The anti-climate change narratives have clearly become a key scapegoat for Central European populists who have been using the topic's inherent long-term nature to buttress their voters' support
As we all continue to face mounting challenges, among which the ever-accelerating climate change stands out the most, the beginning of the 2020s seems to have thus far only accentuated societal divides.
These have been across Europe and North America propelled primarily by various populist movements that do not hesitate to capitalise on virtually any ephemeral issue of public discontent for further political gains, while simultaneously undermining any attempts of social cohesion.
Yet, in recent years, such movements have been progressively pushed by political circumstances to react and develop an agenda pertaining even to issues of long-term significance. The tactics have not evolved, though. Instead of adopting a more rational approach toward such issues, given their greater importance, populist movements simply re-applied their old playbooks and transformed them into nothing but another political target – this time, however, with obvious ingrained long-term implications.
Regrettably, those issues that are unfortunate enough to fall within this category are today, as a result of their smear campaigns, almost guaranteed to be politically lamed and to elicit discontent among large parts of the electorate – no matter the size and explicitness of the scientific evidence justifying the issue at hand.
Building particularly on fear and nationalistic tendencies, climate change has over the past years, unluckily for the global climate efforts, emerged as one of such issues.
Selling false scenarios
The agenda of climate change, which is being used as a vehicle for further strengthening of populist tendencies, would sufficiently do as a theoretical example for analysis in any political science class if only the topic itself was not of the utmost importance.
Yet, by scapegoating and undermining the climate protection for votes, the populists are not only selling false scenarios, but also hindering global climate action and stealing precious time still left to rapidly, yet somehow still comfortably, set our economies onto carbon-neutral trajectories.
Let us not forget that in order to limit the rise of the average global temperature to 2° Celsius and not pass any tipping points, for its part, the EU has to half its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and then again by 2040 to reach climate neutrality by mid-century.
Under the mounting scientific evidence, provided via the Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and national scientific institutions, the imminent risk of climate change and its human-driven cause is no longer a topic to be debated, but acted upon.
Nowhere else is a current nexus between populism and climate change more evident than in Central Europe, where numerous local political elites effectively incorporated long-term political targeting of climate change into their day-to-day political toolbox.
Herein, the striking difference between actions on the international level and actions within national borders created space of a bewildering goulash of populist rhetoric and political decision-making. In other words, the Central European governments often publicly promote and further propel anti-climate change narratives, hoping to increase their national public support, yet their political decisions are more or less reactive, perhaps only dealing with such issues as they are globally recognised as important and cannot be, due to, multilateral agreements and the international momentum, overlooked.
National rhetoric is thus not always in accordance with statements made on the international stage when dealing with European counterparts. Ultimately, following the climate change debate and political actions in Central Europe is largely telling how populism is under current circumstances slowly shifting its attention from typical populist topics (such as EU criticism and disintegration) to issues with global political permanence that may actually carry considerable negative ramifications even for generations that are yet to come.
From fringe to mainstream parties
The Czech Republic provides an interesting example of how an anti-climate change narrative, initially propelled merely by fringe parties, transformed into a mainstream narrative utilised by key parties or political figures.
Such situation is best epitomised by the fact that anti-climate narratives in the Czech Republic continue to be exploited by groups such as Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD – Svoboda a přímá demokracie), a far-right party with strong Eurosceptic views, as well as by the key state representatives such as the President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman. The latter even publicly labelled the climate change debate as a new religion and questioned scientific claims that human activity is, in fact, a key contributor to our current and future climate predicaments.
The notable difference is that while fringe parties aim to genuinely pursue any mechanism undermining climate protection, the political mainstream is only tapping into the electoral potential which has emerged on the political spectrum.
An interesting case can be made by considering the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, and his currently ruling party Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO – Akce nespokojených občanů). Talking to the media, Andrej Babiš has on numerous occasions openly stated, like so many other mainstream political representatives in the Czech Republic, that the European Union should abandon its quest for vigorous cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, instead suggesting EU to focus on efforts such as combatting COVID-19 pandemic and strengthening the national economy.
However, away from the public spotlight, Mr Babiš has already signed on several occasions official documents supporting the European Green Deal and, as the head of the Czech government, even supported the climate neutrality goal in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Such behaviour largely portrays a great deal of asymmetry in how EU climate-related documents on green recovery are being presented to the public, often simply as ‘pragmatic‘ instruments to help the national economy, and how they are agreed to at the EU level, where climate neutrality is emphasised. Either way, the political inconsistency does not help to strengthen the credibility within or outside the Bohemian borders.
Another suspiciously similar example can be found in Poland where political elites struck a unique balance and interaction between anti-climate change narratives and climate change action. The fact is that on many occasions the Polish governmental administration has been able to acknowledge climate change as one of the key challenges during the 21st century.
Already in 2013, the White Book on National Security of the Republic of Poland stipulated that the Climate Change epitomises considerable security issues with possibly “disastrous consequences“. The very same year Poland also hosted the UN Climate Conference (COP) where the intended nationally determined contributions (NDCs) emerged – later a key foundation for the Paris Agreement.
Subsequently, Poland hosted the COP again in 2018 and in 2019 even established the Ministry of Climate. This is perhaps not as surprising given that Poland itself is home to 33 of the 50 most polluted cities in Europe.
Nevertheless, these steps run in direct contradiction with numerous political statements and much-mediatised declarations. Polish President Andrzej Duda was reported to openly attack EU’s decarbonisation policies already in 2015, not to mention that similar sentiments could have been observed throughout conservative parts of Polish society.
Likewise, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently told the press he could not support the EU wide agreement on net zero carbon target for 2050 due to the lack of a thorough analysis; a decision which has ultimately led Poland to be the only EU member state left out from the climate neutrality agreement.
Thus far perhaps the most extreme example can, however, be found in Hungary, where right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán decided to capitalise on the COVID-19 pandemic and under the state of emergency rule by decrees.
Building on its already well-cemented hard-line approach towards immigration, climate change has long been a topic ridiculed by the conservative Prime Minister and his followers. Calling Greta Thunberg “a sick child”, Orbán’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyás also mentioned that “aside from a few dozen activists, the whole topic [climate change] interests no one, which only shows the sanity of the Hungarian society”.
Aside from vetoing the EU’s 2050 climate neutrality goal (and only after re-negotiations approving it), Orbán also imprinted his traditionalist views on another EU demand, the National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP). Somehow having to succumb to the EU-wide duty to submit an NECP, he frames it in such a way as to strengthen his worldview’s narrative, ostensibly based on “Christian democratic principles”.
Auspiciously, Orban’s rhetoric has not gone unnoticed and collided, for instance, with Budapest’s mayor Gergely Karácsony. As cities are at the forefront of climate-action (having the potential to transform carbon-intensive transport, energy, and even consumption systems, and integrate them into climate-neutral economies), Karácsony supported the “free cities pact”.
Together with Warsaw, Prague, and Bratislava, the cities intend to stay open and ask Brussels to have climate-related funds channelled directly to them, thus bypassing their own governments who they do not perceive as trusted partners in building a sufficiently climate-resilient society.
Step up the game
The case of Slovakia is slightly different from its Visegrad counterparts, given that the recently elected first female President Zuzana Čaputová embodied the nations’ hope for a more transparent, solidary, humane and democratic liberal government. Being a former environmental and anti-corruption activist, it seemed prospective Slovakia would step up its game as the Visegrad’s vanguard for in the global race against time.
Indeed, amid the COVID-19 havoc, in April 2020, the Slovak Minister of Environment did, as the first country of the V4, sign under the Danish initiative set to capitalise on the synergies of the European Green Deal and the EU’s post-COVID restoration. Building on the momentum set by Čaputová’s win, climate-consciousness is perhaps trickling down in the Slovak institutions.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Igor Matovič’s stance towards the climate crisis remains dubious at best. Unfortunately, even in the context of climate change, Matovič’s populist background cannot be overshadowed.
As many underscore, the political programme of the millionaire’s party called the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities Party (OĽaNO – Obyčajní Ľudia a nezávislé osobnosti) was specifically designed to reflect the wishes of Matovič’s (potential) voters.
In parallel, acting as a reactionary force to the then ruling party with a string attached to widespread mafia(-like) networks, climate change was mentioned in Matovič’s party programme not as a topic per se, but only in relation to what seemed to resonate with the voters at the moment the most – (quick-fix solutions to) corruption. Strikingly, the other three parties that received the most votes and mentioned climate change in their programmes (Smer, Sme Rodina, L’SNS) seem to be built on conservative, illiberal pillars that are in nature contrary to what effective climate protection actually requires – cooperation, global solidarity, and multilateralism.
Therefore, one could argue that Čaputová herself seems to remain in Central Europe a “lone political voice in a sea of demagoguery”.
State of schizophrenia
The anti-climate change narratives have clearly become a key scapegoat for Central European populists who have been using the topic’s inherent long-term nature to buttress their voters’ support. The momentum set by the Paris Agreement, the EU-led initiatives, the growing public awareness of the changing climate as well as the visible and impactful demonstrations of climate change have, however, placed the populist leaders into a crisis-induced state of schizophrenia.
No longer being an intangible problem, climate change is slowly being a cornerstone of action on all levels of governance, forcing the populists to (re)act.
Recently agreeing to climate neutrality, the adoption of the groundbreaking wide-ranging package by the European Council on July 21 is evidently the latest example of climate action elbowing its way into the high-level debate. The package itself ultimately combines the future Multiannual Financial Framework and a specific recovery effort to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in coherence with the Paris Agreement objective.
As a result, at least 30 per cent of the EU expenditure of the 750-billion-euro budget must contribute to climate objectives. After a marathon of discussion, the V4 states agreed to partially direct financial flows into sustainable investments in order to “respect ecological ambitions of the EU”, as the Czech Minister of Industry and Trade put it.
Whether the money (nearly 80 billion euros in the Czech case) will be eventually invested into regions affected by the closure of coal mines or channelled into industry or transportation, the actual potential to fast-forward to a low-emission future is considerable either way.
The outcome can be perceived as somewhat optimistic also thanks to the fact that other EU states will have the possibility to object to how the finances are spent, and demand changes.
Lastly, it is important to mention that the language concerning the conditionality on the rule of law is, unfortunately, “enigmatic and vague”. With leaders of Poland and Hungary feeling triumphant, it is, though, safe to say that the debate on strong inclusive institutions and democracy is far from closed.
Building on recent developments, the populistic forces – embodied by politically short-sighted strongmen (gender-sensitivity included) – seem to fight for self-preservation by inhibiting the much-needed rise of global or EU ambitions.
However, working towards a structural low-emission transformation and refusing ecological and systemic demise, it is these opposing initiatives that often bring a much-needed asset to the multilateral negotiations table as well as to the field – a cooperative constructive approach, fresh energy, and an open state of mind.
Romana Březovská is a graduate of both the Charles University in Prague and Sciences Po Paris. Currently, Romana works in the public sector within the field of climate protection and follows the climate agenda on the national, EU, and global level. She is a Research Fellow at the Association for International Affairs’ Research Centre.
Michal Bokša is a graduate of the University of Cambridge specialising in international security, with experience in the OSCE, NATO Defence College, and NATO Supreme Headquarters. Currently, Michal is a lecturer at the University of Economics and a Research Fellow for the Association for International Affairs’ Research Centre.