Faculty of Social Sciences
New research

«Populist far-right parties hinder EU climate policies»

Populist far-right parties portray fossil fuel phase-out as a threat to traditional family values, regional identity, and national sovereignty, according to researchers at UiB.

Skallet ung mann ser inn i kamera
Right-wing populist parties acknowledge that climate change is real, but they do not see it as the most important threat, says Mahir Yazar, researcher at UiB.
Amanda Schei

Main content

And if the right-wing populist parties come into government, they use their power to hinder the institutions that are meant to accelerate the energy transition, says Mahir Yazar, a researcher at the Center for Climate and Energy Transition (CET) at the University of Bergen.

Along with the center's director and professor Håvard Haarstad, Yazar has delved into the climate policies of three European populist parties on the far right:

  • The Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE)
  • Polish Law and Justice (PiS)
  • Alternative for Germany (AfD)

The researchers have used As sources speeches, various political documents, press releases, and newspaper articles as sources.

– The EU launched new strategies in 2014 and 2019 to expedite the phase-out of coal and the transition to green energy. We have studied the strategic measures the three parties have taken to counteract climate policy in the EU and postpone the energy transition in three of Europe's most carbon-intensive regions. We have been particularly concerned with how the parties have linked their political rhetoric to these regions, says Yazar.

The regions in question are Ida-Viru in Estonia, Silesia in Poland, and North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany.

Coal extraction is central in the latter two, and shale oil in the first. In all regions, the extraction of fossil energy has been crucial for the economy and has provided many jobs.

Energy transition threatens the family and regional identity

Miners have also been important for regional identity, especially in Poland. Many Poles still celebrate the miners' guardian angel, who has a special day on December 4.

– For many, mining is associated with the good old days. Right-wing populists exploit this for all it's worth. The energy transition is portrayed as an attack on historical traditions, regional identity, and above all, the traditional family, says Yazar.

According to him, these rhetorical strategies are used to make people think of climate measures as being about something other than the climate. 

– These parties acknowledge that climate change is real, but they do not see it as a threat. The real threats are immigration from Africa, same-sex marriages, and progressive EU policies that «destroy the family, take bread from the man of the house, and strangle national sovereignty», he says.

This rhetoric resonates with significant voter groups, especially in regions where EU climate requirements entail a transformation of the business sector.

– Another commonality among the parties is that they portray the climate policies in the EU as an elite project, not in the interest of ordinary people. This is classic - Constructing opposition between an elite and the general public is the closest we get to the core of populist far-right rhetoric, says Yazar.

Selective deaings with facts

Yazar believes that all three parties have a very selective attitude towards knowledge about climate change and the effects of climate measures.

– They pick out pieces of information that fit their agenda and overlook the big picture. A good example is AfD's message that CO2 emissions are good for us. The argument is that plants use CO2 in photosynthesis, and more CO2 will result in better plant growth and, therefore, more food for the world's population. It actually says this in their political platform, he says.

AfD collaborates closely with organizations of climate deniers and skeptics. The party actively uses these organizations to spread misinformation about climate change and clean energy.

– This has led to quite an effective spread of both 'alternative facts' about climate change, and propaganda against measures to reduce CO2 emissions. AfD has not yet been in government, like EKRE and PiS have. Therefore they have been very visible in their criticism with of state climate measures. They are also behind strategic mobilization for demonstrations, for example, against diesel bans in cities, says Yazar.

He explains that even though AfD has not reached national positions of power, they were Germany's third-largest party in the 2017 election. They also performed very well in local elections in 2023, especially in East Germany.

Yazar believes that the rhetoric against clean energy is one of the main reasons for the party's high voter turnout there.

Using government power for obstruction

EKRE was in government in Estonia from 2019 to 2021. They used their power to get approval in parliament for increasing the investments in shale oil extraction.

Yazar emphasizes that this happened before Russia invaded Ukraine. After the Russian invasion, most European countries have prioritized national energy security much higher than before. This has, among other things, led to the reopening of coal mines several places.

– In the coalition government, EKRE managed to get control of both the departent of finance and the department of environmental protection. These departments are crucial when it comes to accelerating the transition from fossil to renewable energy, and EKRE used their control here to delay the transition. They also ensured that the environmental committee in parliament was sidelined, he says.

PiS, which was in government from 2015 until this fall, used similar strategies in Poland.

– They established a climate department that, for the most part, was used against the EU, to show that they had implemented measures to fulfill international climate obligations. We are largely talking about an 'empty' institution, says Yazar.

PiS, however, has not done anything to phase out coal mining in Silesia. Instead, they have invested heavily in domestic coal production and the import of coal from Australia.

– They had to balance on a narrow line. They have kept their core rhetoric, especially aimed at voters in Silesia, while at the same time toning down their criticism of the EU's climate policies internationally. It should be noted that they have also made some investments in renewable energy because it is a prerequisite for receiving funds from the EU for climate transition, he explains.

Toning down nationalism to appease Russian speakers

Pragmatism have also characterized parts of EKRE's politics.

– Traditionally, EKRE has marketed itself as nationalist and anti-Russian. But such a strategy would be political suicide in Ida-Viru, where shale oil is extracted. The region has a high proportion of Russian speakers and many Russian oil workers. Therefore, EKRE has toned down ethnic nationalism here, and instead talked about progressive EU policies as a threat to traditional family values, he says.

Yazar explains that EKRE succeeded well with this 'double play,' at least before the Russian invasion of Ukraine:

– They became the largest party among Russian-speaking voters in Ida-Viru, while maintaining their nationalist core rhetoric in the rest of the country.

Populism takes hold in cities

Yazar and Haarstad's research is part of the international, EU-funded research collaboration Carbon Intensive Regions in Transition (CINTRAN). The initiative involves forty researchers from research institutions in eight European countries.

– We are looking particularly closely at populist reactions to EU policies for decarbonization. Moving forwards, I will, among other things, look at the rise of right-wing populist parties in major cities. Generally, right-wing populism is associated with conservative values that have traditionally been strong in rural areas. We now see increasing support for populist movements, even in liberal cities in Europe, Yazar says.

He also wants to delve into the right-wing populist parties' use of digital platforms to organize supporters:

– AfD, for example, uses Instagram, Twitter/X, and Facebook effectively as a political arena. We see a new trend with political influencers on social media. Influencer's used to sell cosmetics. Now they also sell political messages. 

This story was first published in Norwegian at forskning.no


Mahir Yazar and Håvard Haarstad: Populist far right discursive-institutional tactics in European regional decarbonisation. Political Geography, 2023.  Doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2023.102936