The Berlin-based youth wing of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is furious. In the lead-up to last week’s European elections, a race where climate change was many voters’ top concern, the leadership of Germany’s upstart party had doubled down on climate denial. The party grew modestly, garnering 10.8 percent of the vote, but fared poorly compared to the Green Party’s surge to second place there with over 20 percent. In an open letter to party leadership, Young Alternative Berlin chair David Eckert urged higher ups to “refrain from the difficult to understand statement that mankind does not influence the climate,” warning that the party risks losing touch with younger voters, and that climate issues move “more people than we thought.”
They’re right to worry. Three big stories have topped headlines about the European elections: that of a fortified but not altogether triumphant far right, an eroding center, and a wave of support for the European Greens, which took a little over 9 percent of MEP seats overall. These are currently countervailing forces. While heterogeneous at the national level and with a mixed record in governing coalitions, the Greens broadly promise to reject the xenophobia of the right and bring down emissions by working together across member states. Parties aside, the Europeans concerned about the climate crisis tend to be progressives that don’t peddle in reactionary nationalism. That may not, as young AfD members hope, be the case forever.
In the United States the main litmus test for gauging where a politician stands on climate change has been a deceptively simple and entirely apolitical one: Do you believe in climate change or not? Considering the scope and scale of the changes needed, it’s a dangerously low bar. The picture abroad—where climate denial is relatively rare—is more complicated. With few exceptions, outright climate deniers of Donald Trump’s ilk don’t have much power outside the United States. The UK has harbored plenty of climate deniers in and outside of government, but even Tory governments have paid at least lip service to curbing emissions, as has most all of Europe’s badly bruised center-right.
Until now, far-right parties in Europe have tended to question climate science as just another example of cosmopolitan groupthink, if they mentioned it at all. But some have begun to embrace the fact that climate is on European voters’ minds. France’s National Rally (RN)—recently rebranded under the leadership of Marine Le Pen—unveiled a climate change policy platform in advance of the European election. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally,” twenty-three-year-old RN spokesperson Jordan Bardella told a right-wing paper in April. “[I]t is through them that we will save the planet.” Le Pen herself has argued that concern for the climate is inherently nationalist. Those who are “nomadic,” she said, “do not care about the environment; they have no homeland.”
Among Le Pen’s brain trust is essayist Hervé Juvin, who has contended in the last few months that “the main threat we face now comes from the collapse of our environment,” urging that it must become a central focus of European politics. Juvin’s analysis has an anti-neoliberal spin. During a wide-ranging speech in Moldova in 2016, he name-checked Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi—a mainstay of social democratic thought—and noted the end of both the market society and “the liberal systems as we knew them,” decrying greed and globalization. Like Le Pen, he called for a nationalistic localism and a return of the commons for “the people of European Nations,” whom he calls the “indigenous people, on our land, in our countries, with our traditions, our faith, our common goods we fought for so many times, and we are still able to fight for”—everyone else be damned.
Juvin has called for the creation of an “Alliance for Life” to “unite European Nations for survival,” to assert that “Europe is the land of Europeans” and (among other things) pursue “no-tariff trade” only with countries that have committed to reaching net-zero emissions. It’s not hard to see why Le Pen and Juvin get along. The RN and its predecessor, the Front National, have long advocated a strong welfare state—so long as it’s defined strictly along nationalist and often openly ethno-nationalist boundaries.
This exclusionary logic has also infected some center-left parties. In Denmark, climate change is at the top of voters’ minds, just above another top issue: immigration. Denmark’s Social Democrats—running against the country’s far-right People’s Party in upcoming national elections—have adopted a kind of green-tinged xenophobia, promising a “sustainable future” alongside harsher immigration restrictions. Charismatic forty-one-year old party leader Mette Frederiksen, who may well become prime minister early next month, last year embraced legislation hardening rules around the official “ghettos” housing predominantly Muslim migrants, including harsher sentencing for crimes committed within them. She has linked her stance on immigration to climate change: “Denmark and the world are facing a genuinely difficult situation. A new situation. Record numbers of refugees are on the move,” she wrote this week. “Climate change will force more people to relocate. And add to that the fact that the population of Africa is expected to double by about 2050.”
The left is talking about climate change too, and in thankfully less craven terms than the Danish Social Democrats. The continent’s other socialist and social democratic parties are now greener than they’ve ever been. Labour in the UK and Spain’s ruling Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) have each embraced versions of the Green New Deal, a framework also pushed in the European elections by Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25). In Spain the center-left moved left, and found success in recent national and European elections by melding a broad progressive vision to plans for decarbonization. France’s various left parties offered strong climate plans, but those efforts mostly failed to win over voters who seem to have voted Green if it was climate concerns that brought them to the polls. If it’s not gone entirely, the old productivist left—pushing for carbon-guzzling industrial expansion—has certainly lost some of its charm.
It’s fortunate that young people in the places where the Greens have soared—the UK, Germany, and France—aren’t generally a reactionary bunch. But support for far-right parties has risen among millennials and Gen Z’ers in countries where they’ve made an effort to reach younger generations. Austria’s far-right Freedom Party is the most popular choice among voters under thirty. Le Pen made gains among millennials this year, and support among young voters for the similarly xenophobic League party in Italy has more than tripled since 2013. Several of those parties will send millennials to serve in the European Parliament, and young leaders like Jordan Bardella and Belgium’s thirty-two-year-old Tom Van Grieken are injecting fresh blood into a resurgent hard right that’s so far been mostly ambivalent about the climate. As climate change emerges as a priority issue across the continent, more parties could follow the lead of the RN and offer their own vision for how to deal with the climate threat. In Germany, Berlin’s young AfD suggested the national outfit back a one-child policy in developing countries to “counter one of the greatest climate problems, overpopulation.”
What this week’s elections mean for the annals of the mostly symbolic European Parliament is less important than what it means for future national elections, particularly on the heels of overwhelming right-wing victories in India and Australia, where parties ran largely on their dueling climate politics. Requiring stringent regulations and considerable state investment, it’s hard to square any earnest plan for decarbonization with dogmatic neoliberal nostrums around small government and the all-knowing planning prowess of the market’s invisible hand. Many right-wing populists aren’t strict neoliberals, though. They in some cases embrace robust social safety nets and protectionist trade policies, promising to defend welfare states for white Europeans against marauding outsiders. It’s not that Europe’s far-right parties have robust or remotely adequate plans for reaching net-zero emissions along the timeline science is demanding. But those who have considered the climate crisis do at least have a program to offer: protection from the ravages of climate breakdown for white Europeans. The racist right traffics in fear—and rising temperatures offer plenty to be afraid of.
As climate impacts continue to ramp up, there’s no reason to believe an international focus on it will automatically lend itself either to progressive or even small-d democratic politics. In addition to those young people drifting right, weak showings for the left across Europe (the left GUE/NGL coalition dipped to 5 percent) should cast some doubt on the idea that the next generation are fledgling, inevitable leftists. The Greens have for now capitalized on climate worries—and the momentum built in massive protests like Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion—though they’ve traditionally found their base among eco-conscious middle-class voters and been quieter on more traditional economic issues (they are sometimes derided as neoliberals with wind farms by some on the left for their role in governing coalitions). A Green vote is a vote for climate action, and a vote against the right, but those votes could travel elsewhere if that doesn’t materialize. As DiEM25 policy director David Adler wrote this week for The Nation, “there is a battle in Europe over who will claim climate as their own political province, and the Greens are winning.” But failure to deliver on the transformative promise of a Green New Deal “could alienate large swaths of the electorate from the broader climate movement—just as the failure to oppose austerity spelled doom for Europe’s social democrats.”
That Greens have apparently muted the far right’s surge is cause for hope, but the fact that the far right maintains healthy representation threatens to cement them as a settled feature of Europe’s political landscape. However much they embrace climate rhetoric, no country run by the far right is going to decarbonize as fast as the moment demands, if at all—and may well sabotage the kind of cooperation needed to take on the problem at scale. What’s just as troubling is that the roughly one degree Celsius of warming we’re already on track to experience could play out in a world in which they carry influence, either directly or indirectly, as nervous centrists adopt xenophobic, exclusionary policies to avoid losing electoral ground.
The horror of climate change isn’t in the intrinsic violence of hurricanes or heat waves, but in the ways societies choose to deal with and prepare for them. Calls for a Green New Deal promise not just to bring down emissions as quickly as possible, but to rewrite the social contract that will govern how we respond to climate change. Will we ensure those displaced by rising seas enjoy a dignified quality of life, or turn them away at our borders? Will we enforce cruelly rigid definitions of who belongs and who doesn’t as climate change prompts what will likely be the largest mass migration in human history, or build a society strong enough to welcome newcomers with open arms and generous public services?
The climate crisis is the foundation on which the politics of the twenty-first century will be built. Claiming to believe in the science behind it—still an applause line for many U.S. Democrats—doesn’t carry any more rhetorical weight than claiming, proudly and defiantly, to believe in gravity. The xenophobic right is beginning to catch on to what an opportunity this crisis represents for them, and the potent political capital of promising to prevent the end of the world.
Kate Aronoff is a fellow at the Type Media Center and a member of Dissent’s editorial board.