The rise of populism across Europe and beyond has been widely acknowledged. In its right-wing form, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, the Rassemblement National (RN, formerly Front National) in France and the UK Independence Party (Ukip), for example, have all had significant electoral successes in recent years. Less noted, however, is the intriguing appearance of environmental themes within these parties’ manifestos.
This might be because environmentalism is conventionally seen as part of a liberal internationalist political agenda, focused upon the building of global treaties and the forging of inclusive alliances across national boundaries, an agenda clearly antagonistic to much populist discourse. Nevertheless, environmental concerns tinge populism with a green hue; ‘nature’ is articulated as part of ‘the peoples’’ rights, heritage and identity, to be protected against ‘others’ such as neoliberal elites or foreign immigrants.
Populism comes in various guises and cannot be pinned to one specific agenda. Populism is inevitably fixated upon ‘the people’. This ‘people’, however, is not a pre-existing category ready and waiting with political demands, but is rather a mutable political construction brought into being through populist discourse itself. Populism, in other words, constructs ‘the people’ and not the other way around. Thus, the specificities of ‘the people’ within a populist discourse depend upon the social, political and economic context, the salience of particular issues, and the existence of particular demands.
The demands articulated by populism are often socio-economic claims for higher wages, better welfare or secure borders. But demands are also made regarding environmental concerns. Calls for the protection of landscapes, forests, and animals resonate with ‘the people’ and become important unifying symbols. The question here is whether environmental resources and concerns are simply politically exploited by populist rhetoric or if their evocation plays a more profound role in populist discourses.
The People vs. The Environment
Populism commonly constructs ‘the people’ in opposition to an elite group seen as exploitative or oppressive. In right-wing populist discourses, environmentalists often feature as part of the unresponsive international elites, accused of asserting policies that work against the interests of ‘ordinary people’ and their ‘common sense’. Scientists, too, are seen as suspicious and politicised actors who use their expertise in the interest of a biased agenda. Populism is commonly characterised by a rejection of expertise (as neatly illustrated by Michael Gove’s infamous statement that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’ in a discussion regarding the economic implications of Brexit). Both the existence of climate change and scientific expertise, then, are therefore contested in right-wing populist discourse.
The climate spokesperson for Ukip, for example, refers to the ‘non-problem’ of global warming. Ukip’s 2015 manifesto stated that it would repeal the Climate Change Act, abolish the Department for Energy and Climate Change, withdraw from the EU’s Emissions Trading System, and invest in the coal industry and shale gas. It complains that “the old parties continue to push ‘green’ energy policies”; it rejects green taxes and subsidies for wind turbines and solar photovoltaic arrays, and supports fracking and the coal industry. The establishment is clearly articulated as ‘the other’ in opposition to ‘the people’: “The three old parties collude to reinforce failing energy policies that will do nothing to reduce global emissions, but which will bring hardship to British families. Their ‘green’ agenda does not make them friends of the earth; it makes them enemies of the people.”
Ukip is fond, in contrast, of what it describes as ‘common sense policies’. An article by former Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, announces that the party is summed up by the ideology of “common sense-ism” which, apparently, would be exemplified by “ripping up the hideously expensive and nonsensical Climate Change Act”.
the right-wing populism discourse that ridicules global environmental issues such as climate change nevertheless expresses concerns for the local and national environment
The AfD, which labels itself as “Partei des gesunden Menschenverstandes” or “the party of good common sense”, is no less hostile to climate science, questioning the scientific legitimacy of findings regarding a correlation between atmospheric carbon concentrations and climate change: “This claim is based on computer models that, however, are not backed by quantitative data and measured observations.” Instead, the party evokes a different image of CO2 as having a positive impact on the environment and agriculture: “The more CO2 there is in the air, the more plants will grow.” The AfD rejects environmentalism and the environmental policies of the current German government as they would induce “massive restrictions on personal and economic liberties.”
The landscapes of populism
It seems that the right-wing populism discourse that ridicules global environmental issues such as climate change nevertheless expresses concerns for the local and national environment. Landscapes, forests, coasts, and species are commonly constructed as objects of concern that are endangered; threatened by unfettered globalisation, foreign, immigrants, the political establishment, and environmentalists themselves.
Landscape makes a particularly prominent appearance as belonging to and beloved by the people. Nigel Farage, the (notorious) former leader of Ukip, used an interview to speak about how “his adoration for the countryside has led to a strong opposition of wind turbines” which he labels “expensive” and “spoilers of the Great British landscape”. Despite his opposition to the UK government’s climate strategy, he oddly proclaims himself to be an “environmentalist”, and has stated that he voted for the Greens in 1989 at the European elections.
In its 2015 manifesto Ukip promised to “protect the green belt”, siding with local communities against developers. It complains how previous policies have given “developers the green light to build just about anywhere and seriously restricts the ability of local authorities to refuse planning permission for inappropriate developments.” It states “Ukip will not allow new housing to strip our nation of prime agricultural land…. Neither will we allow the countryside to be swamped by over-development: we believe strongly that our countryside must be preserved so it can be enjoyed by future generations.”
Most revealing is perhaps Ukip’s policy on fishing and its claiming of a national “seascape”. While it makes the strong assertion: “Britain’s seas should be the jewel in her crown” it posits this jewel as threatened; by joining the EU “we surrendered these priceless family treasures”. It claims the Common Fisheries Policy “was designed from the beginning to steal our fish… Worse, while preaching ‘conservation,’ the EU allows industrial fishing techniques such as electric pulse trawling, which destroys marine life and disturbs the ecological balance of our seascapes”.
In a line of argumentation much akin to Ukip, the AfD commits itself “to the protection of the environment and the conservation of nature” and opts for policies that “minimise the consumption of uncultivated land, reduce soil and water pollution, and improve the quality of air.” This environmental protection is understood as occurring at a regional level. Take the party’s programme for the 2018 Bavarian regional elections, which repeatedly refers to “our beautiful Bavarian cultural landscape” and tasks citizens (especially farmers) with its preservation as an “exceptional and unique” characteristic of Bavaria. Whether it is energy, farming, forestry or fishing, the party regards the EU or the current national government as obstructions to effective ecological preservation. The AfD constructs a natural environment, threatened by bureaucratic administrations and environmental organisations or lobby groups. The party’s leader, Alexander Gauland, accuses a ‘globalistische klasse’ (globalist class) of living in a ‘Parallelgesellschaft’ (parallel universe), moving freely around the world unattached to their land and unaffected “by the rain that falls in their home countries”.
Environmentalism is not entirely absent from populism. Rather, it emerges in unconventional, problematic, and surprising ways.
A similar focus upon localism and rejection of unfettered globalisation is found in the environmental policy of the French RN. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, launched the Nouvelle Ecologie (New Ecology) movement in 2014. It was founded explicitly on a platform of opposition to international climate talks. Commentators remark that disenchantment with international climate talks has become “fodder” for the RN’s environmental project. Instead the RN emphasises the importance of a “realistic and patriotic” response to environmental issues. In her manifesto for her 2017 presidential campaign Le Pen writes: “The true environmentalism is to produce and consume as closely as possible and recycle on site”. She attacks multinational companies for genetically modified crops and ‘poisoning the land’ with pesticides’, calling for a more organic agriculture and a ‘revolution in eating locally’.
In contrast to Ukip and the AfD, Le Pen appears to acknowledge the threat of climate change and calls for a shift towards a ‘zero-carbon’ economy in France. But in common with the British and German parties, the RN expresses both reverence of national landscape and concern about its alleged threatened existence, along with a rejection of the traditional green parties. The RN general secretary, Nicolas Bay, is quoted as stating: “They have managed to make us, the very people who are so attached to the flora, fauna, and landscapes of our beautiful country, hate political environmentalism”.
How might we understand the nature of ‘green populism’? However unconvincing or vague, environmental demands do feature in populist discourse. These demands may well be in tension with others of the populist project, injecting inconsistency and contradiction into its rhetoric and policy. And yet the natural environment provides a rich seam of resources from which can be plundered symbols of ‘the people’. The ambiguity of such symbols is not a weakness, or a sign of underdevelopment of a populist political discourse. Their vagueness may rather allow such symbols to resonate with diverse social constituents.
There are many good reasons for the assumption that populism and environmentalism cannot coincide. But this assumption misrepresents the picture. Environmentalism is not entirely absent from populism. Rather, it emerges in unconventional, problematic, and surprising ways. The study of green populism may provide an insight into the both the limitations of mainstream environmental policy and the salience of populist politics.