Far-right parties are opposing measures to tackle climate change, how can this be countered?

Climate change, and what to do about it, seems to be getting dragged into the culture wars embroiling Western societies. Subsequently, measures to tackle the issue have become divisive. 

This division is being exploited by far-right populist parties. They have been vocal supporters of recent protests by farmers against climate policies introduced by the EU. Far-right parties seek to undermine climate action to protect an economic model and a way of life powered by fossil fuels. 

Political parties that are serious about tackling climate change cannot afford to lose voters to the far-right. To avoid such an exodus, action to counter climate change must appear fair. Therefore, climate-focused parties must insist the richest and biggest polluters in society pay more for the climate transition than ordinary, working people.

Failing to do so will risk climate action being derailed by the culture war. The human and economic costs of not tackling climate change will be far worse than any action needed to transition away from using fossil fuels.

Why are far-right parties climate-sceptical?

A common element of far-right parties worldwide is their desire to maintain their country’s traditional economic, political and cultural status quos. In the West, this generally includes strong national governments, white supremacy and heterosexual, nuclear family units. Hence, most far-right parties in Europe and America are critical of international multilateral organisations, immigration from the Global South and gay and women rights. Think of Donald Trump in the US, Alternative for Deutschland  (AfD) in Germany, or Viktor Orban in Hungary. The West’s economic status quo is based on consumerism and the exploitation of fossil fuels. These are ways of life far-right parties want to protect.

The strategies far-right parties use to undermine climate science vary depending on the party and the situation. In past decades, far-right parties simply denied climate change was being caused by humans. However, the public’s awareness of human actions on the climate is growing. In response, the far-right have adapted their methods. They have moved from denying the existence of human-caused climate change to resisting measures to counter it.

One technique is to promote scepticism around the science on climate change. An example of this is highlighting the carbon footprint of installing renewable energy sources. These arguments seek to make the science behind climate solutions appear flawed. Reform MP Lee Anderson makes such an argument here and the problems with it are exposed in Dale Vince’s response.

Another common method is emphasising the economic costs of climate policies. Climate-sceptical politicians make these arguments regularly. They generally say transitioning away from fossil fuels is important but cannot come at the expense of the economy. This argument makes climate policies seem like a bigger threat to voters than the climate crisis.

A third popular strategy is to question the motives of politicians and people promoting climate action. This is the most populist strategy arguing that attempts to tackle climate change are simply a cover for a more sinister motive. People promoting this argument often invoke the idea of a climate elite making regular people pay for their pollution. These arguments aim to make people question the threat posed by the climate crisis, minimising the perceived need for urgent action. These three strategies undermine trust in science and raise suspicions over climate policies. 

The far-right have been successful at targeting voters who feel alienated by recent changes in culture and demographics. These voters often feel they no longer recognise large parts of the country they grew up in and are sceptical of many of the modern social changes. The far-right are effective at tapping into this sentiment. They blame authorities for allowing such changes and claim it is a deliberate attempt to marginalise alienated voters. This drives mistrust in authorities of all kinds. Subsequently, scientists become distrusted as an authority promoting the threat posed by climate change.

How should the far-right’s scepticism be countered?

Amongst the scientific community, there is no doubt that climate change is caused by humankind’s exploitation of fossil fuels. Therefore, the economic model the Western world was built on must change.

Whilst there may be economic costs to transitioning away from fossil fuels, the human costs of continuing to exploit fossil fuels will be catastrophic. We must encourage politicians to act according to the needs of humanity rather than the needs of the economy. 

Transitioning away from exploiting fossil fuels does not necessarily mean crashing the economy. In fact, research has shown that the transition away from fossil fuels could be full of economic opportunities. These could be the catalyst needed to restart the stagnating global economy in a sustainable way. 

The far-right’s charge that climate change is a way for the rich and powerful to exert greater control over working people should be easy to counter. The rich have a moral obligation to bear a greater brunt of the costs of the transition than they are currently doing. According to an Oxfam study, the richest 1% in the world are responsible for as much pollution as the poorest two thirds.

In addition to their moral duty, it also makes practical sense for the rich to bear the heaviest burden. With greater financial security, they are more able to adapt to bigger changes to their lifestyles. This approach has fewer economic and social risks than expecting those on lower incomes to risk the relatively little they have.

Finally, placing a greater burden on the rich for the transition away from fossil fuels could help restore trust in authorities which the far-right seek to undermine. Accusations that climate change is exaggerated by the elite with malicious intent would seem hollow if the rich appeared to be leading the way in addressing climate change. 

Existent policies that seem to affect those on lower incomes more than the rich play into the far-right’s narrative. For example, France’s Yellow Vest’s Movement in 2018 was sparked by President Macron’s decision to raise fuel taxes. This affected working-class people in rural areas reliant on their cars in their daily lives due to a lack of public transport the most. The taxes raised were then planned to be used to cover the national deficit and give businesses tax cuts. Support for climate-sceptic and far-right parties like Le Pen’s National Rally grew in the aftermath of these protests.

Therefore, parties that are serious about tackling climate change must insist the rich bear the greatest responsibility for addressing the issue. The richest in society are the most responsible for global warming and most able to afford major changes. Taking such action would weaken the far right’s climate sceptical narrative that threatens measures to counter climate change.