How Populism Imperils the Planet

By throwing petrol on the political flames, populism makes cooperation on climate change nearly impossible.
By: Andrew Leigh | Nov 5
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Humanity is running an unprecedented experiment with the earth’s atmosphere. The last time atmospheric carbon levels were as high as they are now was in the Pliocene epoch, three to five million years ago. Back then, rhinos lived in North America. Crocodiles and alligators lived in Europe. Trees grew in the Arctic. Ocean levels were 75 feet higher. To put it into context, a 75-foot increase in sea levels puts many of the world’s major cities underwater, including London, Miami, Tokyo, Manila, New York, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Jakarta, Dhaka, and Shanghai.

In the past 500 million years, the planet has experienced five mass extinction events, each of which wiped out most of the species on the planet. Only one was caused by an asteroid, with the other four being driven by greenhouse gases. Studying the carbon cycle changes that led to these extinction events, geophysicist Daniel Rothman concludes that the threshold for a sixth extinction event is when more than 310 gigatons of carbon are added to the oceans. On a business-as-usual trajectory, human carbon emissions are currently on track to add 500 gigatons by 2100.

Extreme meteorological events are bumping up against the limits of existing weather scales. Following record-breaking heat in 2013, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology added two new colors to its temperature maps, raising the top temperature from 122°F (50°C) to 129°F (54°C). After Hurricane Harvey, the U.S. National Weather Service added two new shades of purple to its rainfall maps, raising the upper limit from 15 to 30 inches. Meteorologist Jeff Masters proposes that the existing five-category hurricane scale be expanded by including a category six hurricane — what he described as a “black swan” storm.

Not every populist is a climate denier, but virtually all climate deniers are populists.

This week in Glasgow, countries are confronting the reality that their announced measures will not come close to meeting the Paris climate targets. According to an assessment by the nongovernmental organization Climate Action Tracker, only a handful of nations have implemented climate policies that are consistent with 2°C of warming, while a few (such as the European Union) would come close. Most countries’ policies, the body says, are “insufficient,” “highly insufficient,” or “critically insufficient.”

There is a strong economic case for climate action. Once installed, wind and solar provide energy at almost zero marginal cost. Averting dangerous climate change avoids the costly impact of heatwaves that cause premature deaths and restrict outdoor work, hurricanes and wildfires that take lives and damage property, destruction of coastal property, and reduced agricultural yields.

If these benefits sound good, they should appear doubly attractive when the prospect of averting a global catastrophe is added to the picture. If future lives matter as much as ours, it is callous not to reduce carbon emissions. The case for decisive action is strengthened still further by recognizing that much of the problem has been created relatively recently. As journalist David Wallace-Wells has observed, “The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld.” Climate change is not solely a problem bequeathed to us by our ancestors. Many of those responsible for the carbon emissions that are causing the planet to warm are still alive today.

Yet focusing on catastrophic risk — in climate change and other areas — is hampered by the growth of populist politics. Not every populist is a climate denier, but virtually all climate deniers are populists. One analysis of the 21 largest right-wing populist parties in Europe found that one-third were outright climate deniers, while many others were hostile to climate action. Right-wing populists make up 15 percent of the European Parliament, but their votes account for around half of all those voting against climate and energy resolutions. A recent study in the United Kingdom identified voters who held populist beliefs about politics. These populist voters were significantly less likely to agree that global warming is caused by human action and less likely to support measures to protect the environment.

Populism is on the rise. From 1990 to 2018, the number of countries with populist leaders increased from four to 20. The best known was President Donald Trump, who once claimed that climate change is a “hoax,” and asserted that “global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” In the current Congress, 52 percent of House Republicans and 60 percent of Senate Republicans are climate deniers. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has loosened controls over land clearing in the Amazon. This has led farmers to accelerate deforestation by logging and burning. In mid-2019, satellite analysis of major fires in the Amazon showed that an area the size of Yellowstone National Park had been burned. At this pace, this additional deforestation could push the Amazon rainforest toward a tipping point.

Populists view politics as a contest between a pure mass of people and a vile elite. Right-wing populists often include scientists in their characterization of the elite. This has led to a spate of clashes between populist leaders and scientists. Dutch far-right leader Thierry Baudet rails against “climate change hysteria.” Allies of Hungary’s leader Viktor Orbán included scientists on a list of people it brands as “mercenaries” of billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

Defusing populist rage takes empathy, not disdain.

By throwing petrol on the political flames, populism makes cooperation harder. California’s 2006 cap-and-trade emissions reduction program was passed by a Democratic legislature and signed into law by Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yet today, two-fifths of Republican voters and Democratic voters think their political opponents are evil, and one-sixth regard them as animals. That’s hardly conducive to encouraging representatives to reach across the aisle.

How, then, do we overcome populism? It requires addressing the key economic grievances that have led many voters to turn in desperation to extremists. That means creating renewables jobs in communities whose employment base currently relies on fossil fuels. It involves building a more equitable education system, and updating democratic institutions to make them more democratic. Defusing populist rage takes empathy, not disdain.

Combating populism will not be easy, but it must be done. Our world depends on it.


Andrew Leigh is the author of “What’s the Worst That Could Happen? Existential Risk and Extreme Politics” and a member of the Australian Parliament.

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