Populism Is Bad for the Environment

December 4, 2018

Neoliberal establishments are collapsing…around the world–Cornel West

The 2015 Paris climate accord  was hailed as a historic breakthrough in global efforts to combat climate change. Will history judge the COP24 meeting in Katowice, Poland as a breakdown of the three-year-old Agreement? Between then and now much has changed and not necessarily for the better.

The Paris Agreement established an aspirational goal of limiting Earth’s warming to 1.5  degrees Celsius /2.7 degrees Fahrenheit and a binding target of 2 degrees Celsius/3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels. Within the past eight weeks, two assessments of the looming impacts of Earth’s warming have been released. Both warn the world it has far less time than initially thought to meet either of those goals and highlighted the human and capital costs of failing to respond in time.

According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) released by the Trump administration:

Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities. The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future—but the severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius gives meaning to the NCA’s use of the word “faster.” The Panel estimates that the currently pledged nationally determined reductions (NDCs) in CO2 emissions by the signatories to the Accord will push global warming to at least 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. The Panel further predicts that the 2 degrees Celsius threshold will be crossed in only 12 years.

It is hardly surprising that the current voluntary pledge levels are proving inadequate to the task of keeping temperatures below the 2 degrees Celsius target—let alone the 1.5 degrees Celsius mark. Many in the scientific community knew when the 2 degrees Celsius goal was settled on that it would be too little and the year 2100 too late to be spared the more crushing consequences of climate change, e.g., shortages of food and water, rising rates of mosquito-borne disease, strengthening storms and droughts.

It was more important, at the time, to get the needed signatures on the Accord than it was to set the target at 1.5 degrees Celsius. After all, there would be time enough to fine tune the agreement once everyone was on board and it came into force—wouldn’t there? And anyway, how much difference can a 0.5 degree Celsius rise make?

To answer the second question first, a 0.5 degree Celsius rise makes a great deal of difference. According to NASA with a 1.5 degrees Celsius rise in temperature, the Mediterranean area is forecast to have about 9 percent less fresh water available. At 2 degrees Celsius, the water deficit nearly doubles.

On a global scale, production of wheat and soy is forecast to increase with a 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise, partly because warming is favorable for farming in higher latitudes and partly because the added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is mainly responsible for the temperature increase, is thought to have a fertilization effect. However, at 2 degrees Celsius, that advantage plummets by 700 percent for soy and disappears entirely for wheat. Figure 1 illustrates the impacts of rising temperatures that can be expected.


A worsening natural environment is being accompanied by a rising tide of populism. The election of the populist Trump has radically changed the role played by the US in the global community. At the recently concluded G20 summit in Buenos Aires Trump reminded the world once again of his intention to make America a global outlier—flipping the US from a contributor of solutions to a contributor of problems. As is customary at the end of the summit a communiqué expressing the solidarity of the nations going forward was issued. It reads in part:

11. Building on the G20 Food Security and Nutrition Framework 

We will promote dynamism in rural areas and sustainable agriculture, conscious of the importance of sustainable soil, water and riverbanks management supported by individual countries voluntarily …We highlight the importance of collaboration among public and private stakeholders to strengthen risk management, facilitate adaptation to a changing environment, protect biodiversity and provide effective responses to reduce the impacts of extreme weather on agriculture.

21. The United States reiterates its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and affirms its strong commitment to economic growth and energy access and security, utilizing all energy sources and technologies, while protecting the environment.

22. We recognize the crucial role of energy in helping shape our shared future, and we encourage energy transitions that combine growth with decreasing greenhouse gas emissions towards cleaner, more flexible and transparent systems, and cooperation in energy efficiency….We recognize the opportunities for innovation, growth, and job creation through increased investment into cleaner and sustainable energy sources -including renewables-, technologies, and infrastructure… We will promote energy security, sustainability, resilience, efficiency, affordability, and stability, acknowledging that there are varied sources of energy and technological advances to achieve a low emissions future.

Although titled the G20 Leaders’ declaration: Building consensus for fair and sustainable development, a more truthful description would read the G19 + 1 Leaders’ Declaration. With the rise of populism, however, next year’s communiqué may have to read the G20  2,3, or 4.

A sharp turn to the right by a growing number of European countries threatens what until recently was a near-unanimous commitment of nations to combat global warming. In May of this year an effort to raise the European Union’s supply of renewable energy to 35 percent of the electricity mix by 2030 was stymied by a bloc of EU states led by populist governments in the Visegrad countries ― Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia ― even though it had the support of the European Parliament and European Commission.

The decline of voter support for Merkel’s center-right party (CDU) and her center-left partner the SPD has caused the Chancellor and her ministers to step back from leadership on climate issues. German Energy Minister, Peter Altmaier has been quoted frequently in recent months lowering expectations. He blames “unachievable targets” on renewable energy, including the objective of one million electric vehicles by 2020, as responsible for the loss of voters’ faith in governments across Europe. Merkel’s new coalition government had the same reaction to the IPCC’s Special Report that Trump’s administration had to the National Climate Assessment–shrugging shoulders.

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European populists view climate-science in much the same way as Trumplicans—an elitist boondoggle giving a liberal governments an excuse to stick its nose in businesses where it doesn’t belong. Voter surveys are confirming that the more to the right a party is the more likely it is to oppose measures to combat climate change. The map below shows the latest vote share for populist-radical right parties. The darker red colors coincide with countries that seem to be having second thoughts about their commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Europe is splitting along political lines with Luxembourg, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Italy and Portugal calling for higher energy efficiency and renewable energy targets. Spain’s Minister for the Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera, is one of Europe’s up-and-comers possibly taking over from Chancellor Merkel as the EU’s leading public climate defender.
The commitment of Italy’s coalition government—comprised of the 5-Star Movement and right-wing Lega is something of the exception when it comes to other populist governments.  Lega’s Manifesto on climate change states: “man and environment are two sides of the same coin. Whoever fails to respect the environment fails to respect himself. Our task is to support the green economy, enabling research, innovation and the development of ecological work.


Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of Lega, spouts a nationalist brand of climate defense under an Italians first banner. It’s a brand that Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) party also appears to embrace. The FN has launched a movement in France known as the “New Ecology.” Le Pen advocates a moratorium on wind power, but wants to “massively develop” renewables, such as solar, biogas, wood, using “intelligent protectionism, economic patriotism, public and private investment.” According to Le Pen:

The true environmentalism is to produce and consume as closely as possible and recycle on site. 

Salvini’s and Le Pen’s brand of populism diverges from Trumplicans in their nationalist approach, although supportive of Trump’s opposition to the “globalist” Paris Agreement. They at least recognize the problem and the need to do something about it. France’s future position is something of an unknown, given the anti-Macron demonstrations that have been gaining intensity this past week.

Great Britain is a bit of a mixed bag. One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to move responsibility for climate change to a new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The move was viewed with suspicion by Greens and Labour. It shouldn’t be said, however, that May’s government has gutted programs to move the country towards a low-carbon economy. The Prime Minister has never publicly exhibited any hesitation to sign the G20 communiqués on climate either in 2017 or 2018. The most vigorous opposition to climate defense is channeled through euroskeptic Nigel Farage—a fanboy of Trump’s—along with Britain’s nationalist UKIP party. Like Trump, UKIP and Farage are on record in support of investments in the coal industry.

It is “interesting” that COP24 is meeting in Katowice, Poland—a city in the middle of the country’s coal-producing region and home to 90,000 coal workers. Poland currently relies on coal for 80 percent of its power needs. Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, opened the climate summit advocating a complete transformation of the global economy. His remarks were directed at the conference’s host as well as to other coal-heavy countries.  Polish President Andrzej Duda answered that the country would work to reduce its reliance on coal but would never give up its “strategic fossil fuel.” I am confident that had Trump been sitting in the room, he would have “whooped for coal” in support of Duda and claiming coal’s contribution to climate change was “fake news.”

Politico reports that “Poland issued a statement stressing the sovereign right of countries to determine their own energy mix and extolling the virtues of ‘clean coal technologies.” Poland and the Visegrad nations mentioned earlier are not going to give up their coal industries easily. Hungary and Bulgaria continue to resist EU climate targets. Bulgaria has used its position as EU’s president in 2018 to try to replace the EU’s “energy efficiency first” principle with a rule that member states cannot promote energy efficiency projects over gas infrastructure projects. Like Trump, Bulgaria’s environment minister Deno Dimov calls global warming a “hoax.”

Russia is playing a significant role in the continued support of fossil fuels in the Visegrad countries. Although a signatory of the Paris Agreement, Russian exports of fossil fuels and nuclear technology are an essential part of its economy and of its influence in the region. These energy sources are also becoming central parts of the economies of Bulgaria and Hungary. Both countries have been experiencing large infrastructure investments. Hungary, for example, is building a Russian-financed nuclear reactor costing $11.5 billion; Bulgaria hopes to become an entry point for Russian gas supplies coming through Turkey.

Contributing to the mixed message of both the COP24 and the G20 meetings are Trump’s policies. The Administration has allowed 40 career officials from the State Department and other agencies to contribute their expertise to the development of the rule book for the 2015 Agreement. The rule book is the principal objective of the conference. Others dispatched by Trump will be conducting a side event to drum up business for US coal companies and “clean coal technologies.” A similar event was put on by the Administration in 2017 at the Bonn COP23 conference. The meeting was best attended by protesters, as I am sure will be the case this year.

A legitimate question arises as to why the US should even be allowed to participate in the conference and on the various committees working to draft the Agreement’s implementing rules. Although the career officials from the various agencies have been commended for their professional contributions, the fact is the US has renounced the Agreement.

There’s some speculation that Trump won’t make good on his departure announcement. Based on what I know of Trump, it’s a faulty assumption. The more strategic move would be to bar the US from participating. In the alternative, the US should be required to contribute to the funds needed by developing and island nations for resilience and adaptation, as well as to put in place clean energy systems rather than enticing them to buy coal.

EU countries are far from the only ones re-evaluating their support for the Paris Agreement. Days before the G20 and COP24 meetings it was reported that Brazil’s far-right president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, pushed the Brazilian government to withdraw its offer to host next year’s United Nations climate conference, maintaining that Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon was at stake. Bolsonaro is thinking to follow Trump’s example and reneging on the country’s involvement with the Paris Agreement claiming it compromises Brazil’s sovereignty. Strongly supported by agro-businesses, Bolsonaro is expected to open the Amazon region to development and mining. He has earned the title Trump of the Tropics.

When Trump announced the US was pulling out of the Paris Agreement, he stood a solitary figure on the world stage. After the announcement, Syria, and Nicaragua—the only two nations on Earth not signatories—signed the Agreement. The populist US president no longer stands alone.

Picture​As reported by the Guardian, a senior US official speaking off the record explained the tenacity of Trump’s demand that the US’ intention to withdraw from the Agreement be included in the G20 communiqué. He believes Trump sees signs that the coalition of countries in support of climate activism is fraying. Among the frayed nation’s cited were Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. To this list, I would add Brazil and some of the Visegrad nations. I would also pencil in Germany and France.

Trump has an uncanny instinct when it comes to smelling weakness. I am confident he recognizes the tenuous position of leaders like Macron and Merkel and looks forward to the day when he feels vindicated by the rise of the right in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Imitation, after all, is the best form of flattery.

Much has changed since the Paris Agreement came into force. Whether the breakthrough of Paris breaks down in Katowice will not be known until closer to the end of the COP24. Even then the rise of right-wing populism will continue to threaten global efforts to combat the change that is upon us.

On a final note is the wisdom of a 15-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who takes time out of school every week to protest outside Sweden’s parliament to highlight the refusal of political leaders to aggressively move to defeat global warming. In Ms. Thunberg’s own words:

I think that in the future we will look back and we will either laugh at them or we will hate them. It’s very sad, but if they don’t do anything right now that is the truth. 

Truth, a commodity more lacking even than political courage in today’s political environment.

Lead image: Flickr/Mammut
G20 image/Trump: screenshot Daily Mail video.
Source for Figure 2: Bloomberg

Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion (www.civilnotion.com) and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.

Tags: international climate change agreements, populism