Credit: European Parliament

The Climate Backlash Is Here As European Voters Reject Green Policies

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Voters in the 27 nations that comprise the European Union went to the polls last week to elect who they wanted to represent them in the European Parliament. The EU has been a strong supporter for the climate policies agreed to in Paris in 2015, but the voters, particularly in France and Germany, voted for authoritarian candidates who are mostly opposed to those policies. The question now is whether the EU will still support the transition to electric vehicles and renewable energy, both of which are driving up the cost of living in Europe, even though those policies have proven effective in reducing carbon emissions.

According to Politico, the European People’s Party (EPP) scored a clear victory in the European Parliament election, tightening its grip on the chamber even as far right groups made major gains across the bloc. It is on track to have around 184 lawmakers in Parliament, a quarter of the total. It is the only centrist party whose representation in Parliament increased after this election: The center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) remained stable, while the liberal Renew Europe group was decimated.

The EPP is now in a position to set EU policy, tilting the agenda to the right. “We are the party of industry, we are the party of rural areas, we are the farmers’ party of Europe,” Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP Group in the Parliament, told Politico. While the EPP could join a grand coalition with the socialists and liberals as it has done in the past, it could also negotiate a working relationship on some issues with parties further to the right, if it can do so without alienating its centrist allies.

European Climate Leadership May Be Weakened

Over the past five years, the leaders of the European Union tried to turn it into a global leader on climate policy, Politico says. They enacted an ambitious plan to cut emissions in half by 2030 and set a 2035 deadline on the sales of new combustion engine cars. They expanded the price that industries must pay for emitting greenhouse gases. But as voters went to the polls last week, the EU’s green credentials were under siege. There is widespread frustration over rising prices.

Farmers’ groups have stormed European capitals to protest proposals to limit pollution from agriculture. The right wing is ascendant. The Greens, who in 2019 won their largest share of seats in European parliamentary elections, are polling poorly today. “There is a lot at stake,” Laurence Tubiana, one of the key architects of the Paris climate accord and now the head of the European Climate Foundation, told Politico in an email. “The gains of the last five years cannot be taken for granted.”

The New York Times says three big things have happened to change the political calculus — Covid, inflation, and the war on Ukraine. Almost overnight, the war forced European countries to ditch natural gas piped in from Russia, which was, until then, a cheap source of electricity. Germany saw its efforts to accelerate the adoption of heat pumps became embroiled in the culture wars. Conservatives and right wing politicians, supported by a populist press, railed against what the parties characterized as a ban on gas boilers.

The Threat Of A Hotter Climate

Europe is warming faster than the global average, and the consequences have been on plain display — fires in Greece, floods in Germany, crippling heat waves in Italy and Spain. Polls show robust support for climate action, but also concern about costs and signs of what the European Council on Foreign Relations calls a “growing greenlash.” While people “want action to be taken on the climate crisis, they do not want to bear significant costs of the green transition themselves,” the organization wrote in a recent analysis.

The immediate impact of this election will be on the EU emissions reduction targets for 2040, Politico says. It is unclear what the next commission might support, particularly because the next round of cuts will likely require altering things that affect everyday lives, like home heating and transportation. Perhaps the toughest question will be what to do about emissions from agriculture.

The European Conservatives and Reformists party has cast some of the Green Deal’s policies, such as setting aside land for restoration rather than agriculture, as a culture war issue it says unfairly target farmers. It has promised to examine what it calls in its election manifesto the Green Deal’s “more problematic objectives.” The Greens’ message to voters is that European businesses need a clear signal that they can compete in the green industries of the future. “These elections will determine the future of Europe’s climate policy,” Bas Eickhout, a Green party leader said by telephone. “If we stop now, it would be bad news for European industry.”

Nevertheless, the Green Deal “has turned out to be much stronger and resilient as a political agenda then many thought it would be,” said Pieter de Pous, an analyst with E3G, “but it is also facing some formidable political opponents now, especially coming from the far right.”

The Takeaway

What the election in Europe last week seems to tell us is what most of us already know. Everybody is in favor of preserving the Earth as a place where humans can survive, as long as doing so does not cost us anything or require us to alter our lifestyle in any significant way. Telling people what to do is a surefire way of making most people dig in their heels and refuse to go along. That is what makes the Biden method so politically astute. It is all carrots and no sticks. Install a heat pump or rooftop solar, or purchase an electric car, and reap the economic rewards the president and his team  have put in place.

What has become apparent to virtually everyone over the past two years is that temperatures are soaring everywhere. Sea level rise may be an abstraction, but when it’s 117 degrees outside, people tend to notice. When tornadoes strike communities where they are not common, people tend to notice. When the home you saved all your life for is flooded or goes floating out to sea, people tend to notice. When crops fail because of excessive heat and too little rain, people tend to notice.

Fear is a powerful motivator. Fearful people have a tendency to hide under the bed and pray for some powerful person to save them from their misery. It is counterintuitive but no less true to say that the climate emergency will promote the fortunes of authoritarians who position themselves as saviors, yet have no more ability to alter events than did King Canute when he set his throne down at the shoreline and commanded the tide not to rise.

We want someone who can take away our fear and make things work the way they should. After all, Mussolini, with all his faults, did make the trains run on time. Half of all Americans say they want a leader who will accelerate climate change while increasing the wealth of the country’s richest people. The Europeans have made their choice, which is to push back against policies designed to address the looming climate nightmare. If America choose to do the same, there is a very good chance the planet may never recover. Please vote responsibly.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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