Environmental Populism

By: Nadiya Alexandra

The likes of Donald Trump, Brexit, and far-right movements have given populism a bad name, but is populism really that bad? In light of the global protests on climate change, and Greta Thunberg of course, we need to change how we think about populism. We need to recognize that populism is a function of democracy, and we can use it for the greater good, just as Trump has used it for evil.

There is a reason why ‘environment’ and ‘populism’ are rarely seen in the same sentence, let alone in the same article. In recent years, ‘populism’ has taken on a negative connotation. Populism has been closely linked with authoritarianism and anti-immigration movements. Furthermore, populists are seen as disruptive, which is seen as a bad thing. There is no surprise that Trump’s right-wing populism has given populism a bad name, but now we have a chance to re-define what it means to be a ‘populist.’

Even academics have trouble defining populism, but it appears there is consensus on two core ideas:

  1. Populism speaks on behalf of ordinary people.
  2. These people stand in opposition of the elite who block the achievement of popular political goals.

The most prominent modern case of the embodiment of populism is Donald Trump. In his campaign he fused a radical right ideology with populist language such as ‘we’ and ‘our.’ Through this language, Trump has tried to create a homogenous American people, who strive for ‘America First’ and ‘Make America Great Again.’ In this way, Trump has created an enemy out of Mexicans and Muslims. This is why populism has a bad rep. In this case, populism has divided people within America, and further created an ‘us versus them’ mentality. This has also lead to increased violence based on racial prejudices.

To starkly contrast Trump and right-wing populism, let’s examine the September 2019 global climate protests. Millions of people marched in climate strikes across an estimated 185 countries. In Ottawa, the largest school board encouraged students to take part in the climate strike on September 27, 2019. A clear message echoed among students: “there is no point of me going to school today if I have no future,” referring to the demise of our planet. Is this not populism? The climate marches spoke on behalf of ordinary people. The marchers were standing up to the elites who are blocking environmental conservation attempts, or not doing enough to save the planet. This aligns closely with what academics agree to be the two core principles of populism.

John Keane, a political scholar, described populism as a “recurrent autoimmune disease of democracy.” Looking at Donald Trump, Keane’s message certainly resonates. Trump’s right-wing populism has resulted in racism, violence, and a backsliding in global democracy.

Climate action can turn things around for populism. First of all, as Mark Beeson writes, climate change does not adhere to boundaries of race, religion, gender and nationality; it affects us all. Therefore, unlike right-wing populism, which has divided people, climate populism has the potential to unify us. Second, as the affects of climate change get worse, unified action from ‘the people’ should intensify and put more pressure on governments to act. The September 2019 climate strikes are proof of unity, and solidarity across the globe for climate action.

Greta Thunberg identifies as an environmental populist, she stands for a clear moral vision of protecting the environment. ‘We,’ the people, stand with her against a corrupt, greedy, unresponsive and elite system, which continues to exploit the environment at our cost. Greta Thunberg proves that ‘populism’ is not a dirty word, and as climate populists, all who marched this September have exercised their democratic rights to peacefully protest for change, for our future, for our planet.

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