Climate Inaction is Inseparable from Inequality
Austerity politics sowed the seed for resistance to climate policies from the Right.
When the UK Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, referred to climate protesters as emanations of the “tofu-eating wokerati”, it was mostly laughed off as an absurd statement to be made by a cabinet member in Parliament. In fact, implicit in those three words was an issue far from trivial; it encapsulated an express link that Right-wing populist parties across Europe have drawn between climate policies and vertical imposition of liberal edicts onto ordinary people. With growing support for these parties across numerous European countries, this poses a potentially serious barrier to achieving some consensus for action on an issue for which the scientific evidence supporting anthropomorphically-driven climate change is overwhelming.
However, as I will argue in this essay, opposition to climate policies among the European Right is not about science. To think this is the case is to miss the crucial point that resistance to action on climate change is inseparable from the inequalities that have ruptured European societies over the past decades. When liberals make the mistake of assuming that all the heathens need is a few more heat maps and stats about ocean temperatures, they veer directly into the Scientism arrogance that was so damaging during Covid on issues like vaccinations and masking policies. It drives the same wedge of educational status into the issue in favour of a myopic view that sees support for populist parties only as misinformed ignorance, rather than the festering effects of post-2008 austerity, economic disadvantage, impacts of globalisation on domestic industries, and sense of loss of agency among low-income workers. In short, the issue of resistance to climate policies does not exist in a silo.
In America the link between resistance to climate policies and the political Right has typically reflected the cosy bedfellows of the Republican Party with big business interest, and the Republicans embracing overt denial of climate science. However, the emergence of resistance to climate policies among Right-wing populist parties in Europe does not neatly fit this categorisation. While parties such as Alternative for Germany and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary more explicitly reject the issue as liberal scaremongering, others, from the Tories in Britain to Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party acknowledge the reality of climate change but dispute the policy proposals to combat the issue.
For example, Meloni claimed environmental protection as concordant with the Right because the Right “loves the land”, while Right-of-centre parties from ~50 countries, including the British Tories, recently signed their own declaration to “show the world that we take climate change seriously and have the right solutions to tackle it.” Leave aside the suggestion that the “right solutions” are “market-driven” and apply their failed economic theories to climate change, the point is that the principle of the issue is accepted.
What Right-wing populist parties have in common, however, is portraying climate policies as the vertical imposition of liberal shibboleths that will detrimentally impact those already disadvantaged by the economic policies of the past ~15-years. The vertical alignment is important, because it is what characterises populism at both ends of the political spectrum. Populism mobilises a vertical distinction between a large powerless group (“the people”) and a small power-wielding group (“the elites”). Although populism exists in both Right and Left varieties, Right-wing populism specifically constructs a dichotomy of “real people” against an unaccountable and unelected technocratic, decision-making “elite”.
In this context, Right-wing populist rhetoric positions “the system” as rigged against the blue-collar worker who, despite their hard work and effort, is being deliberately left behind by “the elites”. What predicts voter support for populism is a sense of marginalisation from social and cultural developments, exacerbated by economic hardship and a perceived lack of accountability for political and social elites. This perception of being unvalued and unheard in economic and socio-cultural relations creates the vertical realignment characteristic of populism.
Thus, to understand opposition to climate policies from the European Right, it is important to situate this opposition in the context of austerity, the European Union (EU), and bureaucracy. The financial crisis of 2008 was met with a bureaucratic response at the EU federal level, which coordinated an EU-zone policy with the primary aim of public debt reduction. However, this response was often achieved with vertical projection of policy from the EU to national governments, whereby in return for emergency funds to combat public debt the EU imposed technocratic administrative terms and conditions on member states to reduce the deficit. The combination of slashed public spending and higher taxes stifled economic growth, precipitating what the economist Paul Krugman termed “the austerity death spiral in Europe...”
These policies were portrayed - not without some merit - as infringements of national sovereignty, and have been seized upon by Right-wing populist parties throughout Europe as examples of an undemocratic and unaccountable bureaucratic “elite” imposing misconceived policies with a “trust us, we’re the experts” arrogance. These policies have been disastrous, with recent estimates by the New Economics Foundation that the average household income of European citizens is ~€3,000 per annum worse off than pre-2008, while public spending per capita is down by ~€1,000. This has created a divergence in global inequalities, which has seen the lower income strata of European countries fall precipitously while indices of global inequality improve, i.e., within-country inequalities have widened. In a recent essay, the economist Branko Milanović highlighted the case of Italy, within which the bottom tenth of income have fallen by 20 percentiles in global income distribution rankings, while the global position of wealthy Italians has been unscathed.
That the effects of a failed economic experiment like austerity have been brutal is evident throughout European countries. That these were policies imposed under the pretence of domain-specific expertise, rather than as the political choice that they were, is undeniable. That austerity policies imposed the wrong solution to the major issue is also evident: the 2008 crisis occurred because of a deregulated financial industry going beyond the bounds of recklessness, not because of unsustainable debt (although this became a feature of the consequences). The solutions should have targeted financial institutions and the shoulders on whom fault for the crisis lay; instead the policies punitively targeted the public, with low-income strata of European societies suffering disproportionately from cuts to healthcare and other public services. Then Covid-19 came to deliver the knockout blow and reveal just how damaged public infrastructures were, and how fractured the economic divide between the finance and laptop classes, and the rest, really is.
The ripple effects are playing out with resistance to climate policies, where these same themes are evident. The challenge for action on climate change is that Right-wing populist parties are linking green policies to economic disadvantage. In framing climate policies as another example of an unaccountable, undemocratic bureaucracy of “elites” vertically imposing policies from above on the struggling electrician who drives a diesel van, they are able to create concern that, because of the experience of austerity, is not entirely without merit.
Whether they have merit for climate policies specifically is arguable, but what is clear is that liberal discussion of green policies appears worryingly divorced from any overt consideration of what impact such policies would have on economically disadvantaged communities. Communities that have already been hammered by 15-years of austerity feel threatened by the potential for more job losses at the stroke of a politicians pen. This concern is translating into votes for Right-wing populist parties.
An important aspect of the scale of inequalities in European societies is that socio-economic status alone does not predict subjective perception of social status. The sense not only of knowing you’re doing far worse, but experiencing your declining prospects while the advantaged in your society appear unscathed by economic turmoils, creates a sense of perceived low social status that is harnessed by Right-wing populist parties. Research indicates that the resentment generated by low subjective status is most acute when people feel that a moral and/or intellectual ascendency is being claimed over them.
Yet the climate rhetoric is often riddled with this type of moralistic and intellectual superiority, typified by the sanctimonious pontificating of the likes of George Monbiot, who seems incapable of even wondering why climate policy resistance would have salience among working class voters. This is where throwing “TheScience™” and a bunch a facts at people predictably fails. If people perceive that they are being browbeaten into accepting policies delivered with an “this is for your own good” condescension, as it did during Covid, kickback is inevitable. How have we learned nothing from the past 3 years about the limits of TheScience™ as means of persuasion?
The spectre of globalisation also looms over this issue. The status disaffection that predicts support for Right-wing populism is grounded in the material reality that the lowest income strata in Europe are now falling behind to levels of income inequality observed in, for example, South America. Climate activists generally point to people in poor parts of other regions of the world in sympathy. This is legitimate as certain regions, particularly in the Global South, will bear the full brunt of climate catastrophe. Yet this sympathy is never extended to those in dire economic circumstances in their own countries, and these are often communities most skeptical of the radical overhaul of industries and other policies that climate action proposes.
As a result, Right-wing populist parties capitalise on status disaffection by mobilising virulent anti-immigrant sentiment: these issues are inseparable. These are often communities and industries that globalisation has impacted the most. When climate activists and liberals focus on distant lands rather than domestic tribulations, it conjures up the divide between “Anywheres” (i.e., the globally mobile and financially comfortable laptop class) vs. “Somewheres” (i.e., those rooted to a particular place, often due to lack of opportunity) that feeds into status disaffection. It further reinforces the message that those at the bottom of the domestic ladder are an afterthought to their political and business feudal overlords. It links climate issues to the globalisation that has contributed to the decimation of these communities.
Concomitant with the anti-green agenda upon which Right-wing populist parties are running is the call for more direct democracy and greater national sovereignty. The latter directly reflects the sense of loss of control and alienation among these voters across multiple European states, which is a direct consequence of austerity and the perception of undemocratic EU bureaucracy. Scrutinise the energy and climate policy rhetoric of European Right-wing populist parties and this emphasis on both individual and national freedoms is evident, with the concept of “energy sovereignty” now heightened in salience from the effects of the war in Ukraine, and the EU’s desperate lack of energy independence. The climate action agenda does not help itself here with its irrational, and borderline hysterical, stance on nuclear energy. This is also seized upon by the Right: if climate advocates cannot be trusted to see a policy that is one of the safest, most impactful for emissions, and guarantee of energy independence, right in front of their eyes, can they be trusted with other policies? It feeds into the stereotype of liberal scaremongering on the wider issue.
Ultimately, this means that the vested business interests in maintaining the status quo hitch their wagon to the gathering storm on the European Right. However, there is a dichotomy here that liberals could exploit. The main policy for climate action that has been palatable for Western governments is essentially to marketise carbon emissions, applying neoliberal theory to bring about change through carbon trading, which ultimately maintains the corporate status quo in favour of extractive industries. The forces of populism are, however, deeply skeptical of business elites in the post-2008 world, particularly when the finance industry were, in effect, rewarded for their bankruptcy. Marketising emissions applies the same failed Right-of-centre economic thinking to climate issues. The economic mess we are in a mess of the Right’s making; why should the Right get to reap the rewards by monopolising the resulting discontents, and mobilising it against climate action?
Yet this issue exists in a wider vacuum of the Left’s abandonment of the working class. Now, the Left has a chance to speak directly to the economic disenfranchisement of Europe’s emerging underclass, and link it expressly to the vested business interests and “climate capitalism” of corporations reaping in profits while people struggle to heat their homes. That requires dismounting the very high horse, dropping TheScience™ browbeating, and speaking directly to the discontents seething among the strata of Europe shattered by nearly two decades of failed economic theorising and faltering politics. Austerity was a political decision; climate policies will be, too. A failure to heed the legacy of the former to better meet the challenge of the latter will mean, once again, that the Left abandons the working class to the alliance of nativist politics and corporate profits.
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