Pete Cannell explores the way in which far right populist parties are using climate denial as a key part of their agenda. 

This post is based on a talk given by the author at Dumfries Trades Union Council in February 2024.  An earlier version was published on the Scot.E3 website.

Image by garten-gg shared under Creative Commons

Around the world right wing populist parties are making electoral gains.  Just this month in Portugal the far right Chega party increased its parliamentary representation to 48 seats, winning 18% of votes across the country. In ‘White Skin – Black Fuel on the danger of Fossil Fascism’ Andreas Malm notes that:

“All European far-right parties of political significance in the early twenty-first century expressed climate denial(p4).”

While the book was published three years ago it’s hard to think of more recent exceptions.

Clearly climate denial didn’t start with the rise of right-wing populism.  From the 1970’s onwards the major oil and gas companies, particularly Exxon, were researching the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the environment and at the same time funding organisations such as the Global Climate Coalition in the US whose role was to argue that pushing large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere was not a problem.  Privately they knew that fossil fuel extraction would have a devastating effect on the global climate.  In 1995 the GCC in an internal document wrote that

“… the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied”,

but in public they denied it.

As a strategy outright denial had its limitations.  The Kyoto protocol signed in 1997 marked the beginning of a new strategy – a shift from denial to greenwashing.

The three core tenets of Kyoto are:

Postpone the showdown with Fossil Fuels into distant future.
Place no serious limits on fossil fuel extraction.
New opportunities for generating profit.

Each is evident in the UK’s approach to the climate crisis.

The oil and gas industry’s plans for the North Sea are a good example of postponing any showdown with fossil fuels.  Their strategy, the ‘North Sea Transition Deal’ is based on continuing extraction through to and beyond 2050 and the development of a so-called net zero oil and gas basin.  Here ‘net zero’ depends on heroic assumptions about techno-fixes such as carbon capture and storage combined with creative accountancy that ascribes the responsibility for the carbon emissions from the oil and gas to the users rather than the producers.  Globally there are virtually no regulatory limits on the production of fossil fuels.  Governments assume that any run down will be because of market forces.  At the same time trading carbon permits has been highly profitable although there is next to no evidence that carbon trading and offsetting has in fact reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

So as far as big business goes, we are still in the era of greenwashing.  Big oil and gas are at pains to argue that they want to protect the planet.  And almost all governments around the world are in lockstep with fossil fuel industry in this strategy.  The form that greenwashing takes varies depending on local circumstances, but everywhere it’s about maintaining or enhancing the profitability of fossil capital and preserving existing infrastructure.  In the UK, for example, hydrogen is touted as the answer to decarbonising domestic cooking and heating.  In fact, in the short to medium term this will mean higher carbon emissions than the existing use of natural gas and if ultimately the hydrogen was all green, i.e. produced by electrolysis, it would be fantastically inefficient.  Requiring the use of up to seven times as much electricity than would be required to simply electrify cooking and heating.  Despite being derided by industry experts the plan is attractive to the oil and gas industry because it enables the continuation of existing economic and technical infrastructure.

The result of all this is that investment is skewed away from forms of energy use and production that are sustainable and rapidly achievable – and rather than supporting a just transition for workers and communities – existing inequalities are maintained and ramped up. The ongoing cost of living crisis in which poor consumers of gas and electricity contribute to eye watering profits for energy producers and distributors is a case in point.

And it’s this that has provided fertile ground for right wing populist parties.

Five decades of neo-liberalism has syphoned money and resources from public to private and increased inequality everywhere so that working class people are anxious or scared about climate, cost of living, war, housing, growing old.  The belief that their parents or grandparents had that things would be better for the next generation is dead.  Most people don’t trust politicians and find themselves being asked to choose between mainstream parties that offer minor variations on the same neo-liberal agenda.  Into this vacuum has stepped forms of right-wing populism that purport to offer alternatives to the ‘establishment’.

Right wing populism takes different forms – sometimes taking over long-established parties – Trump and the Republican Party in the US.  Or in the UK the continuing rise of right-wing populists as a major, perhaps majority faction within the Tory party.  Sometimes emerging from explicitly fascist formations, for example, Le Pen in France or Meloni in Italy.  And sometimes completely new organisations, for example the AfD in Germany.  None of them are into Greenwashing.  They are all about Climate Denial.

In Spain a prominent member of right-wing populist party Vox explains climate change as

“… any change on the sun, the moon, the rotation of the earth, volcanoes and naturally occurring atmospheric phenomena but absolutely not on CO2 emitted by humans. It would, said Abascal, be ‘very arrogant’ to believe that humans could alter the climate. It would be ‘even more arrogant’ to think that the alteration could be rectified by coercive laws and taxes (p11).”

The AfD in Germany has increased its influence through organising around climate issues, demonising German climate campaigners, foregrounding the cost-of-living crisis, and agitating around the farmers protests.  Often supported and facilitated in this by the state and the police.

It’s obviously not just climate that is building the new far right.  Climate issues intersect with the legacy of neo-liberalism, migration and racism and the failure of the left to provide an alternative that speaks to working people’s insecurity and against individualistic solutions.  The right-wing populists feed off social media fuelled confusion and conspiracies.  Angry or frightened people looking for answers find them in apparently anti-establishment and authoritative voices online.

So, what’s to be done. There is the embryo of an alternative in the picket lines as workers attempt to claw back lost living standards and in the huge response to the ongoing horror in Gaza.  As I’ve stood on UCU picket lines in the last year, and then more recently picketing and leafleting outside the Leonardo arms factory in Edinburgh, it has struck me how many of the passing drivers beep their horns and wave.  Early in the morning many of them are white van drivers, very few of them will be in a union.  There’s are real possibility of breaking the rise of the populist right.  But to do this requires understanding how they have built on climate issues and setting ourselves firmly against partnership with fossil capital, and clearly against solutions that preserve the power of fossil capital.  Fake solutions like carbon capture and storage for continuing oil and gas production and the use hydrogen for domestic heating.  And that means arguing right now for UNITE, RMT and GMB to stop supporting the oil and gas industry’s North Sea transition deal.

White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism by Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective is published by Verso.

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