Interview: To counter the far right climate policies must center social justice

Clean Energy Wire. Democratic parties across Europe should treat climate policies as a matter of social justice to combat the increasing threat of far-right populist politicians who oppose strong climate action, says Linus Westheuser, sociologist at the Humboldt University in Berlin. This approach – rather than trying to change people’s daily routines – is the best way to counter right-wing populists who seek to turn climate debates into a culture war between ideological city elites and the average voter worried about petrol prices. Germany still boasts a strong centre in society with middle-of-the-road positions, and a majority agrees that “those who have more should contribute more to fighting climate change,” says the researcher. While the topic of climate has become much more politicised in the past couple of years, there is general consensus that something must be done about it, he told Clean Energy Wire.

Clean Energy Wire: For years we have reported that polls show a strong support among Germans for climate action and the energy transition. Is the population still on board for the transition?

Linus Westheuser: Our research shows that there is a very broadly shared awareness of the climate crisis in Germany, and a general consensus that something must be done about it. Equally, there is strong agreement that climate action must proceed in a socially-just manner so that ordinary people do not get overburdened and the rich contribute their fair share.

However, when digging deeper, we see that different ways of reasoning about the issue have emerged. One centres on those affected by climate change – flood victims for example. It operates with an apocalyptic vision of a future crisis resulting from present over-indulgence.

Another way of reasoning focuses mainly on the people affected by the ecological transition, such as motorists hit by rising fuel prices. People see a lot of insecurity in the here and now, and fear that the ecological transition will only make things worse.

These two ways of reasoning often talk past each other. But to successfully navigate the conflicts emerging around climate change, we must reconcile the concerns. Climate politics is about both – the end of the world and the end of the month.

Would you say that climate is a polarised issue in this country?

Not on the level of fundamental attitudes. On climate – just like in many other topics such as anti-discrimination or even migration – German public opinion is dominated by a strong centre with middle-of-the-road positions. “Yes, but…” is the typical form of argument in this large segment of the population.

In addition, one tends to underestimate how many people do not have any meaningful opinions at all because politics, to them, is just a distant and alien sphere. This undecided, or disaffected centre often escapes public discussions because the views of more radical groups carry higher news value. But it is actually more typical for the German population.