Countering the Radical Right: Analysis

The far Right has moved from climate denial to obstructing climate action

By seemingly accepting the climate crisis’s existence, the far Right can use it to ‘Other’ migrants and leftists, while appearing as progressive actors

Bernhard Forchtner Balsa Lubarda
1 November 2021, 12.02pm
Hungary's Viktor Orbán dismissed EU plans to tackle climate change as ‘utopian fantasy’
Tamas Kaszas/ Reuters/ Alamy
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The far Right has played its part in blocking action on climate breakdown in recent years. But while we’ve learned a lot about the corporate denial machine, it’s only more recently that this part of the obstruction to a zero-carbon future has moved into the focus of the public and researchers.

Sometimes, this comes in the form of contributions that sound ridiculous. After he won the 2016 US election, it emerged that four years earlier Donald Trump had said that the “concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese”. But skeptic arguments have tended to become more sophisticated over time, leaving behind simple denial of scientific evidence and instead, claiming to stand up for the rights (and wallets) of the ‘diligent people’ affected by policies to eliminate emissions.

For example, more than a decade ago, the extreme-Right British National Party put together a briefing paper entitled ‘Debunking Global Warming’ concerning COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009.

The paper attempted to refute the scientific evidence that human activity is driving climate change by, for example, stating that there was once farming on Greenland (a classic within obstructionist argumentation) and by pointing to a washed-out observation by ‘Dr Goebbels’ (yes, that Goebbels) that if “something” is repeated “often enough, even the most skeptical will believe it”. Similarly, in the run-up to COP15, the radical-Right Danish People’s Party gave voice to those not agreeing with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in an ‘alternative climate conference’. The speakers included one of the best known ‘Merchants of Doubt’, Fred Singer.

From denial to obstruction

But where do far-Right parties stand today when it comes to climate change? What can we expect them to make of COP26?

Recent research has shown that outright denial has not entirely vanished, with the Alternative for Germany (AfD) now arguably the most powerful European party taking such a stance. (In its manifesto for the recent general election in 2021, the party claimed that it ‘has not yet been proven that humans, especially industry, are significantly responsible for the change in the climate’.) Yet, overall, the focus on climate has seemingly shifted away from denial and towards obstruction via opposition to climate policies.

For example, our own recent research at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right on far-Right parties in the European Parliament between 2004 and 2019 found that only slightly above 10% of the contributions to plenary debates and explanations of vote are outright denying climate change. Instead, the single most often used argument concerned warnings about the economic implications of climate policies.

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In fact, earlier this month in the run-up to COP26, the conservative-turned-far-Right Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, whose party has long accepted the anthropogenic nature of climate change, dismissed EU plans to tackle climate change as a “utopian fantasy”, claiming: “and utopian fantasy kills us – that's the problem with energy prices as well”.

Likewise, the AfD’s environmental spokesperson in the European Parliament, Sylvia Limmer, also objects to COP26, which she has criticised for being another attempt by a “self-proclaimed climate elite” to squeeze money out of, and to discipline, the population, as well as for its hypocrisy and “green paternalism”.

In turn, our own aforementioned research has furthermore revealed that there is so far a relative lack of concern over ‘climate migration’, a line of argument one might well expect due to the nature of these parties. Whether or not such arguments will rise in prominence remains to be seen.

Another study on right-wing populist parties in the European Parliament similarly emphasized the significance of arguments relating to the economic harmfulness of carbon-reduction measures. It also showed that far-Right parties predominantly voted against, or abstained from voting, when it comes to climate legislation. So even without explicit, outright denial, the far Right has no commitment to the necessary climate policies.

Geographically, it may be interesting to establish patterns of acceptance and skepticism; for example, whether there are differences between the far Right in EU and non-EU countries of Europe, or zooming in on specific regions where the far Right has established links (e.g. in the Visegrád Group and the Balkans).

Does this mean it’s all the same?

By accepting climate change, the far Right appears progressive – moving beyond its ideological container

Irrespective of whether members of the far Right have truly moved on from outright denialism or if some who seem to (implicitly) accept anthropogenic climate change are, in fact, still closet-denialists, even arguments that implicitly and explicitly accept the phenomenon are dangerous. These offer opportunities for far-Right ideology to replicate itself in (un)expected places and policy domains.

They are dangerous for (at least) two reasons. First, the far Right can use climate change, like other issues, to mainstream its ‘Othering’ of, for example, migrants, liberals and leftists, ‘the elite’ and international organizations. Secondly, it allows them to appear as progressive actors in specific contexts, seemingly moving beyond their ideological container by accepting climate change.

What this points to is a need for more action on the issue, given the multifaceted nature of the transition we must embark on. As such, it also provides opportunity: not in the sense that everyone on the far Right can be convinced (least those ideologues behind this communication), but as it forces those truly concerned with the necessary changes to our way of living to acknowledge the hardship this transition is causing to many.

Responding to climate change in a remotely adequate way creates uncertainty and causes anxiety (as does the phenomenon itself), but it also calls for responses by activists and politicians that offer hope and ideas of a better future. Appropriate industrial policies and financial support for those in need (including those outside of the Global North) are a starting point – one that takes people on board instead of leaving the field to the far Right. COP26 had better get serious.

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