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Hot issues: Battle for the climate at the ballot box

Despite voters’ clear concern about rising temperatures and their support for more ambitious climate action, the EU and other elections this year risk empowering political forces hostile to green policies. What can activists and concerned citizens do?

As much as half the world’s population is eligible to vote in elections this year. In Europe, we are only days away from the European Parliament elections (6-9 June). National ballots are also set to take place in Belgium, the UK and Austria, among others.

As an environmental campaigner who also happens to be from a minority background, these elections, in which the far-right and anti-climate political forces are on course to make significant gains, fill me doubly with a sense of trepidation and concern.

The Netherlands appears to be a harbinger of what may be on the horizon. The far right Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV), led by extremist demagogue Geert Wilders, which came in first at the recent general elections, is leading the process to form a governing coalition.

“We must no longer allow ourselves to be made afraid. The Netherlands is a smart country: we have the best hydraulic engineers in the world,” reads the PVV’s manifesto. “The Climate Law, the climate pact and all other climate regulations will go straight into the shredder.” 

Poll position

In recent months, hardline rightist parties have topped the polls in at least a dozen European countries and they are projected to come in first, second or third in the EU election in 18 countries. This has ignited fears that climate-hostile forces, from the pro-business (as usual) centre right to the climate sceptical far right, will dominate EU politics after the European Parliament ballot in June – either indirectly, with the extreme right pulling the centre further and further towards the fringe, or directly, with the centre right building alliances with the far right.

This is reflected, for example, in how Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has barely mentioned the climate or her flagship European Green Deal in her campaign for reelection. In addition, von der Leyen is actively courting some elements of the far-right, such as Italy’s climate-sceptical prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. 

“[Meloni] is clearly pro-European, against Putin, she’s been very clear on that one, and pro-rule of law, if this holds, and then we offer to work together,” the Commission president claimed during an election debate hosted by the European Broadcasting Union.

Von der Leyen’s apparent willingness to abandon her own climate policy baby, namely the European Green Deal, to defend itself while courting the far right smacks of a troubling cynicism that could result in the bizarre spectacle of a reelected von der Leyen striving to roll back some of her own legacy. 

This would also potentially put in jeopardy the ambition of the EU’s 2040 climate target, the draft of which is already underwhelming and woefully inadequate for the scale of the challenge. This is highly problematic because, if anything, the climate target and the Emission Trading System as one of its key components need to be strengthened.  

Even the top candidate to become the next Green Deal commissioner, Spain’s Teresa Ribera, could not remain silent about her potential future boss’s folly. “I understand that she is trying to project herself as someone who is capable of uniting very different factions. But I think this approach is wrong,” Ribera told Politico. “The unacceptable cannot be accepted.”

Whoever becomes  the next commission president will need to choose sense over political expediency and continue on the green path started in 2019, with the support of an effective and proactive Green Deal commissioner who will advocate for the necessary climate action even when the political heat is on.

Across the channel, in the UK, a snap election has been called in the former EU member state for 4 July, less than a month after the European Parliament. Here, too, climate action faces an uncertain future. In his speech announcing the decision, British prime minister Rishi Sunak downplayed the importance of climate action: “We prioritised energy security and your family finances over environmental dogma and our approach to net zero.”

Unfortunately, for Sunak, the climate crisis rained on his parade. In an ironic symbol of unpreparedness for global warming, the UK premier made his announcement in a heavy downpour made many times more likely by rising temperatures which left him soaked because he failed to bring an umbrella. 

But the outlook in Britain is not all bleak. The opposition, Labour, has vowed to make climate a key election issue, even if the party has been rowing back and watering down its environmental positions. Similarly, the greens and belatedly the socialists at the European Parliament have expressed their intention to keep the climate and the European Green Deal high on the agenda at the EU elections.

Seeing through the political smog

This potential political lurch away from the environment comes at a bad time, when the impact of climate change is escalating, with 2023 not only the hottest year on record but Europe heating up faster than any other continent. 

Given how unignorable global heating has become, it is little wonder that voters in the EU continue to express grave concern for the climate and wider environmental issues. Over three-quarters of EU citizens believe that climate change is a very serious problem, according to a European Commission survey conducted in 2023. In France, Denmark and Switzerland, people regard climate change as the most significant crisis of all.

Moreover, citizens put responsibility for climate action squarely on the shoulders of governments (56%) and businesses (53%). They favour stronger green investment and greener industrial policies, as well as social solidarity measures to support those hardest hit by the transition.

The picture becomes more complicated when we look at voter priorities for the election. Climate action scored 29%, tied with job creation, but behind combating poverty and social exclusion (36%) and public health (34%), according to a Eurobarometer survey from late 2023. 

A more recent survey expresses these shifting priorities even more clearly. While the level of people who prioritise climate action remained stable (30%), this was behind security and defence (34%). Another sign of increasing militarisation and securitisation of EU politics is that over 70% of those surveyed supported boosting the EU’s capacity to produce military equipment. Other leading voter priorities include healthcare, the economy and migration.

These competing priorities do not necessarily conflict with climate and environmental action and, in fact, tackling the climate crisis in a fair and effective manner would contribute to and complement many other policy areas, including socioeconomic wellbeing and genuine security. 

There is even robust evidence for this interrelationship. For example, a new International Monetary Fund (IMF) study concluded, through modelling, that “individual policy tools, including carbon pricing, energy efficiency standards, and accelerated permitting procedures for renewables, tend to improve energy security”. 

However, despite voters’ expressed concern for the climate, their other concerns and worries risk leading many to vote for parties that are not only bad for pluralism and multiculturalism but also for the environment, who will exploit people’s worries and fears to advance their own agendas.

“The significant shift to the right in the new [European] Parliament will mean that an ‘anti-climate policy action’ coalition is likely to dominate,” one projection forecasted. “This would significantly undermine the EU’s Green Deal framework and the adoption and enforcement of common policies to meet the EU’s net zero targets.”

Making every action count

That this regression should be occurring now at a time when we need to redouble ambition and accelerate action can spur a sense of helplessness, powerlessness and even apathy among activists and campaigners, the climate conscious voter and those committed to safeguarding our environment for ourselves and future generations.

However, this would be a grave mistake. The outcome of an election is not inevitable until it is. This makes it vital that activists and campaigners try, each in their own way, to defeat the biggest enemy of climate action: political apathy. Every voter who cares about the climate needs to make their voice heard and their vote count at the ballot box, whether they are voting in the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, India, or elsewhere.

To help you make an informed voting decision, a coalition of NGOs has released, under the hashtag #VotefutureEU, an in-depth EU Parliament Scoreboard, which assesses the track record of the various parties and political groups on the climate, nature and pollution during the 2019-2024 term.

Activists may find this messaging guide from Friends of the Earth handy.

When loss is not defeat

Even if the climate loses ground at the ballot box, all is not lost. While comprehensively tackling the climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis requires profound and far-reaching systemic change, incremental change is also important because every fraction of a degree we shave off temperature rises will make the future that much more bearable and sustainable. 

This means that, even in opposition, progressive forces must keep the climate on the political agenda, push the incumbents to take greater climate action and oppose any attempts to roll back reforms already in place. More importantly, some of the changes in place have gained a possibly unstoppable momentum of their own, such as the accelerating rollout of renewable energy.

The political climate may be changing but it is imperative that we keep climate change on the political agenda.

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