‘We need to talk about more than just nightmare scenarios’

Convenient Truths - Mapping climate agendas of right-wing populist parties in Europe - adelphi

Do the AfD, FPÖ and other right-wing parties deny climate change? How do you convince voters to do something about global warming? Alexander Carius from the Berlin think tank adelphi responds in an interview with Oliver Das Gupta (Süddeutsche Zeitung - SZ).

Alexander Carius is a co-founder and managing director of the Berlin think tank adelphi and a board member and co-founder of the Open Society Initiative. adelphi has just published a study about the 21 most powerful right-wing parties in Europe in terms of their position on climate change and environmental protection. For this study, made available to the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), the researchers examined election programmes, public statements by party leadership, press releases and voting behaviour in the European Parliament.

SZ: Mr Carius, do Europe’s right-wing populist and radical right-wing parties all deny the climate crisis?

Alexander Carius: There are big differences. We examined three groups in the political spectrum: the outright climate change deniers and parties whose attitude to climate policy is vague. The third group consists of those who acknowledge climate change but often vote against climate and environmental policies.

SZ: Who denies that there is any global warming at all?

Alexander Carius: The German AfD and the Austrian FPÖ belong to the climate policy hardliners, as well as the British UKIP. In total, there are seven parties in the European Parliament who deny anthropogenic climate change.

SZ: What is their argument?

Alexander Carius: They deny that there is sufficient knowledge about the climate and how it changes. They question the very foundation of climate science – and, with it, the basic laws of thermodynamics. The rhetoric of right-wing populist parties makes climate policy out to be the anti-economic policy of scientific elites.

SZ: Can you provide an example?

Alexander Carius: AfD politician Beatrix von Storch, for instance, calls climate change a result of cosmic radiation. Others point out that there have always been temperature fluctuations in the history of the earth. Another argument against taking action on climate change is its social and economic impact. Climate-change deniers campaign against the academic and media elites that advance the issue, of course, but they’re also against democratic institutions like the EU as a whole, as well as non-governmental organisations that work to protect the environment.

SZ: Among the hard-line opponents of action on climate change, one party is even in the government: the FPÖ in Austria. How does this affect Vienna’s attitude?

Alexander Carius: The FPÖ systematically votes against any climate or energy policy proposal in the European Parliament. Last year, on the other hand, the government of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache initiated a very ambitious program aimed at converting the electricity sector to 100 percent renewable energy. That was a national project, however.

SZ: Do you see potential to involve right-wing parties in climate protection?

Alexander Carius: There is definitely potential –when it comes to the effects of climate damage on the economy in the EU, for example. In 2017, the damage caused by extreme weather events for the EU alone amounted to €283 billion. That is more than the gross national product of many member states. Here’s where you could say to the right-wing parties, this is one of your primary issues.

SZ: But the right often argues that climate protection actions hurt national economies.

Alexander Carius: It is easy to turn that argument around: the threat is even greater if you do nothing. You have to look for that connection. Some of the right-wing parties are already acting accordingly. The PiS in Poland, which I consider to some degree an anti-democratic party, is also a pro-coal party. At the local level, however, this party is very engaged in things like increasing energy efficiency in the building sector and the promotion of renewable energy. The narrative of energy independence and competitiveness are also interesting to right-wing populists.

SZ: Some measures aimed at the reduction of greenhouse gases have met with a lot of resistance. In France, a carbon tax on diesel and gasoline triggered the yellow vest protests. What is your response to critics who say people who do not have much money cannot afford climate action?

Alexander Carius: Climate policy measures need social and political cushioning, of course. Sweden and Switzerland do it: there is a price on carbon in both countries. Revenues from this will benefit citizens via tax credits and health insurance contributions. What we need is to incorporate it into a larger concept instead of individual climate policy measures. A holistic approach is lacking. There is also room for improvement in the communication of climate policy, which is constantly forced to justify itself because, apparently, it leads to more costs.

SZ: Where do you see problems when it comes to the message?

Alexander Carius: Either it is communicated in an alarmist tone, something like: ‘The Earth system will collapse if we don’t change something by Year X’. And we keep passing those milestones, again and again. When it’s apparently been the eleventh hour for years now, you can’t help but wonder if it’s actually more like half past seven. There is also the abstract argument that every individual has a carbon budget. Nobody really knows what to do with that, unless you’re constantly calculating the ‘cost’ of something and how much damage it does to the climate – driving to work in your car, for example, or travelling by plane for vacation.

SZ: What message would be effective?

Alexander Carius: We need to stop thinking about individual behaviour all the time. It’s a trap. On the individual level, we immediately end up in debating: Can I still eat meat? Or an avocado? Of course we should behave in climate-friendly ways. But if we want to move forward, we need political solutions. That’s why we need the corresponding public discourse and programmes.

SZ: Do the elites in business and politics lack insight into the significance of climate policy?

Alexander Carius: Not really. Just about every reputable politician or business leader admits that climate risks are the biggest problem of the 21st century. For the past ten years, the World Economic Forum in Davos has named the impacts of climate change as the most powerful and real threat – ahead of risks like terrorism, cybercrime and arms trafficking. But if climate policy is to decide the future development of humanity, the answer has to be just as ambitious. We need the biggest programme for the social and ecological modernisation of society in human history. And that should be the next European narrative.

SZ: Climate policy is a long ways away from that.

Alexander Carius: And it won’t get there if we restrict ourselves to issues like carbon reduction or standards for diesel exhaust, for example. It is about whether we succeed in developing entirely new forms of mobility. The in some cases absurd discussion about exhaust emissions or dieselgate often overlooks something that is already happening. The auto industry sat on the side-lines for a long time, but it has made a lot more progress than many realize. They know that the future is not the internal combustion engine.

SZ: You sound cautiously optimistic, which is rare when talking about climate change.

Alexander Carius: I am a little confident. Maybe the key is this mind-set: we need to talk about more than just nightmare scenarios. We have to talk about what the future of humanity can look like and what we can do to get there. There are already lots of success stories.

SZ: You’re talking about positive future scenarios?

Alexander Carius: Yes. We talk about a carbon-free economy, but what does that mean for humanity? The questions of how we feed and move in the future, how we work and where we live, everything that we haven’t figured out yet. But we should put more effort into that. If people know what the future may look like and, more importantly, if they can participate in this process, they will be more open to short-term constraints, and more willing to accept change.

SZ: Electricity will be more expensive and individual mobility as well – not exactly appealing, right?

Alexander Carius: But that’s only half the picture: collective mobility will be a lot cheaper and have personal benefits, too. We need to create positive visions of the future that demonstrate the benefits of taking action on climate. For each person individually, but also collectively, for my neighbourhood, my community, and society as a whole. There is not enough of this in climate research, or sustainability research, for that matter. Nobody wants to be told what to eat or think. The Greens have figured this out. Because it’s just grist for the mills of the right-wing populists. People have to make the right decision of their own free will. And we should encourage and empower them to do so.

‘We need to talk about more than just nightmare scenarios’ has been published online in German on 26 February 2019. Translated and republished with kind permission by Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Selected Publications