Rethinking the ‘Green wave’? Climate change, the European Parliament elections 2019 and the German-speaking radical right

In 2018, following electoral gains made by Democrats during the US midterms, it took commentators a while to figure out whether or not to speak of a ‘blue wave’. In Germany, following the 2019 European Parliament elections, a ‘Green wave’ was, however, quickly identified – unsurprisingly, given that the Green Party increased its share of the vote by 9.8 to 20.5 per cent and thus came second after the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU). This success has been widely attributed to the urgency attached to climate change, the latter emerging against the background of a relatively strong environmental consciousness peaked by the impact of Greta Thunberg’s activism and the YouTuber Rezo. The latter attempted to mobilise youth voters via a video on climate change (‘The destruction of the CDU’) watched over 14 million times (by June 6 2019). To what extent was the youth vote indeed affected by this video is, for now, an open question. However, the success of the Green Party amongst young voters is not: of those who voted and were below 30 years old, the Greens came first with 33 per cent. A poll published on June 6 even showed the Greens to be the biggest party in Germany.

Besides the wider implication of a poor showing by the CDU and Social Democrats, and below-expectation gains by the openly climate-change sceptic, Alternative for Germany (AfD), the role of climate change in determining the electoral result has dominated post-election discussions in Germany. New, more ambitious climate-change policies are now (back on) the table – and what is particularly interesting here is that a rethink is, at least partly, visible on the horizons of the radical right too. While research has shown that the European radical right is often sceptical of climate-change, with  exceptions, a small, but noticeable discussion over environmental protection and climate change has been initiated in Germany’s radical right in the wake of the elections.

This is particularly notable as – as noted above – the AfD has so far opposed not only mainstream processes around, and responses to, climate change, but also the phenomenon’s anthropogenic causes. In their Manifesto for Germany, the AfD claims:

‘Climate changes have occurred as long as the earth exists. … Carbon dioxide (CO²), however, is not a harmful substance, but part and parcel of life. The IPCC attempts to prove a correlation between anthropogenic CO² emissions and global warming that will result in catastrophic consequences for mankind. This claim is based on computer models that, however, are not backed by quantitative data and measured observations. Ever since the earth has had an atmosphere, cold and warm periods have alternated.

Interestingly, this is not simply the official party stance. Rather, even the most prominent proponent of the völkisch wing of the party, Björn Höcke, for example, affirmatively referred to Nigel Calder, a British science writer, and his scepticism towards anthropogenic climate change in a Facebook post in May 2019. The post furthermore included the ‘classics’ of radical-right climate-change scepticism, such as speaking of ‘climate hysteria’, the latter being a ‘religion’, and warning of a ‘CO2-tax’.

And yet, following the European elections, the youth wing of the AfD in Berlin called for a rethink of the party’s stance on May 27 2019, stating that: ‘We call on elected representatives and officials/functionaries of our party to refrain from hardly comprehensible claims, man is not affecting the climate’. This intervention can be viewed as part, and a catalyst, of an emerging discussion, which could bring the radical right’s stance on climate change in line with its wider slogan of ‘Environmental/Nature Protection is Homeland Protection’. Indeed, while protecting local particularity (the homeland) has long been viewed affectionately by many in the radical right, global abstractedness (the climate) has not.

However, asked about the initiative by the party’s youth wing, Jörg Meuthen, one of the party’s Federal Spokespersons and Members of the European Parliament, doubted the serious consequences of human emissions. Instead, he argued both in favour of positioning the party as an ‘antipode’ to the Greens and in opposition to higher taxes and a perceived loss of freedom. Another example of this stance is provided by one of the AfD’s members in Berlin’s House of Representatives who, on June 2 2019, tweeted about the ‘the climate fairy tale’ not being ‘a relevant theme’.

A second, prominent example of how the European Parliamentary election campaign in 2019 initiated discussions over climate change within the radical right concerns the most prominent face of the Identitarian Movement in Austria and Germany: Martin Sellner. The latter runs a YouTube channel with over 100,000 followers. He intervened in this debate on June 3. The starting point of Sellner’s video (‘7 questions & answers concerning climate, environmental protection and Rezo’) is the wider claim that environmental protection is a core patriotic concern. It is in this context, that Sellner too speaks of left-wing alarmism in the climate-change debate and concedes that there exists a wide range of stances on the topic within the radical right, stressing that his video only represents his opinion. However, Sellner ultimately, and unequivalently, acknowledges ‘massive human influence’ on the biosphere. He subsequently, connects this to the claim that only nation-states are able to combat climate change as only they are able to ‘put globalisation and unleashed markets’ into their place. This goes hand in hand with a more traditionalist demand to ‘fundamentally question the ideology of eternal growth and progress of modernity’. As such, Sellner’s argument, unsurprisingly, resembles more established New Right positions on the environment – with radical right ideologues, Alain de Benoist and Charles Champetier’s, both calling for an ‘integral ecology’ and ‘limits to growth. … We need to become more aware of our responsibilities as regards the organic and inorganic worlds in which we all move about. The ― “megamachine” knows only one law — maximum return on investments. … Economic hubris and Promethean technology must be held in check by a sense of balance and harmony. A worldwide effort must be undertaken to establishing binding norms and guidelines for the preservation of biodiversity.’

Following the European Parliamentary elections in 2019, then, parts of the radical right have emphasised, again, the link between environmental protection and radical-right thinking. As a result of these election, discussions within parts of this political movement are now arguing in favour of acknowledging anthropogenic climate change. Whether these interventions lead wider parts of the radical right to rethink their position on climate change or only briefly indicate an alternative remains to be seen. It does, however, stress the increasingly important nature of green issues, also within radical right circles; something which I will return to in future posts.

Dr Bernard Forchtner is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Lecturer in Media and Communication, University of Leicester. His profile can be found here:

© Bernard Forchtner. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).