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.






Demystifying the Climate Crisis: A Review of Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”

By Meg Sherman, a student of Modern History and Politics at University of Southampton.

The global movement to divest from fossil fuels is a clear-thinking, progressive choice for action on climate change. This Changes Everything: Capitalism VS The Climate, a newly published volume by Naomi Klein, provides an invaluable history of environmental and economic injustices and should be required reading for anyone interested in the divestment movement.

The truth on climate change is hard to identify in a world where business is powerfully invested in misinformation. But under the smog of denialism the effects of human-made global warming (via carbon emissions) are already being wrought in real, violent ways upon the planet: ways of life are being extinguished; low-lying pacific islands look set to be swallowed by the sea; global temperatures melt previous records with alarming alacrity, and extreme weather events displacing large populations are fast becoming the norm. Our generation lives throughout the endgame of industrial civilization, a time when humanity urgently needs new, compelling narratives about potential transformations in society, economics and politics. Incisive, compelling and relevant as its predecessors, Capitalism VS The Climate appears as a stray flicker of hope, imploring a thoughtful resistance to predatory capitalism and envisioning a real place for a climate movement with redistributive justice at its’ core.

Following in the path of No Logo and Shock Doctrine, Klein’s latest volume deepens her earlier work exposing the disastrous underbelly of neoliberal globalization. The crux of her argument is that the environmental crisis is itself a consequence of the systematic desolation of the global commons, increasingly privatized and deregulated by centralized trading regimes, dominated by the richer industrialized nations, questing for more control of planetary resources. Shock Doctrine railed against the callousness of structural adjustment regimes which deprived nascent economies in the global south of their health, wealth and stability in order to serve the narrow interests and myopic greed of corporations and profiteers, that is to say, the agenda of the 1%. And in Capitalism VS The Climate Klein, using the aftermath of hurricane Katrina by way of example as to how reconstruction efforts can be hijacked and stymied, argues that global warming itself will be hoisted to the engine of the shock doctrine insofar as business competes to advantage from mounting crises without advancing help, solutions, assistance or attempts to mitigate and alleviate the accruing damage. Instead they use crises cynically as a platform for further deregulation and privatization, undermining public unity and collective solidarity. This is disaster capitalism laid bare: a lethal obstacle to public health and environmental sustainability. Major economies founded on the extraction of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases are the major crisis culprits, stoking inequalities. Key stakeholder groups with historically the least restricted access to resources deriving from this foundation are called upon to amend their high-consumption lifestyles, to rediscover the real need for economic justice, or condemn global citizens to further disaster.

Klein looks to initiatives already underway which speak to hopes of achieving lasting social and environmental security by approximating more conscientious and democratic ways of life. Capitalism VS The Climate integrates the lessons and voices of Cheyenne social movements who live on lands intersected by the Keystone XL pipeline, and who have given life to the concept of stewardship by taking bold leaps forward in the resistance against big oil with public education initiatives empowering citizens to establish clean forms of power production in their own communities, harnessing abundant sources like solar and wind energy. Corporate rhetoric has a canny habit of reframing disastrous policies which attack the lives of vulnerable people as a triumph for democracy as much as it has a way of casting radical change as beyond the spectrum of possibility. But in Klein’s view the alternative is not only clear, but well within the means and creativity of people everywhere:

“with the right kind of public pressure, money can be marshaled not just to rebuild cities and communities, but to transform them into models of nonextractive living… activists can demand everything from free, democratically controlled public transit, to more public housing along those transit lines, powered by community-controlled renewable energy – with the jobs created by this investment going to local workers and paying a living wage.”

When it comes to climate change prominent politicians and business leaders argue that we can overcome it by investing more faith in technological and market-based solutions, perpetuating the idea that we don’t need wholesale social and economic reform to underwrite the transition to a low-carbon future. Klein on the other paw argues that a deregulated system which creates the widespread market failure of climate change has obviously outlived its utility, and she argues for more support for research directed at renewable energies, as a pre-requisite for solving issues of public health and the environment. She is astute when she argues that if you take the warnings of modern climate science to their logical conclusion then we ought to have democratically control over public utilities so that they are governed less recklessly. A well-known truism states that madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Einstein put it this way: We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” How, then, can we rely on plutocratic capitalism to solve a problem it created and support the long term needs of life on Earth?

Global forecasts predict another unassailable reality aside climate change, that fledgling economies like Brazil, Russia, India and China, tailed by developing LEDCS, will together surpass the activity of the traditional MEDCs and G7 by the middle of this century. The total energy demanded to support those transitions is huge. And two imperatives are to meet that demand and to do it whilst reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions. Concurrently. An immense challenge. It is clear that climate change is an urgent global issue and getting good policy and functional alternatives on the go is crucial as only this will form the basis for societies and industries to reverse the very damaging practices inherent in current methods of production, to respect the balance of nature, and ensure we put a stop to pollution everywhere to protect the shared lands which sustain life on the planet. And the narrative in Capitalism VS The Climate is driven by a heartfelt wish to open people’s eyes to the collective power we have to create new visions and strategies, real options and choices for progressive, radical change in a future which runs fugitive from the totalizing, destructive ambitions of corporate capitalism.

It’s Time to Divest, Before There’s Nothing Left to Burn

By Meg Sherman, a student of Modern History and Politics at University of Southampton.

Climate change has been hitting the political headlines with increasing frequency, and for anyone who accepts the foundational science it is usually an invitation to despair. Proposing yet more standards that shouldn’t be assented to, UKIP have predictably attacked EU targets to close most coal plants by 2020, and as public appetite for an eco-socialist agenda swells in surging support for the Greens and a dissident left, more insincere rhetoric about the environment from incumbents will inevitably be wheeled out as the general election’s motorcade rolls in to 2015.

But what is at stake?

Following the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, governments – some of the most conservative too – agreed in 2010 that a core temperature rise above two degrees is too much. Britain has signed this in to law already and states have provisionally agreed to return to Paris next year to oblige further measures to stop us going beyond that tipping point. Beyond it we will definitely be left dealing with catastrophic and extinction-level events, the human and economic cost and damage of which we can only estimate.

The onus of preventing this outcome is mostly on the fossil fuel market whose supply-side policies are one of the major culprits for current global warming levels. However, longstanding and continued investment in energies like oil, gas and coal remain virtually unquestioned by governments, who nevertheless have the power of regulation. At precisely the time we most need a sense of awareness and connect between policy-makers and the capital-markets cashing in on dirty energy, there is scant political will to call out the investment gamble. Perhaps it’s politically expedient for the current executive that people aren’t aware that their pensions are being used by the top 200 companies to gamble on yet more fossil fuel reserves and inflate the carbon bubble, that is, betting on the likelihood politicians will do nothing.

It will be impossible to meet the aim of keeping temperature rises below 2 degrees without escalating the movement to divest from fossil fuels. To the ends of raising awareness of the Higher Education sector’s complicity in a dangerous and corrupt market, student group Fossil Free published an open letter to Southampton University calling for a conscientious and responsible strategy of divestment like that hard-won in Glasgow.

We are sitting on the technology, capacity and expertise that can harness renewable sources of energy and organize society better by redistributing net wealth, but the insolence of a corrupt political class afraid to stand up to the market, it’s rapacious mode of consumption and disregard for planetary life may in the end destroy everything we’ve ever loved.

Open letter:

The role of the EU as an international climate actor – conference on November 21st

The failure of world leaders to reach agreement at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP15) in 2009 has further strengthened the need for a strong international climate change regime. This upcoming C2G2 conference explores the role of the EU as a leader in global climate politics, with presentations from leading academics, key policy makers and representatives from civil society organisations. It will be particularly valuable for postgraduate and early-career researchers.