SUVs and suspicion: climate change scepticism on the populist right

By Dr. Eloise Harding, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Southampton (


“It’s snowing and freezing in NYC. What the hell ever happened to global warming?”

Tweeted by @RealDonaldTrump, 21/03/2013

With this tweet, Donald Trump – now a presidential hopeful – places himself firmly in the canon of populist climate change scepticism. This embodies some of the hallmarks of Trump’s rhetoric: sustained use of conspiracy theories and greater faith placed in big business than in science. It also ties in to a wider ideological pattern of climate change scepticism (and occasional denial) on the political right. At the core of this ideological tendency lie the following concepts: deep anthropocentrism, technological optimism (also known as Prometheanism) and a suspicious interpretation of the motives and intentions of environmentalists.

Climate change scepticism is a broad field which spans from the left liberal Bjorn Lomborg to right-wing populists such as Trump and UKIP MEP Roger Helmer. The common elements named above are shared across this spectrum: the difference lies in how they are framed. In particular, deep anthropocentrism focuses on a different set of human interests when applied by the populist right, and a ‘green scare’ becomes almost a logical conceptual extension of the earlier ‘red scare’ in the US context.

Deep anthropocentrism, broadly speaking, refers to the assumption that ‘the needs and desires of humankind represent the crux of our assessment of the state of the world’ (Lomborg 2001, 11). Anthropocentrism is decontested in such a way that human interests are perceived to be directly threatened by excessive concern for the nonhuman world. These human interests range from the treatment of pandemics (threatened by competing for resources with environmental concerns) in Lomborg’s case, through discussion of the benefits of fossil fuels to the global poor, to the populist end of the spectrum in which conceptual stretching comes into play. Marc Morano of the website Climate Depot expresses outrage at a particular potential extinction, arguing that ‘we’re allowing the American SUV to die right before our eyes’ (Klein 2014, 32). This is a broader-than-usual conception of human interests, and one which is likely shaped by proximity to business interests. A cynic might also suggest that, in the case of politicians, reassuring the public that their current habits need not change is liable to win votes.

The interpretation of environmental campaigners’ motives, Naomi Klein notes, is in the US case drawn almost unchanged from Cold War rhetoric regarding tendencies perceived as left-wing. The rhetoric of individual freedom – decontested as freedom to pollute, rather than (say) freedom to breathe clean air – features strongly. There are two strands in play here: firstly the perceived infringement on liberty by legislation designed to limit pollution, and secondly the apparent fear that an authoritarian (by most readings communist) regime is lurking behind the ecological façade.

See for example the predictions of Bay Area Tea Party activist Heather Gass:

“One day (in 2035) you will wake up in subsidised government housing, eating government subsidised food, your kids will be whisked off by government buses to indoctrination training centres while you are working at your government assigned job on the bottom floor of your urban transit centre village because you have no car and who knows where your aging parents will be but by then it will be too late! WAKE UP!!!!”

(Cited Klein 2014, 38: original punctuation and capitals)

Ms Gass, Klein points out, is responding to relatively mild sustainability initiatives with minimal impact on everyday life.

Factors more familiar in the context of the market economy are also brought into play here. Presidential hopeful Donald Trump is on record as stating that ‘The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive’ (Tweeted by @RealDonaldTrump, 06/11/12). The common thread here is a suspicion of the ‘other’: be it the left or a rival economic power, the populist strand of climate change scepticism hinges on a perception of environmental discourse as a smokescreen set up to mask something less benign.

While Lomborg and his ilk make it their mission to debunk climate science (albeit on dubious grounds at times), the populists prefer to elide the issue entirely by citing shadowy paymasters in the background of the scientific establishment or merely by dismissing evidence in favour of the sort of wild claim made by Trump above. If anything, claims originating from the realm of conspiracy are harder to disprove than those drawn from the realm of science, since contradictory evidence is no more readily available than the confirmatory variety.

The likely solution to this problem hinges on recognising the debate as a political, rather than scientific, one and acting accordingly. The approach taken by climate scientist Mark Maslin sets parameters as to which aspects are up for discussion (for example the nature of human interests, and the question of whether nonhuman interests should be considered) and which are not. As we adjust to the Anthropocene era – the first geohistorical period in which humans have had more impact on the planet’s development than natural forces – it is reasonable to insist as Maslin does that the scientific aspect of climate change be placed firmly in the latter category.






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