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Does Right-Wing Populism Impede Climate Policy?

Daniel Fiorino, director of the SPA Center for Environmental Policy, explores how the rise of populism within the Republican party has affected U.S climate policy.

With the twin fears of climate catastrophe and political unrest occupying the globe, scholars are digging into the causal relationships between the two. In response to a workshop organized by the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, entitled “Operating at the Frontiers of Democracy: Meeting Climate Change in Times of Populism,” SPA Professor and Center for Environmental Policy Director Daniel Fiorino published an article reviewing how the rise of populism in U.S. politics has impeded climate policy and long-term climate mitigation.

In “Climate Change and Right-Wing Populism in the United States,” which appeared In a January 2022 special edition of Environmental Politics, Fiorino defined ‘populism’ through its three major characteristics: an emphasis on the will of the people, an identification of the educated, elitist class as a threat to the will of the people, and the idea of an external, foreign foe.

In the U.S., this attitude appears most commonly on the right, in the Republican party, and gained notable traction under the presidency of Donald Trump. Many of his supporters, Fiorino continued, are classic populists, suspicious of neutral scientific sources and are more subject to the influence of trusted political leaders.

“I think anti-elitism and extreme nationalism are two very powerful factors,” said Fiorino. “We saw this when Trump obviously made it difficult to see real problem solving on things like climate change.”

Though the Republican party has never prioritized major climate policy, the reasons and emphasis have changed over the past three decades. Powerful fossil fuel interests once dictated this Republican response (Republican voters are more likely to live in state economies dependent on oil interests, such as Wyoming, West Virginia, Louisiana, and Alaska), but financial pressures are now enhanced by the demands of an anti-elite, anti-science electorate.

“There is no way you deal with the causes of climate change without cutting back on fossil fuels, and eventually trying to get them out of the global economy,” Fiorino explained. “The Republican Party used to stand for small government and low tax rates, and all those things that we consider muscular foreign policy, but it has really changed now and become more populist.”

This populist suspicion, he said, grows largely from a combination of identity concerns and real or perceived economic loss. In addition, populists fear that other countries will benefit at the expense of U.S. mitigation efforts and technological advancements. In response, former President Trump, eager to undo Obama-era climate policy, withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords, stripped down the Clean Power Act, and relaxed regulations on methane gas.

“The way I look at it, [Trump) did everything he could to accelerate the rate of climate change,” said Fiorino.

Though President Biden entered office with a rigorous climate policy agenda to counteract Trump-era setbacks, he has struggled to pass climate legislation in a split Congress. “I think there is a lot of disappointment,” he said. “Biden has accomplished some things, but, clearly, without a clear majority supporting climate action in Congress, there is the limit on what he can do.”

Though some states with more progressive constituencies have managed to pass effective climate change policies, there has been little substantial progress on a national level. With the United States alternating between Democratic and Republican presidents, each leader has undone the work of his predecessor, leaving the country at a stalemate.

“At the national level, we go back and forth, which is bad news for the world,” Fiorino explained. “If you don't have the world's largest economy, and the second leading source of emissions, moving in a consistent direction, it's going to be hard to make progress.”

Even so, Fiorino believes that innovative research on issues such as populism can help pave the path towards sustainable change.

“I'm glad that there are other people that are doing more comparative research on right-wing populism,” he said. “Where does it come from? What are the implications? It's not just climate policy that is at stake here. I think some basic Democratic values are really at stake.”