The rise of populism in the West presents serious dangers for our ability to tackle racism and deal with climate change. Populations across the Atlantic must work together to reclaim the fight against both.
In his first year of presidency, Donald Trump has kept the world in suspense with populist rhetoric as well as unilateral domestic and foreign policy decisions. Two recurrent themes have been central to his discourse: the hoax of climate change and the threat of Muslims and immigrants.
Only several weeks after being elected, President Trump changed the US’ climate change policies. Not only had he instructed environmental agencies to delete all content related to climate change from their website. He also ordered NASA to stop their research on the topic. He appointed as his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil (one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies). Executive orders to authorise the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines and the announcement of a US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement soon followed.
At the same time, the President has increased rhetoric and policy against Muslims and immigrants. His bans on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, the denial of substantive freedoms to green-card holders with the ‘wrong’ nationality, and his plan to build a wall along the US-Mexican border are all these measures that create a divide between the favoured American self and an ‘other’, which supposedly poses a threat to common security.
The convergence of climate change denial, racism, and Islamophobia might be most obvious in Trumps’ government, but it is not just an American phenomenon. Nigel Farage, former leader of the right-wing UK Independence Party and a prominent proponent of stricter immigration laws, raged in a speech at the European Parliament in 2013 “we may have made one of the biggest, stupidest collective mistakes of history by getting so worried about global warming”. In accordance with Trump, UKIP aims to withdraw from the 2008 Climate Change Act and Paris agreement as announced in their 2017 manifesto. They further proclaim human-made climate change as “ridiculous”. They have also declared immigration is a “threat to ‘our way of life’”.
In fact, epitomising this logic, Canadian author Mark Steyn writes in his book America Alone about “the real threat” of a violent takeover of Muslims, imposing Sharia on Europe as opposed to the “hypothetical” threat of rising sea levels. As Andreas Malm from Lund University ironically puts it in a speech at the University of London, “global warming is a hoax, it is the Muslim invasion that is drowning us”.
This trend in current populist Western political discourse suppresses minorities within and outside a perceived society. Through the conjuring of a feeling of crisis, which can increase demand for populist ‘strong’ leaders, it becomes easier for private interests to dominate the political agenda. The current populist elite can then push through the vested interests of their economic allies; the fossil industry in the US providing the obvious example.
This is equally significant in a UK context where UKIP has seen increasing popularity (although this did decline at the 2017 general election). UKIP’s energy policy does not exclude renewable energy “when they can be delivered at competitive prices”. However, it dismisses the Climate Change Act on the ground of alleged £18bn yearly costs and clearly focuses on coal, fracking and nuclear power. The cost efficiency of the latter, however, throws up several questions. The 35-year commitment by the British government to buy electricity from EDF at a fixed price doubles the current wholesale price. This hardly represents the interests of UK taxpayers. Falling wholesale prices led to the ballooning of total costs to consumers from £6bn in 2013 to £30bn today. With its reference to the unaffordability of renewables or of international agreements on curbing down carbon-hydrate emissions, the UKIP therefore treads, indeed, on thin ice.
It becomes clear that the rhetoric of an immigration crisis, if intended or not, can help powerful and vested interests in energy politics. In the meantime the interests of those that suffer the most from global warming – the poor or indigenous people in both advanced and developing economies – are ignored. Economic and political elites, who focus on the media-effectiveness of policies over the objectively crucial issues, not only override the economic interests but also the political rights of the broader part of society.
It is time for Western democracies to wake up, publicly condemn efforts to disguise the pursuit of private profit and to bring public interest back on the agenda of global and national policy. This is not only necessary to avert the most dramatic changes of the worlds’ ecosystems, it is also crucial in order to restore the credibility of liberal democracies in general. Otherwise they will loose their core function, namely to represent the interests of their sovereign: the people.
Felicitas Fischer is on Agora’s Board of Trustees.