Populism and the shifting Climate Change Debate

In the United States, there is a shift in political dialogue in response to the growing concerns regarding anthropogenic climate change. Although public awareness of climate change is growing each year, we still see strong polarization between climate skeptics and climate activists. There are now three main groups leading the climate debate, but the first signs of convergence among these groups are appearing.


  • On March 12th, President Trump posted a tweet in which he quotes another skeptical view of anthropogenic climate change by discrediting the scientific consensus on humanity’s impact on the changing climate.
  • In spite of skepticism about humanity’s impact on climate change, studies have shown that 97% of scientists have reached a consensus that climate-warming trends are extremely likely due to human activities. However, to support Trump’s climate-skeptic standpoint, the White House has been recruiting climate-skeptic scientists such as William Happer and Steve Koonin for the Presidential Committee on Climate Security.
  • Trump’s political strategy has often been characterized as populist. Populism is a political approach which usually emerges as a response to periods of crisis or uncertainty on an economic or cultural level. Ideologically, populism often considers society to be separated into two homogenous and antagonistic camps: the “good” people and the “corrupt” elite.
  • A Democratic response to climate change is taking shape. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives, has issued a resolution revolving active measures to combat anthropogenic climate change named the Green New Deal. The discussion around the Green New Deal shows that the prominence of climate change on the political agenda has grown. This will play a vital role in the upcoming 2020 presidential elections.
  • More Americans than ever believe in anthropogenic climate change: A recent poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows that about six in ten Americans believe that climate change occurs largely due to human activities. Moreover, only one in four Americans believe that climate change occurs only through natural changes.
  • Concerns regarding anthropogenic climate change have found its way into the U.S. courts. For instance, in the “Juliana” case, a group of young plaintiffs argues that with current climate change-related policies, the United States government is violating the constitution. The plaintiffs state that: “by failing to stabilize atmospheric carbon levels, the federal government has failed to protect constitutional rights”.
  • Republicans are increasingly acknowledging anthropogenic climate change and proposing political measures. For instance, George Schultz and James Baker, two former Republican Secretaries of State, have proposed a gradual increase in carbon tax, the revenues of which would be returned to the United States. Indeed, opposition to climate skepticism doesn’t only come from Democrats, but also from within the Republican party.


With an eye on the 2020 presidential elections in which climate change will become a major topic, three different political groups are emerging. First, there is the climate-skeptic group represented by Donald Trump. His political stance towards climate change is embedded within his populist rhetoric, in which he creates a juxtaposition between the elite in Washington and the American people. Trump argues that the leftist political elites have intentionally subordinated the will of the people to benefit their own political agenda; a view shared by many in respect to the Yellow Vest movement in France. In fact, Trump won the presidential election by advocating the belief that economic hardships persisted due to policies by the political elite. To show that he was taking measures to restore economic growth for his voters, Trump identified Obama-era legislation as a symbolic culprit and either revoked or delayed several Obama initiatives (e.g. the Affordable Care Act, changes in the Clean Water Act, measures by the Environmental Protection Agency to combat air pollution). The same symbolism can be seen in Trump’s consistent campaign to fund the border wall with Mexico. Trump’s stance toward climate change is an extension of his anti-establishment political rhetoric and the symbolism that is embedded in this type of politics, namely the struggle against a corrupt elite for the benefit of the American people. By discrediting scientific consensus by claiming these scientists have a leftist political agenda, Trump may once again succeed in convincing his constituency that the discussion on climate change exists to extract more wealth from the American people. All in all, the staying power of his populist climate skepticism should not be underestimated.

Indeed, the Green New Deal is a new type of populist rhetoric

The second political group that can be identified in the discussion is the progressive Democratic group. During the 2016 presidential campaign, this group was unable to provide an adequate response to Trump’s populist rhetoric. However, with proposed legislature such as the Green New Deal by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, this group is formulating a response to Trump’s rhetoric by adopting an alternative populist rhetoric. We have defined populism as a political approach which emerges in or after a time of uncertainty and which creates clear-cut division between the people and an elite. Whereas Trump’s climate-skeptic rhetoric is aimed at the fears many Americans have of economic hardship, the Democratic plan for climate change presents a grand vision that addresses the same concerns by offering more opportunities in a new “sustainable economy”. Even with the selection of its name, the Green New Deal harkens back to the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR) New Deal, instilling in voters a sense of nostalgia similar to what Trump achieved with his slogan “Make America Great Again”. Indeed, the Green New Deal is a new type of populist rhetoric. It argues that political elites who fail to address humanity’s impact on climate change are opposing the future benefit of the United States people. We can see this viewpoint reflected in the Juliana versus the United States legal case.

The increasing polarization between these two political groups, the right-wing populists on the one hand and the left-wing populists on the other, would initially appear to leave little room for a middle ground. Yet with the growing belief of anthropogenic climate change among the American people, many Republicans have revised their own stance on anthropogenic climate change. Around 55% of liberal/moderate Republicans now believe in anthropogenic climate change, which is an increase of 14% compared to October 2017. Indeed, the majority of the Republican party does not share Trump’s climate-skeptic views (only 26% of conservative Republicans do). In spite of these numbers, Republicans greatly oppose the Green New Deal proposal due to the fact that it implies a government intervention. Though there may not be a Republican alternative to the Green New Deal as of yet, the fact that Republicans now acknowledge the gravity of climate change and increasingly accept the scientific truth of humanity’s impact on the climate, increases the likelihood that Republicans will support something akin to the Green New Deal. What is certain is that during the 2020 elections, climate change will be a major topic.

If something along the lines of the Green New Deal was implemented, this could have major economic consequences. It is beyond doubt that a huge socio-economic project such as the Green New Deal would be highly expensive. The populist rhetoric of the Green New Deal is apparent as Ocasio-Cortez argues that it will only succeed if there is broad active participation by the country as a whole, so-called: “national mobilization”. In addition, Ocasio-Cortez argues that in the long run, economic growth would pay for the entire project, rather than increased taxes. However, economists are divided regarding the plan’s feasibility. On the one hand, economists argue that these kinds of programs would add trillions of dollars to the nation’s debt. Others claim that these engineered spending programs are a less efficient way of reaching sustainability goals than the further development of new clean technology. Indeed, economists argue that the cost of renewable energy is plummeting and sustainable innovations are not driven by a top-down government approach, but instead by the market’s own forces. Furthermore, economists point to the impact of sustainable infrastructure on the American economy: besides an increase of electric vehicle adoption, part of the plan could also affect the aviation market, which could potentially lead to a loss of 10 million jobs in this sector alone. From this perspective, it is unlikely that the Green New Deal will pass Congress in its current form. However, as bipartisan support for climate action is growing, a new type of Green New Deal could emerge in the next few years, following a trajectory similar to FDR’s New Deal.


  • Because the Green New Deal is a type of populism, the climate debate in the U.S. could result in a new type of backlash, similar to the Yellow Vests movement in France. Another option would be that both political parties succumb to some form of climate fatalism, due to the perception that most action is futile. However, in spite of the fact that politically there only appears to be polarization between the Democratic and Republican Party, climate change could become a theme on which Republicans and Democrats can unite, just as FDR’s New Deal was at the time.
  • Although a state program such as the Green New Deal would have rigorous effects on the American economy, so far, there is no clear consensus among economists as to whether the Green New Deal would be feasible. As the Green New Deal is intentionally vague, there is room for interpretation and speculation, yet similarly to many populist resolutions, there is no clear policy to back it up.
  • In Western-European Countries we see a similar three-group structure. Here far-right populist parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), Britain’s UKIP, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and the Dutch Forum for Democracy (FVD) share Trump’s climate sceptic standpoint, yet they do not share his political power. On the other side of the political spectrum, the German Green Party has the highest membership since its conception and Green Left (Groenlinks) in the Netherlands has become the largest party in the political opposition. These green parties advocate extensive socio-economic change in order to build a sustainable economy for future generations, which therefore shares the populist characteristics of the Green New Deal. However contrary to the United States, in European politics we can already identify a moderate alternative to the green party initiatives in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.