Denial and Dampening Ambition: Where do Europe's Right-Wing Populist Parties Stand on Climate Change?

Read time: 19 mins

With the European elections around the corner, populists and right-wing parties are gathering momentum and teaming-up into a pan-European alliance.

The alliance is being established around a common anti-immigration and eurosceptic ideology but nationalist parties have something else in common: opposition to climate action.

Research shows that dozens of candidates standing in the election are using climate science denial and anti-climate action rhetoric as a campaign strategy.

In Germany, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has embraced climate science denial to ramp-up support against environmental protection using online smear campaigns against the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

In Belgium, leader of the People’s Party Mischaël Modrikamen, who believes climate change is “the biggest orchestrated bullshit in the history of humanity”, has joined ranks with former Trump chief strategist and Breitbart chief Steve Bannon and Italy’s Northern League leader Matteo Salvini to spread populist ideology across Europe.

And from Estonia and Austria to France and the Netherlands, right-wing nationalist parties continue to carry climate science denial into the political conversation. Not all parties deny the scientific evidence behind human-caused climate change, but many have become platforms for such ideas to spread.

DeSmog looks at where candidates for Europe’s key right-wing populist parties stand on climate change:

Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) - Germany

Since entering Germany’s parliament two years ago on an anti-Muslim and anti-immigration manifesto, the AfD has embraced climate science denial as a new campaign strategy.

Its election manifesto denies human-induced climate change and claims that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has meant “world food harvests have increased significantly”.

We doubt that man has significantly influenced or even managed the recent climate change, in particular the current warming. Climate protection policy is therefore a mistake,” the manifesto states.

As such, the AfD rejects “all EU measures that justify the reduction of CO2 emissions with the protection of the climate”, including the Paris Agreement, which it describes as a “shift of funds from the highly industrialized countries to underdeveloped countries”.

Most recently, the AfD has conducted a targeted smear campaigns against the climate school strike movement and the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

Climate change barely got a mention on the AfD’s social media channels when the party was founded in 2013. But it mentioned climate change more than 900 times in the past year alone, mainly promoting anti-Thunberg rhetoric, according to a joint investigation by the counter-extremism organisation the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and Greenpeace’s Unearthed.

Party chairman Jörg Meuthen, the lead candidate standing in the election, has repeatedly attacked Green politics and described climate change as “a replacement religion of all left green world parties and patronisers”.

Meuthen repeatedly accused those that want climate action of “Greta hype”, labelling them “CO2 believing disciples”.

Maximilian Krah, another AfD candidate, also targeted Thunberg 10 times in tweets between December 2018 and April 2019, describing the movement she inspired as a “psychosis” and the consequences of a post-Catholic age.

He also compared climate change to homeopathy, claiming the EU could soon declare the latter a science.

Earlier this year, coal miner Guido Reil, also a candidate, defended the party’s false claim that carbon dioxide is good for plants and that it is having no impact on the climate.

The AfD’s anti-climate campaign efforts have been backed by the European Institute for Climate and Energy (EIKE), a German-based climate science denial which is known for co-hosting a climate conference with the Heartland Institute, a US-based think tank which has been at the forefront of denying the scientific evidence for man-made climate change.

EIKE’s advisory board include Christopher Monckton, a former British politician and advisor to Margaret Thatcher, who was later affiliated with Ukip and a notorious climate science denier.

People’s Party - Belgium

The People’s Party is a primarily Francophone, anti-Islam, right-wing party led by Mischaël Modrikamen.

The party’s lurch to the far-right over the last few years has also seen its stance on climate change radicalised, rejecting climate action as a “collective hysteria” and denying human-induced climate change.

In a statement from February 2019, the party slammed Belgium’s decarbonisation policies as “excessive”. It described “the infinitesimal increase of CO2” as “by no means a pollutant” that “allowed the globalized greening of our planet in the last thirty years as well as the yield of harvests”.

The People’s Party says it is “deeply attached to our land” but says it will instead focus “on the real problems: soil pollution by nitrates, plastics in the oceans, excessive urbanisation, permaculture, short production circuits to avoid wastage.”

A staunch admirer of Donald Trump, Modrikamen is also an ally of his former chief strategist Steve Bannon. In 2018, Modrikamen re-launched The Movement, a Brussels-based far-right organisation that aims to galvanise far-right populist ideology and anti-EU sentiment, with Bannon’s official backing. The People’s Party is officially affiliated to The Movement.

In September 2018, Modrikamen tweeted a picture with Bannon and Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s populist Northern League in Italy, after Salvini joined The Movement.

Modrikamen previously shared articles from Bannon’s Breitbart website, written by climate science denier James Delingpole, which accused school climate strikers of being “ignorant and manipulated”, shared denialist theories about “global cooling”, and called Thunberg’s activism “the biggest orchestrated bullshit in the history of humanity”.

Secretary general of the People’s Party and Modrikamen’s wife,Yasmine Dehaene- Modrikamen is also standing in the election.

Dehaene-Modrikamen has cited the work of some of Europe’s most notorious climate science deniers, including Richard Tol, a former advisor to the UK’s most prominent climate science denying group the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish economist who argues it would be too expensive to tackle climate change in a meaningful way and French professor Francois Gervais, who argues that the climate emergency is “a delusion”.

Ukip and The Brexit Party - United Kingdom

Ukip has for long attracted climate science deniers into its ranks. And earlier this year, Ukip’s former leader Nigel Farage, who has a history of spreading misinformation about climate change, launched The Brexit Party to contest the European elections.

As DeSmog previously reported, the Brexit Party includes a number of opponents to measures to tackle climate change. including Ann Widdecombe, one of five MPs to oppose the Climate Change Act in the UK. Annunziata Rees-Mogg, who advocated investments in the Canadian tar sands and sister of climate science denying Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is also a marquee candidate. She joins chairman of Turning Point UK George Farmer and Welsh MEP Nathan Gill, both of whom have questioned mainstream climate science and the need for action..

In the meantime, Ukip’s candidates are continuing the party’s climate science denial tradition.

Ukip MEPs were among a small band of right-wing members to vote against the ratification by the European Parliament of the Paris Agreement in 2016. The party’s current manifesto calls for the country’s 2008 Climate Change Act to be scrapped, and promotes measures to rejuvenate the UK’s coal industry.

Ukip leader Gerard Batten, also a candidate, has defended Ukip’s policy, suggesting there was no need for “a man-made climate change policy”. Candidate Alan Graves Senior likewise confirmed the party’s policy tweeting: “It is not a case of denying climate change it is more that we do not accept it is all man-made”.

And Ukip MEP Stuart Agnew previously described global warming as “a scam” and used a series of cold winters to justify his belief that global warming is not happening.

Other candidates in the elections, including Paul Oakley, Richard Braine, and Richard Elvin have also touted climate science denial.

Party for Freedom (PVV) - Netherlands

Party for Freedom (PVV) is best known for the aggressive anti-immigration and anti-Islam rehtoric of its leader, Geert Wilders.

But the party’s stance on climate change is no less zealous. The PVV argues that there is no independent evidence that humans cause climate change and slams the work of the IPCC as unable to prove that relationship.

It objects to climate action largely on cost grounds — a blog post on its website claims that “CO2 reduction would be at least 30 times more expensive for the Netherlands than adapting to any occurring climate change.” Its one-page manifesto for the European elections doesn’t mention climate change but promises “no more money for development, windmills, art, innovation or broadcasting”.

According to a report by the environmental think tank Adelphi, PVV MEPs have voted against all EU climate and energy policy proposals tabled in the European Parliament between 2009 and 2018, including the ratification of the Paris Agreement.

Marcel de Graaff, a PVV MEP since 2014 who is standing again, and co-chair of the right-wing eurosceptic Europe of Nations and Freedom political grouping. He has previously called to “cut the crap”, put an end to climate and decarbonisation policies and “green lies”.

In a parliamentary question, his colleague, Olaf Stuger, another candidate in the election, argued global warming data had been “grossly exaggerated” and “manipulated” and asked the European Commission to review the EU’s policy on climate change.

Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) - Austria

For the right-wing nationalists in Austria’s FPÖ, climate change is perceived as a globalist threat. The party seeks to end its dependency on imported fossil fuels and transition to domestic and locally available energy sources, including solar, wind, hydrogen and bioenergy.

However, party members continue to deny human-caused climate change.

Party chairman Heinz-Christian Strache, a hardliner who pushed the FPÖ further to the right, has repeatedly argued that it is a natural phenomenon that cannot be prevented. In an 2017 interview with Australian national radio ORF, Strache claimed that “Greenland used to be a green country with vineyards,” adding that “global warming cannot be corrected in the face of increasing solar flares and warming of the sun”.

FPÖ’s leading candidate in the elections, Harald Vilimsky, who has been an MEP since 2014, voted against the ratification of the Paris Agreement. And in March this year, Vilimsky submitted an amendment on proposed legislation to establish an asylum and migration fund, which deleted all mention of the “importance of tackling climate change”, the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

National Rally - France

The National Front, now rebranded as the National Rally, has worked to relinquish its image as an anti-semitic and Holocaust-denying party founded in the 1970s by Jean-Marie Le Pen. Under Marine Le Pen’s leadership, the party has worked to green its image and make the environment an issue of national identity.

The party is keen to develop renewable energy sources to end France’s dependence on fossil fuel imports, but continues to cast doubt on the human causes of climate change.

In a 2012 interview, Le Pen declared: “I am not sure human activities are the main source behind the [climate change] phenomenon … The world has seen changes in the climate that had nothing to do with human activity.”

In 2016, National Front MEPs abstained from the vote to ratify the Paris Agreement and have repeatedly abstained or voted against decarbonisation and emission reduction policies in the European parliament, according to research by French newspaper Le Monde.

Breaking with that tradition, the party’s lead candidate in the election, 23-year-old Jordan Bardella, however, described environmental challenges, together with the immigration, as one of the two key issues of the 21st century. Bardella has so far stayed clear of any direct comments on climate change.  

But others have been more outspoken. Nicolas Bay, former Secretary General of the National Front and co-chair of the Europe of Nations and Freedom group said in a 2017 interview that it is “very difficult to tell whether, in the long-term, there is warming, to know the share of human activity in causing it and the capacity we [humans] have to influence these phenomena”.

Asked what he believed was the share of human activity in causing climate change, Bay said: “I think it exists but it may be more limited than sometimes said”. In the same interview, Bay rejected the idea he was a climate science denier.

Speaking at the European Parliament in March 2019, MEP Joëlle Mellin likewise acknowledged that while climate change was “a crucial problem” for the world’s inhabitants, climate policy should take into account both human responsibility of a “savage industrialisation process” and of “proven natural climate cycles”.

Mellin also said activists had to “stop saying that humans […] are responsible for everything” and “refute the idea that the Paris Accord is an angel-like solution” to the climate crisis.

Addressing Greta Thunberg during her visit to the EU Parliament, Mellin praised the teenager for raising climate change awareness among her generation but said activists can’t only rely on shock sentences which have no other foundation besides emotion.”


Read more - What the Rise of Right-Wing Populism in Europe Means for Climate Science Denial


Lega Nord - Italy

Italy’s nationalist Northern League party is largely disengaged on the issue of climate change.

Although the party manifesto mentions climate change in the context of developing renewable energy and advocates climate adaptation measures, the topic is mostly absent from official communications, according to research by Adelphi. The party supports an energy transition, energy efficiency measures and a ban on polluting cars with low energy prices a key priority.

But Northern League MEPs did vote against ratifying the Paris Agreement in the European Parliament, with MEP Gianluca Pini describing the agreement as a “downward compromise in continuing to allow Chinese companies and developing countries to compete unfairly with Italian companies, who fully comply with environmentally friendly production”.

Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, who leads his party’s list in the elections and is not shy about his support for Donald Trump, strongly opposed the EU parliament’s recognition of the term “climate migrant”, and tweeted: “It is crazy to exploit a serious subject like climate to legitimise illegal immigration”.

Northern League candidates Mara Bizzotto and Angelo Ciocca have also consistently voted against decarbonisation and climate policies or simply avoided and abstained on environmental and climate votes.

Danish People’s Party (DF) - Denmark

Denmark’s Dansk Folkeparti (also known as the Danish People’s Party or DF) has seen its position on climate change evolve in recent years. While many of its most high profile members were previously happy to openly tout climate science denial, the party’s MEPs have shown more willingness to engage with climate policy.

The party’s climate spokesperson said in 2018 that he was not convinced climate change was caused by human activity:

“I can’t rule out the thesis that they are man-made. But as long as there are reliable researchers who say one thing, and then some others say the other, I do not feel completely convinced that one explanation is more real than the other.”

And in August 2018, the party’s former climate lead, Per Dalgaard, told Radio24 that there is “no one in the Danish People’s Party who believes that climate change is man-made”.

But the party’s chairman, Peter Skaruup, said in March 2019 that he accepted “the climate is changing quite markedly quite quickly” and that it was “probably” due to human activity.

Nonetheless, the first and second candidates on the DF’s candidate list, Peter Kofod and Anders Primdahl Vistisen, have both criticised those that want to see faster climate action.

In a letter to Information.dk criticising its coverage of DF Youth's anti-climate action campaign in 2012, Kofod said:

The climate debate in Denmark has created a variegated cluster of climate apostles led by Al Gore … a new religion has come: climate fanaticism, whose warm air preachers include counts Rehling on Information.”

And Vistisen was behind a 2012 proposal to suspend the EU’s climate and energy package that seeks to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020, which failed to get sufficient support to be considered by the European Commission.

Swedish Democrats - Sweden

Like France’s National Rally and Italy’s Northern League, the Swedish Democrats, a nationalist and anti-immigration party with roots in the country’s white nationalist movement, acknowledges the causal link between human activity and climate change. But it has repeatedly cast doubt on the risks linked to climate change.

The party’s manifesto states that environmental issues are often complex in nature and should be managed in the long term and calls for cooperation within Europe and globally. However, the Swedish Democrats were the only party to oppose the country’s ambitious climate target to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.

Party spokesman Martin Kinnunen previously tweeted that “warmer climates are positive for the opportunity to grow [food] in Sweden. That is a fact,” and that one hot summer should not lead to climate anxiety.

In the European Parliament, MEPs voting record on climate and energy issues has been mixed.

EKRE - Estonia

The Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) currently has no seats in the European Parliament but doubled its vote in the country’s national election in March, coming third with 17,8 percent of the vote. The right-wing nationalist party ran on a pledge to protect an “indeigenous Estonia” and now forms part of the country’s coalition government.

The party is fielding nine candidates in the European election — all white men.

On climate change, EKRE leader Mart Helme has been keen to emphasise that Estonia’s emissions were insignificant compared to the rest of the world. The party rejects the Paris Agreement, which Helme previously described as a “classic left-wing action”.

Like his father, Martin Helme, who is also a candidate in the election, he has argued that there is no convincing evidence for linking human activity to climate change.

We are told that there is a pause in climate warming, and if this long pause can no longer be explained, we simply talk about climate or heat fluctuations, but no one has been able to talk convincingly about what this is and has to do with human activity,” he said in a 2016 statment.

In the same statement, Helme wrongly claimed that the Paris Agreement does not apply to coal emissions from China, India and the US.

The party’s 2018 manifesto includes no mention of climate change but says it supports renewable energy provided that it does not increase energy prices for consumers and helps to reduce Estonia’s energy imports.


Read more - Meet The Brexit Party's Climate Science Deniers


Law and Justice Party - Poland

Poland’s Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice Party (PiS)) is a nationalist, pro-coal party that obstructs climate policies at home. However, on the global stage the party is engaged in the UN climate negotiations and considers the Paris Agreement a success.

Under a PiS-government, Poland hosted last year’s UN climate talks in Katowice. At the time, PiS Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki hailed Poland a leader in climate protection and PiS spokeswoman and candidate Beata Mazurek warned that “climate action could not be postponed until later”.

However, Mazurek’s has significantly less climate ambition at home. In May this year, she defended the party’s pro-coal position declaring that ending the country’s reliance on coal would lead to “drastic rises in energy prices and an economic crisis”. Poland consumes the second largest amount of coal per year in the EU, with around 80 per cent of its electricity production coming from what is the most polluting fossil fuel.

PiS has also been a vocal critic of the EU’s climate policies and has repeatedly advocated for non-binding targets and deregulation. In the European Parliament, PiS MEPs voted against the majority of climate and energy proposals, according to research by Adelphi.

Some PiS politicians have also promoted climate science denial.

In an 2018 interview, Tomasz Chruszczow, Poland’s top climate negotiator refused to confirm whether he backed the scientific consensus that human activity is the key driver of climate change.

And in 2016, Education Minister Anna Zalewska proposed removing climate change and evolution theory from the biology curriculum. In 2014, she told a group of students “there [was] no global warming”.

Fidesz - Hungary

Viktor Orbán’s right-wing party Fidesz is one of the few nationalists parties in Europe to actively support the Paris Agreement, partly using it as an excuse to be less ambitious at home.

Speaking in 2017, Prime Minister Orbán said: “In Hungary, there is a consensus that climate change is real, that it is dangerous and since it is a global phenomenon, requires global action to combat.”

In 2016, Hungarian President János Adér wrote a letter to 10 heads of state from the world’s top greenhouse gas polluters demanding they set an example and tighten their emissions reduction targets. Hungary’s parliament then became the first in the EU to ratify the Paris deal.

But critics and environmental NGOs have accused the Fidesz government of using calls for action on the international stage as an excuse  to do little at home.

Kövér László, speaker of the Hungarian National Assembly, has recently attributed rising public concerns over climate change overtaking concerns about immigration to “the brainwashing effect of independent and impartial media”.

Freedom and Direct Democracy - Czech Republic

The Freedom and Direct Democracy party is a staunchly Eurosceptic and anti-immigration party. It currently has no MEPs sitting in the European Parliament, but the party boasts of its links with France’s National Rally leader Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Northern League leader Matteo Salvini.

On climate change, the party-co-founders Radim Fiala and Tomio Okamura, who are overseeing a list of 21 candidates, have sent mixed messages.

In 2015, deputy leader Fiala, said that “under the pretext of combating climate change, unprecedented economic atroci-ties are taking place”. But party leader Okamura admitted that “the climate is really changing” and added it was a question of “how much a person contributes to it”.

The party’s manifesto does not mention climate change but calls for energy security and the “efficient use of renewable resources”.

Vox - Spain

Spanish nationalist party Vox is expecting to do well in the European Parliament elections, having won 24 seats in Spain’s national election in April 2019, making it the first far-right grouping to win more than a single seat in congress since Spain returned to democracy in 1975.

Vox believes that climate change is real and caused by humans, but is reluctant to commit many resources to tackling it.

The party’s first candidate for the European Parliament, Jorge Buxadé, told a recent debate, “the rest of countries must meet the same commitments as Europeans in the fight against climate change. The current situation is an injustice.”

Additional research and reporting by Richard Collett-White and Mat Hope.

Main image credit: djsuffix CC BY-NC 2.0 

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