‘thin-centred’ ideology, politicians on both sides of the political spectrum use populism to grab voters' attention.

The abstract and complex character of climate change makes it an ideal target for the populist backlash against globalisation. Populists can downplay the challenge of climate change as a preoccupation of elites.

Climate change is abstract and complex. This makes it an ideal target for the populist backlash against globalisation

Matthew Lockwood argues that right-wing populists use two narratives to influence environmental policy. They emphasise the structural, the economic exclusion of the underprivileged, and ideological conflicts between global and nationalist aspirations. Populists want to mobilise the economic and political marginalisation of those 'left behind' by globalisation. Underprivileged people whose jobs are at risk from the energy transition turn their hopes to right-wing populists.

Populists portray plans to mitigate climate change as a danger to carbon-intensive sectors and conventional industrial employment. They blend anti-elitism with authoritarian and patriotic beliefs – and this results in in antagonism towards climate change as a cosmopolitan elite goal.

Not all populist right-wingers are against pro-climate policies

As The Loop’s Future of Populism series has already explored, right-wing populism is not always categorically against policies aimed at reducing climate change, even though people often assume this is the case. Some such parties hesitate to rule out pro-climate policies altogether. For instance, in France, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) pledges to reduce climate change effects by implementing a different set of policies.

So, what are the reasons for right-wing populist parties diverging positions on pro-climate policies?

Domestic fossil fuel resources

The presence – or absence – of domestic fossil fuels plays an essential role in explaining such parties' positions. In coal-rich countries like Poland, Germany and Australia, right-wing populists resist policies countering climate change’s harmful effects. The Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS), for example, refused to phase out coal production. Conscious that millions of Poles depend on coal and coal-related industries, instead, PiS appealed specifically to mining communities for their vote. Italy and France, by contrast, have fewer fossil fuel reserves. Yet neither Giorgia Meloni nor Marine Le Pen are as opposed as similar parties in coal-rich countries to policies combatting climate change.

Right-wing populist parties in countries rich in fossil fuels openly oppose transition policies. They know that many people are employed in the domestic fossil fuel industries. Such parties therefore promise to protect these people by retaining coalmines and coal-fired power plants, and keeping jobs safe. Indeed, both PiS and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany appeal directly to underprivileged people at risk of being left behind by the green transition.

The radical right-wing PiS in Poland, and the AfD in Germany, both appeal directly to underprivileged people at risk of being left behind by the green transition

Right-wing populist parties also pledge to defend the interest of the people against the policies 'global elites' are 'imposing' on their countries. For example, former president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. In 2012, he claimed that China had fabricated the notion of global warming to undermine the competitiveness of US manufacturing.

An alternative 'ideological frame'

Right-wing populist parties in countries which do not depend on domestic fossil fuels are hesitant to deny climate change directly. Instead, they offer an alternative set of policies. France has the most successful nuclear industry in Europe. To counter climate change, Le Pen pledged that if her party were elected, to reduce climate change, it would increase the role of nuclear and hydrogen, and reduce fossil fuel imports. Le Pen called her policy 'economic patriotism'. The Sweden Democrats, while acknowledging the need to tackle climate change, also pledge to increase the share of nuclear power, which has a robust history in Sweden.

In countries lacking fossil fuels, populists do not reject climate change outright, but they do avoid costly long-term pro-climate policies

Right-wing populist parties in these countries use an ideological framing. They do not reject climate change outright, yet they do avoid implementing costly, risky, long-term policies. Le Pen rejects EU-level policies which she claims endanger the living standards of French citizens. Instead, she proposes prioritising French products, technology, and French jobs. Amid ongoing farmer protests, RN criticises the European Green Deal because it aims to reduce use of pesticides and fertiliser in agriculture. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, too, does not overtly oppose the notion of human-caused climate change, but he refrains from explicit scepticism. Neither, however, does Orbán want 'poor countries' to pay for climate change policies set by the EU.

In countries that lack domestic fossil fuels, radical right-wing parties have the perfect justification for denying climate change and opposing green policies. And, dangerously, in countries in which fewer people are expected to be affected by the progressive climate agendas, such parties have a more flexible playground.

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


photograph of Mehmet Haşim Çevik
Mehmet Haşim Çevik
PhD Candidate, Science and Technology Policy Studies, Middle East Technical University

Haşim's studies focus on climate change policy, sustainability transitions and political parties.

He presented his Master's thesis at the 3rd Manas Forum as a conference paper.

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