How the rise of populism is fuelling climate science denial across Europe

While that action is unlikely to have any real impact on the continent’s climate policy, it is symbolic of a new politics confronting E.U. leaders.

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This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.  

In December 2015, European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker stood at a podium to hail the world’s first comprehensive agreement to take action on climate change, and told the world, “the Paris Agreement now reflects our ambition worldwide.” While the European Union’s leaders stand by that sentiment, a lot has changed since then.

The Union is facing a credibility crisis, threatened by Brexit and the rise of populism across the continent. Its leadership is facing calls to simultaneously increase its ambition to tackle climate change and cut the very regulations that would deliver reductions in globe-warming pollution.

Climate policy — a seemingly unlikely candidate for controversy back in 2015 — is suddenly at the heart of a European power struggle.

Boris Johnson’s Cabinet of Climate Science Deniers

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson at G7

President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson continue to talk August 25, 2019, during the G7 Summit. Credit: White Housepublic domain

The E.U.’s struggles are mirrored, somewhat ironically, in the U.K. Boris Johnson used his first address as the U.K.’s new Prime Minister to tell parliament that his government would “place the climate change agenda at the absolute core of what we are doing.”

This came as something of a surprise, given Johnson’s previous statements on climate change.

In December 2015, following the signing of the landmark Paris Agreement, Johnson wrote a column for one of the U.K.’s top broadsheet newspapers, the Daily Telegraph, in which he said that mainstream climate science was “without foundation”. In the same column, he praised the work of notorious climate science denier Piers Corbyn (who happens to be the brother of the now leader-of-the-opposition, Jeremy Corbyn).

This general disdain for the idea that climate change is a problem was in evidence during Johnson’s time as Foreign Secretary, where he presided over a 60 percent cut in the U.K.’s “climate attaches”. And despite early words reaffirming his commitment to climate action, Johnson’s behavior as Prime Minister has been more in keeping with this latter version of himself.

On taking office, he quickly surrounded himself with key allies from his days leading the U.K.’s pro-Brexit campaign, both in his cabinet and his close staff. All the appointees are part of a network of trans-Atlantic think tanks and campaign groups pushing for environmental deregulation post-Brexit, based in and around offices at the now notorious address of 55 Tufton Street.

Matthew Elliott — formerly Chief Executive of Vote Leave, founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, and husband of a former Koch brothers employee and current chief of Republicans Overseas U.K. — is reportedly advising Johnson’s newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid. One of Elliott’s former employees at the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Chloe Westley, is now working in the Prime Minister’s Office at Number 10. And several other staffers from the network are now advising cabinet members including Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss.

Johnson’s prime ministerial campaign was also funded by two donors with close ties to the Global Warming Policy Foundation — the U.K.’s premier climate science denial campaign group, which is based in 55 Tufton Street — hedgefund manager Michael Hintze and Bristol Port owner Terence Mordaunt.

Johnson’s loyalty to this network is partly born from the necessity of keeping the electoral threat of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party at bay. At the last European Union parliament election in May 2019, Farage’s new outfit emerged victorious, sending 29 MEPs to the European Parliament. Of those, the U.K. public elected 10 Brexit Party candidates who have denied or downplayed the climate crisis or who have well-publicised ties to climate science denial groups.

To counter that threat, the Prime Minister is now largely aping the populist party’s positions, including its antipathy towards climate action.

Spain’s Climate Science Denial Revival

Vox president Santiago Abascal

VOX president Santiago Abascal greets supporters after voting in the April elections. Credit: Eduardo Robaina/La Marea

The Brexit Party MEPs are far from the only climate science deniers to find themselves in Brussel’s corridors of power. Spain’s far-right party, VOX,  which has three MEPs in the European Parliament and a similar disdain for climate policy, will be joining forces with the Brexit Party representatives to form an anti-climate action bloc.

Like the Brexit Party (and by extension, Johnson’s Conservative Party), VOX’s representatives are quick to argue that climate policy is an expensive solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist.

“Are you aware of climate change?”, “What do you do every day to fight against climate change?”. Earlier this summer, a television journalist asked these questions to Santiago Abascal, founder and leader of VOX. His brief response was: “I don’t know the scientific issues and I have to admit that I’m not in that debate. (…) The debate on climate change, if it is a natural change, if it is a change that obeys the human being, then it is something that I really don’t know”.

The answer, though predictable, perfectly reflects how climate issues for the far-right Spanish party are still a debate, despite the fact that 97 percent of climate scientists, and virtually all scientific literature, confirm the idea that humans are causing climate change.

This rejection of the issue was also evident in the ‘100 measures for Live España’, the electoral programme that VOX presented for the elections held last April. The document made no mention of the effects of climate change or its causes, let alone mitigation and adaptation measures. However, this did not prevent the party from entering the Spanish Congress for the first time with 24 deputies and more than 10 percent of the votes.

Before the election, an internal document used to establish party positions on various issues called it “very arrogant” to believe that “man” is responsible for changes in the climate, but that “it is even more so” to believe that it can be changed through strong laws and taxes. That is why, the text states, they do not intend to “waste more money on this scam”. 

To support these claims, VOX refers to former Greenpeace Canada employee Patrick Moore, known in recent years for making public statements minimizing the dangers of climate change while posing as co-founder of the environmental organization. Moore is now a director of a public relations firm. Greenpeace calls him a “paid representative for polluting corporations.”

Jorge Buxadé, Rocío Monasterio, and Santiago Abascal of Vox

Jorge Buxadé, Rocío Monasterio and Santiago Abascal during a VOX  campaign event. Credit: VOXpublic domain

Other VOX party personalities have also made disparaging statements about the need for climate action. Rocío Monasterio, president of the party in her branch in Madrid, described in an interview climate change as the “climate hoax”, while MEP Jorge Buxadé said in a recent debate that “the rest of the countries must fulfill the same commitments as Europeans in the fight against climate change. The current situation is an injustice”.

One of this party’s latest attempts to discredit climate science occurred at the end of August. The Spanish Senate had planned to approve a declaration showing support after three fires burned nearly 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) on the small Spanish island of Gran Canaria. However, this initiative was frustrated after the only VOX representative  there, Francisco José Alcaraz, voted against it because, he said, “its content was being used to justify progressive ideological postulates” and because of its reference to the effects of global warming, which has contributed to more intense wildfires. 

While VOX is a political newcomer, these ideas have long been installed in Spain. VOX was born from the hand of politicians who abandoned the Partido Popular (PP), the hegemonic formation of the right wing in Spain that has governed for much of democracy. José María Aznar, former president of the PP government for eight years, founded the FAES foundation after abandoning politics. One of the many economic activities of this Spanish ultraconservative thinktank is to publish books such as those by Nigel Lawson and Vaclav Klaus, two of the most prominent European voices in denying the climate crisis.

Czech Republic president Vaclav Klaus welcomes former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar

Czech Republic’s President Vaclav Klaus, left, welcomes former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, right, in Prague October 24, 2011. Credit: REUTERS/David W Cerny

More Examples in Europe

Spain and the U.K. are not the only countries in Europe to see a populist revival, leading to a re-emergence of climate science denial.

Since entering Germany’s parliament two years ago on an anti-Muslim and anti-immigration manifesto, the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has embraced climate science denial as a campaign strategy. Its election manifesto denies human-induced climate change and erroneously claims that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has meant “world food harvests have increased significantly”.

Likewise, Belgium’s People’s Party rejects climate action as a “collective hysteria”. Netherlands’ Party for Freedom argues that there is no independent evidence that humans cause climate change and slams the work of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as unable to prove that relationship. And Austria’s far-right Freedom Party sees climate change as a globalist threat.

Power Struggle

European Parliament

Outside the European Commission. Credit: Thijs ter HaarCC BY 2.0

While dragging national debates into an anti-scientific mire, these populist parties are expected to have a limited impact on the European Union’s climate policies, however — partly thanks to a strong showing for Europe’s green parties in May’s election.

Overall, the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) won a total of 69 seats, 19 more than in the last election in 2014. Germany’s alliance of environmental parties were the biggest winners, getting 22 seats. The U.K. elected nine Green Party MEPs, two more than in 2014. Spain elected three green party candidates. Now, after some changes, Greens/EFA have 74 MEPs, representing nearly 10 percent of the European Parliament.

The influence of this bloc of green representatives is already being felt. In July 2019, the European Commission’s new president, Ursula Von Leyden, was forced to commit to increasing the Union’s climate ambition in order to secure the support from the green bloc which she needed to win her post.

The rapid growth of the green movement across Europe, both in terms of its electoral success and public support thanks to new campaigns inspired by Swedish student Greta Thunberg, has helped curb the extreme right, which aspired to become the second most powerful force in the European Parliament. And the success of greens also has been enough to seriously worry opponents of climate action.

A coalition of Europe’s fringe climate science denial groups had been planning a media blitz for mid-September, according to recently leaked documents. These plans include press conferences in multiple European capitals and a letter supposedly signed by “400 independent climate scientists and professionals” to be sent to European Union leaders, the U.N.’s Secretary-General, and the head of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

While that action is unlikely to have any real impact on the continent’s climate policy, it is symbolic of a new politics confronting E.U. leaders — one in which fringe voices increasingly have a platform, which they are using to try and deconstruct the European Union’s long-held leadership on climate change.


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