Ideas on Europe

To deny or to acknowledge? The European Radical Right and the Climate Crisis

©Kelly Sikkema sur Unsplash To deny or to acknowledge? The European Radical Right and the Climate Crisis
©Kelly Sikkema sur Unsplash

For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Nick Startin on euradio, professor of international relations at John Cabot University, in Rome.

Very pleased to have you back with us, Nick. The last time you spoke to us, you talked about how the generational shift taking place in Europe in terms of progressive social attitudes might have a potential negative impact on support for Radical Right parties in the coming years.

That’s right. And one of the issues I mentioned in the discussion was how European Radical Right parties have traditionally tended to be in ‘denial’ or ‘sceptical’ about Climate Change.

Part of the reason for this is that tackling and responding to Climate Change requires international solutions, not national ones, so one way of interpreting ‘climate scepticism’, as pointed out by Matthew Lockwood, is that it is a reaction to ‘Cosmopolitanism’. Denying Climate Change also fits into the populist zeitgeist of distrusting elites, experts and questioning the validity of scientific evidence – it plays into the world of ‘fake news’, ‘misinformation’ and ‘conspiracy theories’!

That said, we shouldn’t overlook – as Stella Schaller and Alexander Carius observe in a report of 2019 – that “a number of [Radical Right] parties have traditionally exhibited a type of ‘green patriotism’ which strongly supports environmental conservation, but not climate action”.

What we have seen in recent years, though, as the Climate Crisis has taken on more salience, is a reevaluation among some European Radical Right Parties of their position on Climate Change.

Can you give us some examples?

Ten years ago, it was commonplace for Radical Right Parties not to acknowledge the existence of anthropogenic Climate Change. Some parties, like UKIP, the UK Independence Party, even went as far as having a policy in their 2014 manifesto stating that the teaching of ‘global warming’ should be banned in schools!

Now, there is a more general recognition, albeit sometimes reluctantly, to acknowledge human-made Climate Change. Take the Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson who was adamant during the 2022 election campaign (and I quote) that ‘The Sweden Democrats are not ‘climate deniers’. Although he also added the phrase ‘whatever that means.’

Does that mean that all Radical Right Parties have adopted a more evidence-based approach to the Climate Crisis?

No, it certainly varies. The AfD in Germany for instance, in its 2019 general election manifesto, still cast doubt on the existence of anthropogenic Climate Change and its impact in terms of its consequences for decarbonization. This contrasts with the Nordic Radical Right parties who, generally, as the report by Schaller & Carius extrapolates, tend to be “the most supportive of climate and energy policies.”

How do you explain the shift among some of these parties?

The compelling scientific evidence concerning anthropogenic Climate Change is now overwhelming and the reality of the climate emergency has been clear for all to see both in Europe and globally. In recent years we have witnessed (sometimes directly, sometimes on the global media) the effects of rising temperatures and heatwaves, droughts, forest fires and general weather volatility. This has clearly led to a noticeable increase in issue salience in terms of the Climate Crisis and a general recognition of the need for action.

Among younger voters this conviction is most notable. According to the Peoples Climate Vote, one of the largest surveys ever conducted on Climate Change globally, 69% of under 18s and 65% of 18-35s answered that Climate Change was an emergency. To put it simply, the Radical Right’s traditional approach to Climate Change is swimming against the tide. Softening the tone and the rhetoric makes strategic sense for such parties if they are interested in maximising their electoral potential. As Louis Dean and Balsa Lubarda pointed out in an online article in 2020: “While only a decade ago climate scepticism was a badge of honour worn by the far right, today it may be seen more as a badge of shame.”

An interview conducted by Laurence Aubron.