The Rise of Populism

After a change at the top, the U.S. stance on the environment is poised to take a drastic step back both domestically and internationally.

Undermining American environmental leadership was a key aspect of the President-elect's manifesto, he has appointed notorious climate deniers to major roles in his transition team and his chief of staff says denialism remains his 'default' position on climate change.

America is not alone in this political earthquake. In Europe, where the union already faces a combination of financial, social and humanitarian crises, less liberal leaders are gaining momentum. Populist movements mushrooming all over the continent preach isolationism and reject hard facts as a pivot of the political agenda.

Under this new, shifting political landscape, prioritising ambitious climate action seems harder than ever. The climate movement needs to reconnect with the grassroots. Initiatives that engage citizens in building sustainable communities are there, but how can they be supported and scaled up?

The rise of populism

Populism and climate denialism share the same approach: rejection of facts and delegitimization of their opponents.

In a recent essay, political researcher Jan-Werner Müller wrote: "Populists claim that they and they alone speak in the name of what they tend to call the ‘real people’ or the ‘silent majority’. This claim to a moral monopoly of representation has [...] consequences that are immediately deleterious for democracy."

By dismissing their opponents as corrupt, elitists or, as in the case of climate change, simply liars, populist narratives close a crucial window for debate within the public political space. Many fear this could mean doom for the climate change movement. But others see the shifting political landscape as a learning opportunity.

Giving a voice to the disenfranchised

“In a world where anonymity seems to have so much power and so little responsibility, in this assembly you are not just having your voices heard, but you are putting your head above the parapet,” said the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny at the inaugural meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly.

The Assembly has been praised as an innovative alternative to elections: “You get an opinion poll company to select a group of citizens like you would do for jury duties,” explained international relations expert David Farrell. “You give them as much information as they need, and the opportunity to discuss and deliberate on a topic with their peers.” This model is also known as ‘mini publics’. Citizens start with an open mind, and their deliberations shape a report that will inform government policies.

Next year’s agenda includes a session on “how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change”.

“I think the model is replicable and it could really help counteract the rise of populism, and I don't think I am being naive in saying that. But I also think [...] it requires a lot of political will from the top.” said Farrell.

The experiment is working well in Ireland, but scaling it up - for example to a pan-European citizens’ assembly - would be very complex and expensive. For now, the EU is more likely to put its money and attention elsewhere.

Reconnecting with the community

As challenging as it may be to scale up, the ‘mini publics’ model shines a spotlight on the need to engage people more meaningfully.

“I think that the climate movement will have to get better at engaging people on a visceral level” said Steve Herz, a senior attorney for the campaigning group Sierra Club. He believes that when people see the link between issues that matter to them and climate change, they start to care.

For the project Beyond Coal, the Sierra Club focuses on closing the existing fleet of coal plants in the U.S., working with local groups concerned about public health and jobs.

Old plants can be replaced with clean energy sources such as geothermal and wind. “Our efforts are not directly related to climate change [as an abstract idea] but on local impacts. People tell us: ‘You know what, I don't want this plant polluting my community anymore. Let's invest in alternatives that create more jobs and make my city healthier and more liveable.’”

Reconnecting with the place

Evidence suggests that people regard climate change as a non urgent, distant issue when it doesn’t tie to their present, or to the place where they live.

The Transition Towns network, which is present in 50 countries and thousands of urban centres across the world, aims at building climate resilience through focusing on local economies.

Its founder Rob Hopkins believes there is an element of populism in today’s politics, but “we shouldn’t blow that out of proportion.” Looking at the U.K., he notes that “the mainstream media would have you believe that there is this massive surge of populism around climate change, but we also know that support for onshore wind and for renewable energies has never been higher.”

Transition Towns is a big movement, but in some countries it still struggles to take off. Hopkins believes that key support should come from local institutions but also from businesses. A recent study carried out in the British city of Preston looked at the city’s ‘anchor institutions’, or institutions that have key stakes in a place, such as schools or public offices. It found that of the £750 million spent in a year, only 5% was spent with organisations based in the municipality.

“Companies could spend part of their corporate responsibility budget in local initiatives,” says Hopkins. Setting up a vegetable market in the offices’ garden or building a clean power plant to light up the structure are small examples that together can help build a more active community and achieve climate resilience on the ground, with less money.      

Populism is still difficult to understand, which explains in part why the media in Europe and in the U.S. are giving so much space to its advocates. But the other side of the coin, a progressive movement equally rooted in the concerns and aspirations of citizens could provide a different answer to the same questions. The Transition movement in the UK, the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland and the divestment run by the Sierra Club in the U.S. are just a few examples of movements that operate under the spotlight, but could prove equally powerful in winning over the hearts and minds of a growing number of communities around the world.


Lou Del Bello is a journalist specialised in climate science and policy. @loudelbello

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.