What makes climate change a populist issue?

Migration, identity and the distribution of wealth and power were some of the key mobilising themes for movements classed as populist over the 2010s. This paper examines the potential of climate change to be drawn into populist politics, as a factor that aggravates existing concerns and one that raises new questions.

The paper suggests that populism finds resonance in the critique of political necessity, and prospers in situations of emergency where policy is rationalised in these terms. As climate change comes to be framed as an emergency to which governments must respond by imposing policies, it becomes a natural target for populist critique. The paper’s aim is to shed light on the politics of climate change, as well as to revisit what populism is and how much utility the concept retains.

Key points for decision-makers

  • The author approaches climate change as a distinct topic in political discourse to examine why it might appeal to populist movements and parties.
  • While climate change tends to be publicly discussed as a technical issue that depends on expert knowledge, it presents a target for those wanting to assert the importance of common sense and traditionalist outlooks over lifestyles perceived as unconventional and elite.
  • Climate change is increasingly framed as an emergency that demands urgent action. Emergencies tend to be characterised by the denial of agency, i.e. of the capacity to choose freely between options, instead being built on the ‘politics of necessity’.
  • The sceptical case against climate-change action is developed by populist actors as a critique of the disavowal of agency – of the willingness of mainstream political actors to embrace discourses of functional necessity, the absence of political choice, and what to sceptics appears as a form of ‘alarmism’.
  • The disavowal of agency in the face of emergencies, and the countervailing desire for agency that so-called populists capitalise on, both seem unlikely to disappear any time soon. However, there is potential to recast the populist critique in less reactionary forms, which is one reason why identifying and analysing it is crucial.
  • If progressive political actors focused more on the key questions of principle related to climate change and the potential for positive societal transformation that decarbonisation presents, they could reduce the appeal of populists who appropriate the issue, and also make progress on climate mitigation itself.