Populism is not good for the planet

Photo: rob walsh / Unsplash


  • Not all populists are climate deniers, but virtually all climate deniers are populists.
  • From 1990 to 2018, the number of countries with populist leaders increased from four to 20. The best known was President Donald Trump.
  • Right-wing populists often include scientists in their characterization of the elite. This has led to a wave of clashes between populist leaders and scientists.
  • By throwing gasoline on political flames, populism makes cooperation more difficult.

Humanity is conducting an unprecedented experiment with the Earth’s atmosphere. The last time atmospheric carbon levels were as high as they are now was during the Pliocene era, three to five million years ago. At the time, rhinos lived in North America. Crocodiles and alligators lived in Europe. Trees grew in the Arctic. The sea level was 75 feet higher. To put it in context, a 75-foot rise in sea level puts many of the world’s major cities underwater, including London, Miami, Tokyo, Manila, New York, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Jakarta, Dhaka, and Shanghai. .

Over the past 500 million years, the planet has experienced five mass extinction events, each of which wiped out most species on the planet. Only one was caused by an asteroid, the other four being driven by greenhouse gases. By studying the changes in the carbon cycle that led to these extinction events, geophysicist Daniel Rothman concludes that the threshold for a sixth extinction event is when more than 310 gigatons of carbon are added to the oceans. On a business-as-usual trajectory, human carbon emissions are currently on track to increase by 500 gigatons by 2100.

Extreme weather events come up against the limits of existing weather scales. After record heat in 2013, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology added two new colors to its temperature maps, raising the maximum temperature from 50 ° C to 54 ° C. After Hurricane Harvey, the United States National Weather Service added two new shades of purple to its precipitation maps, increasing the upper limit from 15 to 30 inches. Meteorologist Jeff Masters proposes that the current five-category hurricane scale be expanded to include a category six hurricane – what he has described as a “black swan” storm.

In Glasgow, countries are faced with the reality that their announced measures will not come close to meeting the Paris climate targets. According to an assessment by the non-governmental organization Climate Action Tracker, only a handful of countries have implemented climate policies compatible with a warming of 2 ° C, while a few (such as the European Union) are said to be closer to it. . According to the organization, the policies of most countries are “insufficient”, “very insufficient” or “critically insufficient”.

There is a strong economic case for climate action. Once installed, wind and solar provide energy at almost zero marginal cost. Avoiding dangerous climate change avoids the costly impact of heat waves that cause premature deaths and restrict work outdoors, hurricanes and wildfires that kill and damage property, destruction of coastal property and reduction of agricultural yields.

If these perks sound right, they should come across as doubly appealing when the prospect of averting a global catastrophe adds to the picture. If future lives matter as much as ours, it is ruthless not to reduce carbon emissions. The case for decisive action is further strengthened by recognizing that much of the problem has been created relatively recently. As journalist David Wallace-Wells observed, “the majority of fires have occurred since the first of Seinfeld. “

Climate change is not just a problem handed down to us by our ancestors. Many of those responsible for the carbon emissions that cause global warming are still alive today.

Photo: Marek Piwnicki / Unsplash

Yet focusing on catastrophic risk – in climate change and other areas – is hampered by the growth of populist politics. Not all populists are climate deniers, but virtually all climate deniers are populists. An analysis of the 21 largest right-wing populist parties in Europe found that a third were outright climate deniers, while many others were hostile to climate action. Right-wing populists make up 15% of the European Parliament, but their voices make up around half of all those who vote against climate and energy resolutions.

A recent study in the UK identified voters who held populist beliefs about politics. These populist voters were significantly less likely to agree that global warming is caused by human action and less likely to support measures to protect the environment.

Populism is on the rise. From 1990 to 2018, the number of countries with populist leaders increased from four to 20. The best known was President Donald Trump, who once called climate change a “hoax”, and claimed that “the global warming was created by and for Chinese in order to make American manufacturing uncompetitive. In the current Congress, 52% of House Republicans and 60% of Senate Republicans are climate deniers.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has relaxed controls on land clearing in the Amazon. This has led farmers to accelerate deforestation through logging and burning. In mid-2019, satellite analysis of major fires in the Amazon showed that an area the size of Yellowstone National Park had been set ablaze. At this rate, this additional deforestation could push the Amazon rainforest towards a tipping point.

Populists view politics as a struggle between a pure mass of people and a vile elite. Right-wing populists often include scientists in their characterization of the elite. This has led to a wave of clashes between populist leaders and scientists. Dutch far-right leader Thierry Baudet denounces “climate hysteria”. Allies of Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán have included scientists on a list of people described as “mercenaries” of billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

By throwing gasoline on political flames, populism makes cooperation more difficult. California’s 2006 cap-and-trade emissions reduction program was passed by a Democratic legislature and enacted by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yet today two-fifths of Republican and Democratic voters think their political opponents are bad, and one-sixth see them as animals. This is hardly conducive to encouraging reps to go to the other side of the aisle.

How, then, to defeat populism? This requires addressing the main economic grievances that have led many voters to turn desperately to extremists. This means creating renewable energy jobs in communities whose employment base currently relies on fossil fuels. It is about building a more equitable education system and updating democratic institutions to make them more democratic. Defusing populist rage takes empathy, not disdain.

Fighting populism will not be easy, but it must be done. Our world depends on it.

Andrew Leigh is the author of What’s the worst that can happen? Extreme existential and political risk, and Member of the Australian Parliament. This article was first published by MIT Press Reader and has been republished here with permission.

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