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Anglophone political populism and the cultural rejection of climate change

I’m building a golf course, a beautiful golf course, and I will make Scotland pay for it. Andrew Milligan/PA

Donald Trump’s US election victory follows hard on the back of the UK’s Brexit vote in June. The results – an expression of collective public preference from the electorate – have shaken political and cultural establishments on both sides of the Atlantic. And they have unsettled me also.

However, I’m interested in how the results of these different “referenda” in two of the world’s oldest democracies open a different window into understanding the cultural politics of climate change.

At one level, a political analysis would conclude that both results are a setback for national climate policies and international climate change agreements. A UK withdrawing from the EU, and its embedded environmental legislation is a UK that would seem more climate-sceptical than many climate progressives would wish for. And in the US, Trump has made fairly clear his own personal beliefs about human-induced climate change. With a Republican senate and house, it is not impossible to think of the US’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

But I’m interested in a deeper cultural reading of what these two popular votes signify in the context of climate change. In their light it is perhaps ironic that it was largely US and UK science which, from the 1970s through the 1990s, really drove the scientific, public and political construction of the idea of anthropogenic global warming. Margaret Thatcher famously backed the reality of the enhanced greenhouse effect in 1990, as too did George Bush Sr in 1989.

So why now, in 2016, have clear electoral majorities in these two nations voted for political movements and parties which are predominantly sceptical of climate change? It is more than just a result of nefarious fossil-fuel corporations or well-funded libertarian think-tanks. Climate commentators and analysts need to look beyond these narrow explanations of resistance.

Climate change has become ideological

The connecting factor, I suggest, is a popular antipathy towards the shadowy ideology of globalism, the unexamined belief that the world will inevitably be a better place through transnational coordination of governance, finance and science, through the free flow of goods and people, and through a commitment to multiculturalism. This is the ideology which British and American citizens in their millions have voted against; yet in the minds of many, this is the ideology that lies behind the science, discourse and policies of climate change.

The rise of an anti-globalist populism in recent years, and its clear expression this year in these two electoral moments, should help us to read the phenomenon of climate change differently. We cannot understand it simply in terms of science and the environment or even in terms of economics and politics. How climate change is believed in or denied, how it is acted upon or resisted, can only be understood at the level of much deeper beliefs people hold about themselves and about how the world is and should be.

We can see this played out through the different types of climate agreements that have been sought-for over three decades. The idea of human-induced global climate change first emerged in public in a very particular era: in the 1980s and early 1990s when globalism and the new international world order was ascendant. It therefore was as much a cultural idea as it was a scientific discovery, as both sociologist Andrew Ross and Indian scholars Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain observed astutely, in different ways, back in 1991.

Since then we have seen the idea of climate change and how it should be dealt with continue to evolve, from the centralised targets and timetables of Kyoto in 1997; to the failure to extend this form of climate governance at Copenhagen in 2009; to the optimistic volunteerism of Paris in 2015; and now into a new era where we will see the gap between international political rhetoric and national climate policy continue to get wider and wider in the years ahead.

A populist approach to climate change?

With the rise in populism and nationalism some new and nifty policy entrepreneurialism is needed, and it will have to tackle the risks of climate change obliquely. This is the strategy a group of colleagues and I called for in the Hartwell Paper back in 2010 as a response to the financial crisis.

Made in the USA: electric cars. Steve Jurvetson, CC BY

Energy security will become a more powerful driver of policy which, if played the right way, can make some low-carbon energy sources appeal to populist political instincts; as too can the argument for cleaner and smarter cities driven by new generation transport technologies which reduce congestion and improve air quality. If Trump were serious about reinvigorating the US motor industry then this would be one way to go, and sell to the world.

A turn away from globalism also gives greater legitimacy to arguments for investing in carbon-light/climate-resilient infrastructure. Trump’s plan to renew America’s ailing public infrastructure is an opportunity to do so in a way that is both energy-efficient and resilient to weather hazards. The trick is just don’t call it climate policy. “Solving climate change” is likely to become a motivating narrative of ever diminishing political and public value in these new populist times.

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