Climate denial and the populist right

In the face of increasing links between a populist nationalist agenda and climate denial, IIED director Andrew Norton calls for a better political offer, and more effective leadership and mobilisation, to tackle the grave climate action challenge.

The ascent of US President-elect Donald Trump, who has shifted his position on climate change since 2011, illustrates growing links between a populist nationalist agenda and climate denial (Photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Donald Trump did not start out as a climate denier. In 2009 he was a signatory of a letter to President Obama published in the New York Times just prior to the Copenhagen climate conference urging him to "lead the world by example" in the fight against climate change. The letter is very eloquent – it's worth a look.

Since 2012, however, he has regularly tweeted to the effect that climate change/anthropogenic warming is a hoax (and specifically one perpetrated by China to make American manufacturing industry uncompetitive).

The change of position dates to 2011 when he first announced his intention to run for the presidency, with a populist, nationalist and at times openly xenophobic agenda.  

Beyond the US – climate denial and populist politics in Europe

There are a range of other links between actors pursuing a populist nationalist agenda in rich countries and climate denial. At least some parts of the movement advocating that the UK leave the European Union prior to the June 23rd referendum are also highly sceptical of the established science of climate change.

And you don't have to look to the far right parties in Europe to find examples of Trump-like trajectories into the 'post-truth' world of climate denial – step forward France's Nicolas Sarkozy, who recently denied even the possibility of human interference with the climate.

Conservative politicians have not always followed this path – and many do not now. The first politician to make a major speech on climate change was, famously, Margaret Thatcher in 1989.

Cynics pointed to her long battle with the UK's then powerful coal mining unions as a motivation. It is perhaps just as relevant to remember that she was a rarity among British politicians in having a background in science, having started her working life as a research chemist.

Few UK parliamentarians have ever had a stronger record on climate action than John Selwyn Gummer, a former cabinet minister in Thatcher's government who now sits in the House of Lords as Lord Deben, and worked closely with the then Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband, in passing the UK's Climate Change Act of 2008.

There has always been a strain of politics that backs fossil fuels, connected to the powerful interest groups concerned. But this is something new. What is driving the new populist politics of climate denial?

The drivers of political upheaval

It is clear that wages and living standards, adjusted for inflation, have stagnated across a broad range of rich countries. The share of income flowing to workers, as opposed to business and property owners, has fallen, and among workers there has been a sharp rise in inequality, with the share of income going to those with the highest incomes increasing in an astounding fashion.

This stagnation masks many places where rapid technological and economic change is leading to the evaporation of forms of work that underpinned communities and identities in rich countries – from the 'rust belt' of the US to the post-industrial former heartlands of UK industry.  

Wealth creation is still happening, but the benefits are captured by a smaller and smaller proportion of the population at both global and national levels.  A broken global tax system cannot keep up with the ease with which national revenue systems can be bypassed. So public investment to make up the jobs gap is challenging.  

As much of the fabric of the familiar world of work collapses for many people, populism focuses on 'the other' – blaming either migrants within countries or the alleged export of jobs to other countries, and fuelling nationalism.

The link to climate denial

Climate change is a highly inconvenient truth for nationalism, as it is unsolvable at the national level and requires collective action between states and between different national and local communities.  

Populist nationalism therefore tends to reject the science of climate change however strong the evidence (just to give one small piece of this – the five hottest years ever recorded since the global temperature record began in the mid-19th century have been 2011 to 2015).

However, in the end any country that seeks to isolate itself will lose out. If President Trump follows through on his stated intention to turn his country away from climate action, isolation from the developing global green economy could lock the US into technologies that will be increasingly redundant and fossil fuel energy that will be increasingly expensive in relation to renewable alternatives.  

If the bulk of the population of rich countries is left without meaningful work and sees the incomes and wealth of the rich soar while theirs stagnate, then it is understandable if they want to see the established order overturned.  

The challenge is to find a new political offer for transformation. One that takes seriously the common heritage of humanity, and the need to bequeath a liveable planet to our children.

And of course addressing climate change is particularly important for the poorest people in the poorest countries who are most exposed to its destructive effects and have contributed the least to the creation of the problem.

A wake up call

After the euphoria of 2015 followed by the great speed with which the Paris Agreement entered into force, climate action faces a grave challenge. 

The Paris process depends on country action bolstered by peer pressure and reputational effects. A major country turning away could cause much disruption. Other countries need to stay firm and we hope and expect they will.

For climate action the priorities are clear. If the inter-governmental process faces new challenges then the actions of others – cities, companies, investors and communities, will be more important than ever.

We must mobilise more effectively across all the levels where action can make a difference. And we must learn to make the case for scientific truth, and basic human solidarity, much more powerfully in an era when it will be contested as never before.  

Above all we need to promote green policies that address the concerns of the poorest and the 'losers' of globalisation in all countries, rich and poor. We need to demonstrate that climate action is not a barrier to workers' progress but an essential stepping in the long run to better and more secure jobs.

Andrew Norton (andrew.norton@iied.org) is director of IIED.