After a record-hot summer in the Northern Hemisphere, wildfires in California are not the only thing raging. Across the developed world, concerned citizens are pouring into the streets to lambaste feckless politicians for failing to protect the planet. At the same time, their neighbors inveigh against out-of-touch politicians for instituting environmental policies that fail to protect them.
Climate politics are tearing apart the West. In August 2018, a Swedish girl named Greta Thunberg started skipping school on Fridays to protest climate inaction. Students in other countries began to do the same, and a global phenomenon was born. This September saw “the biggest climate mobilisation in history,” according to organizers, as millions of people participated in a Global Climate Strike.
Last month, climate group Extinction Rebellion also launched a two-week International Rebellion to “occupy the centres of power and shut them down until governments act on the Climate and Ecological Emergency.” Protesters were arrested in cities from Amsterdam to London to New York for engaging in acts of civil disobedience such as shutting down streets.
More localized protests have complemented these global campaigns. For instance, Ende Gelände (End of Story) blockaded German coal facilities in June, and the Sunrise Movement staged sit-ins at the offices of US House Democratic leaders last December. However, the push for climate action has sparked a climate reaction.
Take France. It’s easy to forget, but the reason people donned yellow vests in the first place — before the movement developed into a broad display of discontent over inequality — was to protest a fuel-tax hike. The measure was part of President Emmanuel Macron’s program to “make our planet great again,” but all it did was make the French angry again. As one slogan put it, “Macron is concerned with the end of the world. We are concerned with the end of the month.”
A similar sentiment has produced the Bensinupproret (Gasoline Uprising) in Thunberg’s own Sweden, where some demonstrators even wear yellow vests. “We are right now paying more in taxes than what the gasoline costs by itself… and that is completely unacceptable,” said Peder Blohm Bokenhielm, who leads the movement’s 600,000 Facebook members. “We are already one of the world’s best countries when it comes to environmental issues,” he noted, yet lawmakers seized with climate “hysteria” have chosen to “punish the general population” with burdensome taxes.
Far-right politicians in Finland, Germany and the Netherlands are singing that same tune as they ride a wave of voter fury. “Climate hysteria wrecks the Finnish economy and industry, and it destroys the fruits of decades of work by citizens,” said Finns Party chairman Jussi Halla-aho in an April video, days before pulling off a second-place finish in parliamentary elections.
Nonetheless, in an indication of how polarizing this issue is, the Green Party has enjoyed a surge in those same three countries, as well. It’s part of a larger European trend. In May’s European Parliament elections, the Green Party had its best performance ever, finishing third in France and second in Germany. Incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, from Germany’s center-right party, had to play defense. She placed climate policy at the top of her “agenda for Europe,” ahead of even economic policy.
“I want the European Green Deal to become Europe’s hallmark,” she explained. Von der Leyen faces an uphill battle, though. In June, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Estonia killed a net-zero emissions plan for the EU, even after it was watered down. No wonder The Economist has declared, “Environmentalism is emerging as Europe’s new culture war.”
America is just as divided. Pew recently found that 84% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents view climate change as a major threat, compared to only 27% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, a wider partisan gap than on any other threat. The share of Democrats who consider climate change a top priority for the federal government has jumped more than 20 points since 2015. Among Republicans, that number has barely budged. (47% of Republicans think global warming is happening, though only 30% think humans are the main cause, according to another study from April.)
This chasm in public opinion has been reflected in statehouses across the country, such as in Oregon, where Republican lawmakers went into hiding this summer to prevent Democrats from passing a sweeping climate bill.
The rift is also evident on the national level. Democrats are united in their resolve to slash emissions, differing only on methods and speed. The big question is whether to pursue the ambitious goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, as moderates like former Vice President Joe Biden advocate, or the super-ambitious goal of net-zero emissions by 2030, as the Green New Deal envisions.
Meanwhile, Republicans are led by a president who “digs coal” and sees no climate emergency at all, just “good old Global Warming.” President Trump has worked tirelessly to dismantle President Obama’s climate policies, announcing America’s withdrawal from the “job-killing, very expensive Paris Climate Accord” and rolling back regulations on power plants and cars.
In short, with climate policy coming to the fore, Western societies are coming apart at the seams. And as climate catastrophe approaches — the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says there is about a decade left to avert disaster — environmentalists will only get more vociferous in their demands for action.
“We really are running out of time,” said Ella Mirman, a 16-year-old who has organized climate strikes in Sarasota, Florida. “I think what people don’t realize about this movement is it’s really not going to back down. Other movements tend to come in waves, but the youth, Generation Z — we will keep standing up, and we will just become stronger.”
There are signs that some on the right see which way the wind is blowing. Only a few years ago, France’s far-right National Front derided international climate cooperation as a “communist project.” In April, the party (rebranded as National Rally) called for European nations to use trade barriers as a cudgel against “rogue states that abandon the fight against climate change.”
Despite Trump’s abdication on this issue, some Republicans are now pushing for modest action. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has ridiculed Trump’s climate denialism and is urging the party to finally “cross the Rubicon.” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) wants “a New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy.” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), once dubbed “the Trumpiest Congressman in Trump’s Washington,” released a plan called the Green Real Deal, which he bills as a market-based alternative to the Green New Deal.
Even major fossil fuel companies have endorsed a carbon tax, perhaps hoping for a more gradual, less punitive energy transition. All of this leaves environmentalists with a stark choice. With the fate of the planet hanging in the balance, they can try to overhaul the economy as rapidly as possible, but this risks a ferocious backlash that negates all their efforts, generating cultural resentment and a jolt of electoral energy on the far right.
If they pursue a more gradual approach, they can draw support from allies among conservative ranks and the business community, but then they risk a dilatory decarbonization that is too little, too late. The Earth is heating up, and so is the fight.