Aron Buzogány: «Greta Thunberg and other climate activists are making points that indisputably bring them closer to the left than the right»

In this interview, Austrian political scientist reflects on the concept of climate populism and its main representatives and strategies.
Aron Buzogany. Foto: Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI).

Aron Buzogány is a political scientist at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) in Vienna, Austria. He is prolific in publishing papers comparing policy-making in the European Union, with a particular focus on Eastern Europe and on environmental and energy policy. Among them are those that warn of the risks that national and EU climate and energy policies are driven by short-termism and cost-effectiveness, preventing the long-term goals of energy transition and combating climate change from being achieved.

In this interview conducted as part of a project on right-wing climate populism by The Center for the Advancement of Infrastructural Imagination (CAII), the specialist reflects on how the adoption of these policies at the national level guides electoral behavior or, in some cases, how it has served to develop a right-wing ideological alternative to liberalism.

How do you define climate populism? Is it a new phenomenon?

Both environment/climate and populism are mega topics. When it comes to understanding their intersection, the obvious question would be: what are populists doing in regard to the environment? That would be a first, narrow definition. We have populist parties and then we have whatever they do and claim about the environment. The difficulty here is in defining what counts as populist, which leads some people to label populism a thin ideology.

But we also could ask whether groups who are typically not seen as populists – like the climate movement – are actually using populist rhetorics and strategies. Those are the two approaches. We can look at populist parties; or, we can look at groups that are not considered populists, and study how they use populist approaches, technologies, language, discourse.

At the same time, the environment can also be seen as a classic populist topic itself. Going back to the 19th century, many populists have made use of environmental topics as they were mainly interested in land, land ownership. The historical genealogy of environmental populism shows that resources have played a role for all kinds of populist political projects.

I found it very interesting that you’re looking at both the left and the right in these terms. It seems most people are just focusing on the right.

Exactly. There is all this talk about right-wing populists being anti-environment, and then we don’t speak about the left wing. The interesting thing is, if you look at this historically, these left–right differences don’t make much sense. The 19th-century US populist movement, or the Eastern European agrarian populists of the same period, were essentially leftist. They had an issue with the ownership of land and how difficult it was to live on the land if you were not accidentally part of the landed nobility. 

Right-wing populism’s issues with environmentalism became prominent with the ascendance of Donald Trump. Over the last ten years, it was mostly the Anglo-American style climate denialism that was getting the attention. Of course, this was also the period in which the climate discourse became incredibly strong more broadly. But if you look at European populist parties, it’s not that clear that they see the climate issue the same way as US populists. Many of the right-wing populist parties there have their own tradition of environmentalism, which makes it very complicated.

When we speak about right-wing environmentalism, a common reference point is the Nazis, who propagated some kind of green ideas. Some of these ideas have actually been taken up again by the radical right. But it is also important to differentiate between populists in general on the one hand, and radical, extremist, right-wing populist groups on the other. The radical right isn’t the only populist force, even though they dominate the discussion. There are conservative parties, which are not necessarily radical extremists, but nevertheless do share some of the populist discourses. Then, if we walk more to the left, we also have some parties – mostly in Southern Europe, but also in Northern and Central Europe – with a leftist approach to environmental issues, if not to climate issues.

Meaning that there’s a difference between the environment and the climate for populist groups?

We would do well to differentiate between environment and climate when talking about radical right populism. There is a difference between the two framings. Many right-wing parties endorse some kind of environmental policies. They are very protective of their heartlands, of the places they come from. Sovereignty is another important difference. The radical right’s idea is that you can protect the environment in your country, or even on the local and regional level – even if this makes no real sense, since environmental problems don’t stop at rivers and borders.

Right-wing populists often use discourses that penetrate their thinking from other directions: this is how we get discourses about the environment that also focus on immigration. Populists will talk about protecting against the migration of alien species – and alien species can be human migrants, but they can also be bugs and insects from other continents. That fits well with other discourses related to protecting their way of living, protecting their welfare states, protecting their traditions.

But climate change is a different issue which is of course more difficult to tackle nationally. Climate gets framed in terms of internationalism, as it is obviously cross-border, a global issue from the very first moment. Climate activism is presented as much more dangerous than environmental policies, and far-right populists are very hesitant to go with it.

In one of your papers, you and your co-authors discuss “populist market liberals.” Most would assume that the neoliberal right is happy to protect the climate – or even just the environment – through the market, because it reinforces their project of marketizing everything. Is that what you’re seeing? How do you position them in relation to the far right?

I tried to make it very dichotomous for you just now, but there is of course more to it. We can draw this line from left to right, and populist market liberals would still sit on the right side of the spectrum, but more towards the middle. Far from being neo-Nazis, they are market liberals who share some ideas with the right. They do see the free market as a solution to everything. Populist market liberals are very critical of all the environmental issues, simply because they are pro-free market. I would even count Trump in this group. And, of course, many of these people have close ties to business. This also explains their skepticism towards environmentalism: it simply poses a problem for their businesses.

Going back to this climate/environment distinction, can you tell us how it manifests in the agenda of European far-right populist parties? Are there any who accept the science, and are for proactive climate protection without being internationalist? Or do they not go beyond adaptationism and closing the borders?

I should say that there is, of course, a recognition by many of these European right-wing populists that climate is an important topic. They know something needs to be done about it, but they differ as to why and what that is. But I wouldn’t say that they’re generally anti-science; a big part of them do recognize that this is obviously an issue that needs to be dealt with. Another aspect is the strategic one: they see that this topic wins elections. They saw that the Green parties were winning on this ticket. And they have started realizing that showing your inclination to protect the environment is a good idea.

There is also an East–West difference here. Contrary to how they are described, most of the Eastern European populist parties, like PiS and Fidesz, are far from being crazy, anti-science groups. They agree with the idea that something needs to be done about climate change, but they raise problems about the costs and the speed of changes. They insist they also have other problems to solve. Their positions are shaped by this bargaining between different topics, and by electoral considerations. You do not win elections in Eastern Europe by referring to climate change. These sorts of discourses are especially characteristic of Poland.

In Hungary, though, I see a different sort of strategy emerging. There are new think tanks that are very close to Fidesz, and are launching their own climate discourse. It’s not necessarily denialist, but it is shaped by their broader skepticism towards EU approaches. If the EU has some role to play, they say, it’s by paying for the poorer Eastern Europeans to do something about climate.

But to underline it, these parties are not using the kind of far-out discourse that is more typical in the Anglo-American context. Belief in technocracy and science are perhaps the more positive parts of these Eastern European countries’ historical heritage.

From your paper on one of those Hungarian think tanks, I learned that one of the bankers close to Orbán is citing Wallerstein and world-systems theory! But how far does this sort of critique stretch? Is Hungary’s position strictly anti-European Commission? Or do they also go after the IPCC, discarding their models as reflecting liberal values?

These developments are relatively new. There doesn’t seem to be a well-elaborated critique of the global governance structure. They take aim more at nitty-gritty issues, and then also poke at the big coalition of liberals who, they say, have no idea how the world really works.

It’s also about energy policy. Hungary has a strong pro-nuclear lobby, as well. They are basically subscribing to postwar technocratic solutions, which say nuclear energy will save the Earth. The Greens are seen as a lost generation, as youngsters who have no idea how things really work. It’s a common thing to ridicule, at least in Eastern Europe: the Greta Thunbergs of the world have no experience of hardship and no sense of what these countries have gone through.

On the Wallerstein note, there is lots of talk about being on the semi-periphery, and discussions about how to get away from the periphery. They’re not only reading Wallerstein but also Mazzucato. They’re up to date with the critical economics literature. This even goes back to Orbán, who wrote his master’s thesis about Gramsci. One could claim that they’re using these theories to construct their own cultural hegemony.

In that same paper, which is about the different intellectual traditions of the international right, you discuss the relationship between two important conservative thinkers, Alain de Benoist and Thomas Molnar, the latter of whom was a key influence for Fidesz. Can you tell us more about the intellectual foundations for conservative environmentalism?

De Benoist and Molnar are both very chameleonic; they’re hard to fit into specific categories. But even though Molnar and de Benoist had kept an intellectual exchange of sorts, they represent different lineages of conservatism. I am not aware of Molnar’s environmentalism, but I am currently interested in the environmental thought of de Benoist, because he has started to get into the degrowth and post-growth conversations, trying to redefine them from a conservative angle. This has of course caused some irritations on the left.

De Benoist, whose ideas date back to the ’30s, also talks about differentiation through ethnopluralism. The idea is that because the world is so complicated and diverse, everybody has to have their own place – and that all will be fine so long as they stay there. He believes that if everybody remains in their own biotope, then we can all love each other. It’s the mingling that makes it problematic, according to him.

There is another group of more national conservatives, like Roger Scruton, who are also writing about the environment. This is a crazy mix of ideas by people interested in hunting and the like, so they present it as a regionalistic issue. For them it’s more along the lines of protecting their bucolic lifestyle, shooting the foxes – and maybe also migrants, should they come along.

How does this map out on ecofascism? It certainly sounds compatible with that ideology.

The new ecofascists are building on these perspectives, although much more on de Benoist than on Scruton. There is a new German publication, Die Kehre, which is something like an ecofascist intellectual magazine, even if they don’t like that name. It expresses the attitude that the far right needs to be intellectually progressive with regard to the environment and climate. The magazine is mostly written by young intellectuals directly connected to Sezession, the main outlet for German right-wing intellectualism.

Interestingly, they published a recent thematic issue about ecofascism itself. They make this kind of funny point, which is not entirely wrong, by asking, what is ecofascism? They asked whether they were themselves ecofascists, or if everyone else could also be called ecofascist. Because from the right-wing extremist perspective, the Greens are the ecofascists – because they are so fascist about eco issues and don’t care about anything else. That’s how they deconstructed the discussion about ecofascism. And then they claim to have broken away from the Nazi part of ecofascism, but there clearly still is some political interest or admiration there.

But the dominant version of illiberalism in Eastern Europe is a reaction not to Green movements, but to neoliberalism. Can you tell us about how these particular conservative ideas came to rule Hungary, a lineage of intellectual production you have connected to Pinochet-era Chile?

Chile was where neoliberals were gathering; it was a laboratory for neoliberalism, specifically. There’s lots of literature in economics and sociology that traces how those ideas spread from Chicago to Chile, and then from Chile to everywhere else – including Eastern Europe in the 1990s. With Mihai Varga, my co-author, I was asking, where is the Chile of illiberalism?

There’s a long heritage from the European conservative movement that had been taken up in Eastern Europe prior to 1989. Some intellectuals were already thinking that there must be something other than communism, but also something other than liberalism. And they were looking for this other possibility in national liberal ideas, as well as in global conservative discourses.

Then, in the 1990s and 2000s, some of these people ended up in important positions. First there were neocons in the US, and then, some years later, this group of conservatives in Eastern Europe united around opposing neoliberalism – and potentially liberalism as well. After many years in the back seat, not enjoying their lives, listening to all the neoliberal talk in the ’90s, they finally came to power. This is the story of how illiberalism was constructed in these countries as an opposition to neoliberalism.

It also relates to why they’re reading Wallerstein. These people are looking for intellectual support; they need to know how to locate themselves, in order to criticize the liberal world order. Some of the knowledge gathered on the left has been coming in handy for this. That’s where Wallerstein and Gramsci fit, alongside classic conservatives like Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin.

The particular think tank we were studying, the Századvég Foundation, which was active throughout this earlier period, has now become one of the central sites of knowledge production for the Hungarian government. In the ’90s, it was more of an independent – or even a liberal – think tank. Now, many of its people have entered into government, and there they seem to have a lot of influence over financial and welfare policies.

If the national governing philosophy in these countries is illiberal, or anti-neoliberal, how do their climate movements position themselves? Do they turn to the EU instead?

The countries we study tend to not have such a strong climate movement. But the climate movement as such is itself highly critical of what the European Union does – although, of course, they make the opposite criticism than the EU-skeptical governments of Poland and Hungary. The broader climate movement wants the EU to take more action, not less.

Of course, Europeanization was really important for Eastern European countries, because it meant they had to bring their policies into line with EU standards. That was during the 2000s, when they had to follow the EU’s rules in order to become members of the club. But now that they are members, they don’t like the costs that are emerging from climate policies, and are reluctant to push those issues further. Look at Poland, look at Hungary: they are standing in the way of a common EU environmental energy policy.

In a new book chapter, you are studying several of the social movements that have emerged around climate. Do you look at them through the lens of populism, too, or would you say that’s taking it too far?

There are two questions to consider, one normative and the other more analytical. The normative question is whether the climate movement should be more populist in order to be more successful. That would be the Laclauian idea: to follow in the vein of the South American populists and really use populist tools to make their message stronger. It’s a matter of ongoing debate. 

It’s been discussed in the context of social democratic parties as well, who have realized that the climate issue presents them with something to win, but also something to lose. At least in Western Europe, the Greens are beating them on these issues. So, this is the normative part: should they take this populist turn?

Then, the analytical question is whether the climate movement really is mobilizing populist methodologies and discourses. There is one strong argument against this, which is that these new climate movements are using science-based talk. If we define populism as the people’s talk, then they are clearly not going with populism. Instead, they talk about science and say that science needs to be trusted. If they were populist, they would say that people should be trusted. In this regard, I wouldn’t call most of them populist. Just look at groups like the Last Generation and Just Stop Oil, who are doing things that most of the population is completely against.

But if you look at some of the discourse coming from Fridays for Future, for example, they talk about the failure of the global elites. When Greta Thunberg goes to address the United Nations, she’s saying that the elites have failed. Aren’t there some populist elements, too?

Absolutely. I was pointing to the differences, but there are also many overlaps – and anti-elitism is an important one. The climate movement definitely shares that with populist groups, including on the right. However, they are also clearly on one side of the political spectrum. At the beginning, they argued that they’re neither left nor right, but in front; they positioned themselves as the vanguard. But by now, Greta Thunberg and other climate activists are making points that indisputably bring them closer to the left than the right. I would not say that there were strategic considerations behind that – it just emerged, and this makes it easier to put the climate movement into that corner.

This interview is available in Spanish in Climática. You can read it here.

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