The day after American voters chose Donald Trump as their next president, Dutch politician Geert Wilders, leader of his country’s Party for Freedom, gave his take on the election to Russian broadcaster RT.
“I think that the people of America, as in Europe, feel insulted by all the politicians that ignore the real problems,” he said. “The lesson for Europeans is: Look at America. What America can do, we can do as well.” Wilders asserted that 2017 will see a series of electoral wins for right-wing nationalist parties, each an echo of Trump’s victory in the U.S.
The idea is not far-fetched. Both the June 2016 Brexit referendum and Trump’s unexpected win in November show all too clearly that it’s hard to predict where the anger bubbling beneath the surface of the western world will find an outlet – polls were unhelpful in both the Brexit vote and the U.S. election. But when that anger does erupt, it tends to buoy nationalists who channel it toward established institutions and the elite.
The advance of these right-wing movements has caused quite a bit of concern within Europe. First, the nationalists’ hardline immigration policies threaten the pluralism Western nations prize. These victories also seem to foretell a global geopolitical realignment that would elevate Russia and Vladimir Putin as the West becomes more reactionary and isolationist.
But there’s another reason the world should be concerned about the form this growing disillusionment and outrage has taken: Right-wing populism threatens climate action.
The Paris Climate Agreement – the culmination of a more-than-20-year-long effort by the United Nations – is already in peril, thanks to America’s right-wing populists. It is a devastating irony that less than a week after the Paris Climate Agreement went into effect, America elected a climate change denialist who promptly announced he would pull America out of the deal.
However, even if America does leave the pact, other major emitters – China, India, Russia, Brazil and the European Union – are expected to stay the course. At the moment, Europe’s pledge to quickly cut climate change-causing emissions to 40 percent of 1990 levels is one of the most ambitious in the agreement. But if the predictions of leaders like Wilders and others on Europe’s far-right prove prescient, the presumption of Europe’s continued enthusiastic involvement in the deal could become far less safe.
Europe’s right-wing parties don’t share a common ideology or set of policy platforms, and they often have qualms about working with one another. Some of Europe’s right-wing populist leaders mirror Trump’s outright rejection of climate action – but not all. France’s Marine Le Pen of the National Front, for instance, questions climate science but champions “eco-nationalism.”
Europe’s right-wing populists are, however, largely united in their skepticism of cooperative bodies like the EU and the UN. These organizations are essential to progress on climate change. Taken as a unit, the European Union is the third-largest emitter of climate change-causing pollution, behind China and the United States, and the European Commission, which governs the EU, has played an essential role in pushing European nations to cut back pollution and green their economies. Yet this sort of international economic cooperation raises suspicions among Europe’s right, which, like Trump, denounces “globalism.” Le Pen’s National Front party, for instance, has described the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a legal arrangement that undergirds the Paris Deal, as “a communist project.” UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage describes the fight for climate action as “one of the biggest and stupidest collective misunderstandings in history.”
“If climate change is labeled as an elitist, global project, which is what UKIP and Le Pen want to do, then it’s dead,” Nick Mabey, an environmental consultant and a former climate adviser to the UK government, told Bloomberg during a recent UN meeting in Marrakech to chart the path forward for the Paris deal.
Although the rise of right-wing populism has little to do with climate change, the world’s inability to deal with it may become our current populist moment’s most lasting impact. Establishment institutions including the UN and the EU are far from perfect, and the Paris deal alone will not be enough to ensure a stable climate future. But by attacking these institutions, populists’ victories will throw another speed bump onto the meandering and already quite bumpy road toward warding off climate catastrophe.
“NATO, the UN, the European Union and others were institutions that could be a bulwark of the international rule of law, as opposed to what we had before that, which was whoever had the biggest gunships, or the modern day equivalent, got what they wanted,” said Anthony Hobley, CEO of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a London-based nonprofit group that tracks the risk climate change poses to financial markets.
“If you take an issue like climate change, you’ve got a feedback loop. Without those institutions it makes it harder to fight climate change. A more destabilized climate will erode economic security and will increase migration. These issues add more pressure that may cause more populist politicians to be elected. That erodes international rule of law further and makes it harder to fight climate change, and so on.”
The first of these potential wins may come in March, when the Netherlands is holding its general election and Wilders’ party is expected to gain ground. Then, in the fall, Germany will hold elections. Many predict that anti-immigrant sentiment bolstered by terrorist attacks like the December assault on a Berlin Christmas market will allow the right-wing Alternative for Germany party to challenge Angela Merkel’s leadership. With Merkel at the helm, Germany has charted one of the steadiest courses toward addressing climate change. With the election looming, the country could veer off course.
If and when the U.S. government rejoins international efforts to tackle climate change, the same forces that caused it to ditch those efforts may have fundamentally reshaped the efforts themselves, derailing the global climate action that just months ago seemed poised to finally get off the ground.