Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s stumbling response to the fires in the Amazon rainforest raises an important question: Are right-wing nationalists more inclined than other politicians toward denying the existence of global warming? The question has received only modest attention in academic research on the rise of extremist movements around the world. In a PIIE Working Paper published in August 2019, Jeromin Zettelmeyer and I measured the rise in economic nationalism, showing that it has become increasingly widespread and linked to populist movements, but the paper did not focus on political parties’ stances on climate change. My analysis of the most recent political party manifestos since the publication of that paper suggests that climate change denial is on the rise among parties identified in the paper as both nationalist and populist.
Bolsonaro’s attempts to downplay the severity of man-made fires in the rainforest, coupled with his attacks on domestic agencies tasked with monitoring deforestation and punishing perpetrators, are in line with his 2018 campaign rhetoric. In a recent congressional hearing, I analyzed Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and actions and how they have weakened Brazil’s environmental agencies and emboldened predatory behavior in the rainforest, despite international pressure. For example, the Austrian Parliament has rejected a trade deal between the European Union and Mercosur (the South American economic bloc consisting of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) because of Bolsonaro’s hostility to environmental issues.
But Bolsonaro has company among likeminded political leaders. My new analysis draws a direct link between far-right nationalist leaders and climate change denial. These parties and the political leaders associated with them are more likely to favor energy sources from fossil fuels, fewer environmental regulations, and less international cooperation on the fight against climate change. Given the recent rise in economic nationalism documented in the working paper, its association with climate change denial poses substantial risks to the global economy.
While true in general, not all right-of-center leaders fall into this category. In the working paper, we used the most recent RILE (Right-Left) index from the Manifesto Project Dataset to classify the political party platforms studied as right or left wing, as well as populist or nonpopulist. Out of the 55 parties covered, 11 are classified as populist, of which six are right wing. The remaining five populist parties are classified as either “center” (United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s party) or “left wing” (La France Insoumise and South Africa’s African National Congress [ANC]) or are unclassified (Italy’s Five Star Movement and Turkey’s AK Parti).
Of the six right-wing parties, which also rank highest among several dimensions of economic nationalism identified in the working paper, only France’s National Rally (previously known as the National Front) and India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) take an explicit pro-environment stance. France’s National Rally states in its 2019 manifesto that “national borders are the environment’s greatest ally, and it is through them that we will save the planet”; it proposes drastically reducing imports to protect the environment from climate change. India’s BJP in its latest manifesto (2019) recognizes climate change as a problem and underscores the country’s efforts to fight it. The other four right-wing parties, including US president Donald Trump’s policy documents and statements, are staunch climate change deniers (apart from Trump, the group comprises Italy’s Lega Nord, UK Independence Party, and Alliance for Germany [AfD]).
Of the remaining five populist parties that are classified as either “left wing” or “center” or are unclassified, only La France Insoumise led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon is strongly pro-environment. The other four parties are ambivalent about climate policy (United Russia, Italy’s Five Star Movement, South Africa’s ANC, and Turkey’s AK Parti).
Hence, after analyzing the manifestos and statements on climate change and the environment from the 11 populist-nationalist parties covered in the working paper, eight are either climate change deniers or ambivalent about man-made climate change.
The rise of economic nationalism, its ties with far-right political parties and leaders, and their negative stance on climate change and environmental issues pose grave risks for the global economy. The economic effects of climate change have been vastly documented and corroborated by rigorous scientific research. It is time to seriously evaluate the economic harm that nationalism can do to the global effort to combat climate change.
1. The RILE index classified Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL) as “nonpopulist.” Prior to the 2018 elections in Brazil and before Bolsonaro joined it, PSL had no presence in the Brazilian Congress and no clear ideological leaning. Since Bolsonaro’s electoral victory, the party has embraced a far-right agenda that includes climate change denial as one of its key pillars. Brazil’s current foreign relations minister, Ernesto Araújo, recently coined the term “climatism” to refer to concerns over climate change as exaggerated and damaging for economic development. Rising global concerns over both deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and the recent increase in man-made fires in the region have led Bolsonaro to reaffirm his hardline views on the environment and climate change.