The new challenge for climate action? Populism

Doug Hendrie
Aug 3, 2016 · 6 min read
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Credit: Bitznbitez on Flickr

2016 is likely to be the hottest year ever recorded — a jump over the second hottest year, 2015. Vast areas of Siberia are burning. An oil sands town burned in Canada. Kuwait recorded the hottest temperature ever recorded outside of Death Valley at 54 Celsius. The Great Barrier Reef bleaches and dies, while hundreds of kilometres of mangroves die en masse in the NT and the Great Southern Reef of kelp forests is dying and being replaced by seaweed banks. The Tasmanian high plateau peat bogs burned for the first time in perhaps a thousand years. The vast Himalayan glaciers that supply water to the world’s two population giants, India and China, are melting far quicker than expected. The North Pole hit temperatures more than 27 degrees Celsius above normal. This month, authorities admitted the jump had taken them by surprise. “We predicted moderate warmth for 2016, but nothing like the temperature rises we’ve seen,” David Carlson, director of the World Meteorological Organisation recently told Reuters.

2016 is the year climate change got real. And after decades of foot-dragging and fossil-fuel seeded denial and delay tactics, it’s also the year the world decided to act. In April, 195 countries agreed to keep global warming below two degrees by signing the Paris Accord. (The aspirational target of 1.5 degrees is almost impossible.) And with renewables now cheaper than new fossil fuel power and wind/solar growing at double the rate of fossil fuels, it seemed change was at last upon us. Pioneering governments in Germany and California have proven grids can handle renewables on a large scale. China is about to ban most new coal stations. For the first time, it seemed possible to thank fossil fuels for their service in liberating us from the bounds of muscle power alone and move to renewables, where fuel is free. At long last, action seemed likely on the most pressing issue of our time. We might — might — have a chance of stemming the worst of climate change.

But there’s a new problem.

Action on global warming has been a job for global elites — and these are precisely the people now coming under (warranted) pressure by the losers of globalisation. Across the world, popular anger has given massive boosts to populist candidates pushing back against globalisation, the EU, trade pacts, immigrants and refugees. While left-wing populists like Bernie Sanders have made some impact, right wing populists have been far more effective. As Nate Cohn observes “the populist right is excelling in the old bastions of the left” across the postindustrial world. A new political divide is sweeping across country after country: internationalist cosmopolitans versus protectionist anti-immigrant nationalists. The power of elite media gatekeepers, too, is dwindling, and with it the ability to counter populism with fact. Social media bubbles may well be populism’s great enabler.

The UK wants out of the EU. Donald Trump wants to can free trade pacts, build a wall to stop Mexican immigrants. His ‘forgotten people’ — the former manufacturing class — lap it up. Austria’s far-right Norbert Hofer almost took the presidency on the strength of anti-immigrant feeling. Across much of Europe, the far right is mobilising behind populist candidates capitalising on resentment of migrants. And the once left-leaning working class areas of Britain voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. Australia, too, is busy electing populists to the senate as a rebuke to the two major parties.

When Trump isn’t heaping hate on outgroups, he can actually make sense. “The wave of globalisation has wiped out our middle class,” he said in July. And he’s right. The winners in globalisation are the ultrarich 1% — and the hundreds of millions of people, from China to India to Kenya, who now have steady jobs. But the losers are the West’s middle and working classes, who have seen their incomes stagnate and then plummet and their job security vanish. Both Trump and Sanders appeal to those who have lost from globalisation — former manufacturing workers for Trump, debt-laden millennials for Sanders.

And the result? Nationalism is resurgent, in a challenge to the interconnectedness of our economies, and, more precisely, against the flows of people. Elites everywhere are losing favour. A great deal of that is their fault, of course, as income inequality widens and the rich and influential insulate themselves from the seething precariat.

The timing couldn’t be worse. At a time when only governments working in tandem have a chance of keeping the earth cool enough for human civilisation to survive, their failure to tackle inequality, job losses in former manufacturing hubs, and backlashes against immigration has led to a rising tide of populists promising glib answers to hard questions. Stop trade, stop migration — stop globalisation.

But for us to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change within 35 years — say parts of Middle East becoming uninhabitable or massive spikes in food prices as farmers find it harder to grow crops or farm cattle or a catastrophic refugee surge of up to 15 million Bangladeshis — we’ll need to coordinate action globally.

No nation wants to act first — because there are early economic costs with a payoff well beyond the average electoral cycle, before renewables drastically bring down the cost of power. The sunk costs of fossil fuels — powerplants, refineries, coal mines, cars, inflexible grids — are in the trillions of dollars. To quit the habit without massive disruption will require carbon taxes and trading schemes — coordinated and recorded internationally.

But international action is under threat from the rise of the populist nationalists. Trump believes climate change is a Chinese plot and proposes protectionism; his unruly party denies climate change is real and borrows their energy policies from coal industry talking points.

Brexit was, in part, a reaction against perceived overregulation — and climate change responses cannot be left to the market. Britain has traditionally been a climate leader within the EU. But Brexit voters were much more likely to be climate deniers and so too Brexit leaders. After the vote to leave, the signs aren’t encouraging. New UK leader Teresa May axed the climate change department in one of her first moves, and while she’s not a denier, the process of extricating Britain from the EU will certainly slow action. At a stroke, Britain has gone from a world leader to a laggard, and its departure from the EU will leave remaining renewable powerhouses such as Germany vulnerable to push-back from heavy coal users like Poland.

Which way forward, then?

The signs are not good. Elites like Hilary Clinton who speak in dry, fact-laden speeches are vulnerable to speak-from-the-gut populists like Trump. And right-wing populists are more electorally popular than their left wing equivalents — and far more likely to be climate sceptics.

To tackle climate change then, we need to address inequality and its dark twin, resentment of immigrants. Whether through stimulus, make-work, or a New New Deal, the system needs fixing by elites — before we, the people, do away with them and make do with charismatic populists and scapegoats.

As Martin Wolf notes in the Financial Times, populist aspirants offer “clear, simple and wrong solutions — notably, nationalism, nativism and protectionism … the remedies they offer are bogus. But the illnesses are real. If governing elites continue to fail to offer convincing cures, they may soon be swept away and, with them, the effort to marry democratic self-government with an open and co-operative world order.”

It’s happened before, of course — globalisation, backlash, populism. The first true wave of globalisation in the late 19th and early 20th century was made possible by steamships, railroads, colonialism, cheap resources and the telegraph (known as the Victorian internet). The world’s major economies became closely entwined through trade, and protectionism gave way to globalisation. Then, as now, lightly regulated global markets gained strength at the expense of the states that spawned them.

When the Great War came, and after it the Great Depression, globalisation collapsed. In its place came populism and nationalism, ushering in fascism. As historian Henry James noted in his 2001 book The End of Globalisation, the collapse of globalisation occurred remarkably swiftly in the 1930s precisely because it built on long grievances about immigration and trade.

The tragedy for us is that at the time we most need global elites and global agreements to preserve a liveable climate, globalisation’s losers are no longer buying what they are selling.

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