Talk positive to sell climate action to voters, Europe's politicians told

by Shannon Larson | @shannonlarson98 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 14 March 2019 06:00 GMT

Stefan Engstfeld, a Green Party politician from Germany, stands outside his country's embassy after Greenpeace activists deployed a banner against coal outside the building in London, Britain, October 8, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

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How can supporters of right-wing populist parties, expected to gain more seats in upcoming European elections, be persuaded of the benefits of tackling climate change?

By Shannon Larson

LONDON, March 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - European politicians with a green agenda will need to define more clearly the social and economic benefits of action on climate change to prevent it stalling amid an expected shift to the right in upcoming elections, researchers warned.

In late May's European Parliament vote, opinion polls predict the share of seats held by Eurosceptic and right-wing populist parties will rise to 28 percent from 23 percent, said a February report by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Right-wing politicians tend to deny climate change or avoid taking a stance, often denigrating the issue as a pet subject for globally-minded leftist elites, said Matthew Lockwood, an energy policy lecturer at Britain's University of Sussex.

"Climate change is not really the priority issue for nationalist populist parties in Europe - immigration is," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"They see the concern about climate change as one of the issues that is being pushed internationally and with the (European Union), and so they react against that," he added.

A recent study from Berlin-based think tank Adelphi called for more positive public messaging on tackling climate change, especially if parties on the fence are to be swayed.

The report, released in late February, analysed 21 right-wing populist parties in the European Parliament based on voting behaviour, election programmes and other factors.

It found two out of three members regularly voted against energy and climate proposals, said co-author Stella Schaller.

Right-wing politicians largely view climate change policies as causing higher energy prices and adding to the burden on companies and poorer households, she added.


Of the 21 parties, seven were determined to reject the scientific evidence on climate change "beyond any reasonable doubt", while three supported the "scientific mainstream", leaving 11 parties in the middle, Schaller said.

"Some (of their) arguments often reflect real problems, and so we should hear their criticisms and understand the origin of that criticism and then respond to that with positive narratives," she added.

Otherwise, centrist parties may lose their ambition to address climate and energy issues, and adapt their rhetoric to convey values similar to those on the far right, she added.

One argument used by populist parties is that action to clean up the planet could harm jobs in sectors like coal, said Alina Averchenkova, a policy fellow at the London-based Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

"For countries that will have to shift away from coal generation, how do we address and redeploy workers who are currently employed in the coal industry? These are very important questions to raise and they should become part of the discussion," she said.

Countries that have managed to build most support for climate change policies – including Sweden and Denmark - have clearly laid out the benefits, Averchenkova said.

Potential advantages included improved energy security, a cleaner local environment from using renewable energy, and the creation of jobs in green businesses, she added.

But expanding that view across party lines would require politicians to communicate the positives in simple terms, and to explain that economic gains are expected to outweigh the costs longer-term, she said.

A Belgian student demands urgent measures to combat climate change during a youth demonstration in central Brussels, Belgium, February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman


While unrelated to climate change, Britain's planned exit from the European Union may actually open doors to more unity around the issue, noted Andrew Norton, director of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development.

"Brexit has made European populists wary of being too anti-EU as a concept," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"There is a possibility that attachment to Europe ... can be used to emphasise the fact that there are things that countries have to do together, like fighting climate change," he added.

The main obstacle to shifting populist parties in that direction is getting right-wing nationalists to recognise the need for multilateral institutions, Norton said.

Modelling a climate policy agenda based on the Green New Deal being promoted by U.S. Democrats could also offer a route to preserving a strong European identity while addressing social, environmental and economic problems, Norton said.

The U.S. deal is based around four guarantees: protecting the environment through decarbonisation, while promising to boost jobs, education and healthcare, he said.

European politicians should resist talking about a "war against climate change" and instead mobilise people through inclusive proposals like the Green New Deal, he added.

Meanwhile, linking the push to ease inequality with environmental protection at the political level could sit alongside more direct approaches, Norton said.

He pointed to a recent youth mobilisation in which students around the world - many in European nations - have skipped school to demand greater government action on climate change.

"Social movements don't happen in neat and tidy ways," he said. "I think it's definitely necessary to have that sense of urgency that the youth movements bring."

(Reporting by Shannon Larson; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit

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