Categorized | Environmental Security, World

Green Politics in the Age of Populism

Image by Lorie Shaull

Who will provide strong and stable leadership on the environment?

Following May’s shock election announcement there has only been one issue on the agenda for both the media and political parties themselves: Brexit. One worrying effect of our preoccupation with constitutional issues is that green politics have been ignored. Despite Green Party gains in the local council elections and talk of a progressive alliance, it is looking increasingly likely that both the party and the issues are going to be sidelined in favour of chest-beating and populism.

Environmental issues have not always been the sole preserve of the Green Party. Things were very different in the Blair and early Cameron years. Almost immediately upon assuming office, the New Labour government issued a statement of intent promising, ‘a more dynamic economy and a cleaner environment, to the benefit of everyone.’ Notably, in 2006 Shadow Chancellor George Osborne made an almost identical pledge.

Although New Labour’s environmental policy can be criticised, it is undeniable that there was an outward appearance of caring about the environment and a mainstreaming of environmental issues. This can be seen in the substance of their manifesto. New Labour’s 1997 manifesto had 44 mentions of ‘environment’, compared to their 2015 manifesto which contained only 5. Similarly, Cameron’s efforts to appear pro-environment helped cleanse the party of much of the “nasty party” image that has haunted the party since the Thatcher era. Cameron himself became the face of this with his “commitment” to cycling, his ‘hug a husky’ trip, and his commitment to lead ‘the greenest government ever.’ This rhetoric, like Labour’s, quickly faded away when they were in government.

Fast-forward to the current day Conservative movement and it is difficult to find a trace of environmental rhetoric. The current government is silent on the environment in the hope that the electorate will not notice. This is a tactical counterpoint to the Trump administration, which has met the environmental movement head-on by talking down the Paris Accord and denigrating scientific advice on climate change.

The current political climate has sidelined environmental issues in favour of populist rhetoric and a more personalised political debate. Major policy issues have been quietly ignored during the current UK election. Attempts by DEFRA to delay their report on air pollution, estimated to cause 40,000 premature deaths a year, were blocked by the high court. The government avoided embarrassment by releasing the report on the same day as the local election results where it received little coverage or scrutiny. The plans were widely criticised for not going far enough.

The Green Party clearly feel underrepresented in the media compared to similar size parties such as UKIP. Despite the fact they have representation at all levels and have recently overtaken UKIP in national polling, they are the only main party not to participate in the BBC election specials. These debates will see the represented political parties pitching to their base. The Conservatives will talk about delivering Brexit, Labour will talk about economic issues and industry, the SNP will talk about a deal for Scotland, Plaid for Wales, UKIP will further divide on immigration, and the Lib Dem’s will presumably talk about something too. Green politics aren’t on the table.

This was confirmed in a recent ITV televised debate. Only one line was spoken about the environment and it was the Green Party leader Caroline Lucas pointing out that the environment hadn’t been mentioned. The debates were neither attended by either main party nor watched by many voters. It seems highly unlikely that any party will stand up for the environment.

So, who is going to talk about green issues?

Green issues are being marginalised for a variety of reasons. Complex, scientific problems require complex, scientific solutions on a global scale. This approach is inharmonious with the anti-globalisation trend in many countries. Green policies are often overshadowed by big-button issues that preoccupy the public and polarise the political elite. This impedes green policymaking, which requires cross-party and multi-level cooperation over the long-term.

The political agenda in the UK has become polarised either as a cause or consequence of Brexit. There is a misconception of an unbridgeable gap between young and old, wealthy and poor, educated and uneducated. This has shifted the political agenda in a direction that suits the Conservative Party and their message of stability, while other parties struggle to impose their own narrative. Opposition parties have been widely portrayed as unpatriotic and damaging to the government’s Brexit strategy.

This is a worrying global trend. Trump has wasted no time in presenting his new anti-climate change reality and has already undone a lot of progress made under the Obama administration. He is pro-coal and anti-science, justifying these positions under the guise of America First.

The French presidential elections saw a similar trend to the UK, with the campaign fought mainly on national sovereignty. Environmental concerns have featured, but have been unable to gain much traction in the coverage of the election. Melenchon perhaps made the most effort to bring environmental issues to the fore, being the only candidate to devote time to it during the televised debates. However, no matter what the candidates themselves said, this is not the narrative the media have presented and so such issues are being swept to the sidelines.

The 2016 Austrian elections saw similar trends. In spite of Van Der Bellen being a member of the Greens (though he ran as an independent), the election was still framed in terms of culture, identity, and immigration. Although the Presidential position is largely symbolic to Austrian politics, this could have been an opportunity for a high-profile candidate to reassert the importance of the environment and climate change. Instead, it was largely seen as a fight between fascism and anti-fascism.

The future of Green politics in the world remains uncertain. Both environmental problems and constitutional issues are not going away anytime soon. The scientific and global nature of environmental policymaking is always marginalised under narrowly focused populist leaders and at times of crisis. This is further compounded by a media that has the tendency to portray a global anti-global trend. This short-term thinking could well lead to an environmental crisis which will overshadow transitory political concerns.

By Claire Elliott and Daniel Shaw

Image courtesy of Lorie Shaull

About Claire Elliott

Claire is a graduate of politics at the University of Glasgow. She is interested in writing about elections and polling with a concentration on multi-level federal systems. Claire will study for her masters in Political Science, specialising in political attitudes, at Central European University this fall.

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