Medical News Who should I vote for in the 2019 European elections?
Populist parties look set to make big gains in the European elections – but think twice about voting for them if you care about climate and the environment
20 May 2019
Josie FordBy Debora MacKenzie
Later this week, the people of 28 countries will vote to elect their representatives in the European Parliament for the next five years. One of them, the UK, has been brought to the ballot box kicking and screaming, having voted to leave the European Union and its directly elected assembly almost three years ago.
This is the world’s second biggest democratic vote – coincidentally, results from the biggest, the Indian general election, are also expected this week. Current opinion polls suggest a wave of anger will propel populist, anti-establishment parties to victory across swathes of Europe. Right-wing populists may even become the largest bloc in the parliament.
That is a problem for the planet. Some of these parties hold views on climate change that make Donald Trump look like a well-informed moderate, as a report published earlier this year by German environmental think-tank Adelphi makes plain.
France’s National Rally, for example, supports solar and wind energy fabriqué en France as a way of reducing foreign energy imports, but rejects international action on climate change, denouncing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as a “communist project”. Germany’s AfD says governments suppress the truth that carbon dioxide is a fertiliser, not a pollutant. A UKIP MEP wrote a European Parliament opinion paper blaming climate change on cosmic rays, while Austria’s FPÖ says “solar flares and the warming of the sun” are responsible. Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit party currently riding high in UK polls, has repeatedly questioned the basis of climate science.
Voters may have many reasons for voting for these parties – but those who care about the planet should take pause.
EU needs to be united on climate
The measures needed to combat climate change affect competition in a single market, so much of what European countries are doing – creating the world’s biggest carbon trading scheme, setting binding new targets for energy efficiency – is coordinated at EU level. To meet Paris climate-change agreement targets, the European Commission, which proposes EU legislation, has more ambitious plans: carbon neutrality by 2050 and measures taking up to 40 per cent of the new EU budget.
All these need the European Parliament’s approval. With two out of three current populist MEPs regularly voting against climate and energy resolutions, votes for populists in the new parliament could significantly dilute the EU’s efforts to mitigate climate change.
Populists have gained traction in recent years by appealing emotionally to people who feel disregarded by remote, powerful elites. They are thriving now because liberal elites have ignored alarm over threats to identity and the stability of established communities from immigration, globalisation, economic injustice and changing social norms.
Climate scientists and protest movements such as Extinction Rebellion may still feel they are fighting the good fight against an elite that has until recently been reluctant to hear their concerns. But this is not how they are perceived by a large chunk of their fellow citizens. Scientists are a remote elite if ever there was one, with allegiance to their own strange facts rather than common identities. Activists’ advocacy of higher environmental taxes and restrictions on consumption is viewed as harmful for ordinary people: witness France’s gilets jaunes protests, originally spawned by opposition to higher fuel taxes.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Climate change is a threat to stability for everyone, and arguments for action should emphasise just that. These should acknowledge the power not just of facts, but emotions, and focus not just on economic costs and burdens, but on less tangible impacts on shared identity and heritage – the threat to much-loved landscapes, for example. Crucially, they need to show how international efforts to limit emissions can have positive effects on communities, preserving cherished traditions as well as bringing change.
There is no umbilical link between populism and anti-climate positions. Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz, for example, is one of three Euro-populist parties to fully accept climate science. Fanned by other winds in society, populism is not going to burn out soon – but we can work together to ensure it doesn’t consume climate action, too.
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