When it comes to elections, gut feelings often prevail over common sense. If dissatisfaction is left to simmer for long enough, it will boil over sooner or later. Facts and figures then evaporate, turning into barely discernible puffs of steam. In recent years we have seen several clear examples of this happening in various countries. That is why it is essential to address the conditions that cause many of these gut feelings. Otherwise, our climate plans are doomed to fail.
Across the globe, politicians are starting to feel the urgency of global warming. In the Netherlands, for instance, the government has recently appointed a Minister for Climate and Energy and has set up a EUR 35 billion climate fund. Other western countries have taken similar steps. Whether these plans are ambitious enough remains to be seen (the recently published IPCC report is far from encouraging), but at least these governments are moving in the right direction.
Unfortunately, among a large section of the electorate, the support for the government's climate plans is fragile. The war in Ukraine, for one, is understandably shifting the focus towards issues such as loss of purchasing power and security. Would we not do better to use the billions of euros that have been allocated to solving climate issues for offsetting the huge energy bill or for reinforcing our army?
Populist parties are cleverly taking advantage of this short-term focus. The French radical right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen, for instance, recently managed to reach the final round of the French presidential election by constantly focusing attention on purchasing power. The French are susceptible to these types of populist campaigns, as evidenced by the ‘yellow vests’ movement that emerged in recent years in response to great socioeconomic inequality. Understandably, the ongoing inequality means voters are indifferent about the fact that Le Pen wishes to dismantle entire wind farms and cut subsidies for wind and solar power - or worse, they actually welcome it.
And that is precisely the weak spot of all climate plans: if they are not each time accompanied by measures aimed at resolving socioeconomic inequality, a large group of people will continue to be tempted to answer the call of populism. The more successful that call, the quicker global warming will again become an elitist problem. And we know by now that a resurgence of populism often results in a government made up of climate sceptics, as we saw when Donald Trump was elected president.
Not quite an attractive prospect for policymakers who are seriously working to address global warming. Still, this relationship between socioeconomic inequality and the successfulness of climate plans appears to be overlooked by our politicians. This is for instance evidenced by the absurd decision of many European governments to lower the duty on petrol and VAT on energy across the board. It should by now be clear that it does not make sense to compensate everyone equally for a spiralling energy bill, while families that are living below the poverty line are hit relatively much harder. This disregard for inequality feeds the gut feelings of ‘us against them’, the money-grabbing elite, and thus increases the likelihood of a populist, climate-sceptical political shift.
How a country's single-minded focus on climate can backfire, is shown by the recent election result in Costa Rica. This Central American country has been a global leader in sustainability and nature conservation for many years: nearly all its energy is derived from sustainable sources and the country fanatically protects its rainforest.
During the recent climate summit, Costa Rica even led other countries into battle against the use of fossil fuels. However, now that the right-wing conservative populist Rodrigo Chaves has been elected as the country's new president, a radical break with this policy is looming: Chaves is actually considering drilling for gas.
His election is a direct result of the economic slump in Costa Rica: almost a quarter of the population is living in poverty and unemployment and income inequality have increased sharply in recent years. The polls held just before the election indicated that climate was hardly top of mind for voters: unemployment, COVID-19, corruption and the rising cost of living were their main priorities.
The fact that climate policies actually create employment and prevent huge costs in the future is forgotten as soon as gut feelings take over. It is therefore high time that governments around the world act upon this knowledge. Because the number one action point in every successful climate plan is: address socioeconomic inequality.
Also read Joeri's previous column 'Time for globalisation 2.0'