There is no denying the rise of populism in recent times, with trends emerging over the last 10 years that have shook the political stability of many democratic nations. Media coverage of such movements has been both thorough and primarily negative overall, considering the impact populism has on producing radical and dangerous policies. There are some who view the trend positively, such as Swedish political theorist Torbjorn Tannsjo, believing populism to be the purest form of democracy — necessarily challenging the traditional elites. But what both the media and political theorists of both sides of the coin fail to acknowledge is the severely detrimental impact populism has on the environment; one of the most crucial factors in determining the future of the planet and the human race.

International Failure

It is, admittedly, easy to gloss over the issue of the environment in a world cluttered by seemingly more pressing issues such as the economy, health and family — but the populist experience pushes the environment further down the agenda than ever before, disrupting any international unity in solving the problem. In fact, the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015 itself, while revolutionary for international cooperation on the issue, has proved not enough to solve its own aspirational target of limiting global warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius, with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicting that emissions from the signatory countries, even if limited to the levels listed in the agreement, will still raise global warming by 3 degrees Celsius by 2100 and by 2 degrees within the next 12 years. The threat is clearly there, yet countries who are already doing too little to tackle the issue are often being marred by populism.

Big Business

Brazil is a notorious example, being one of the largest BRICS nations (which are all experiencing rapid economic development). Jair Bolsonaro, elected President of Brazil last year, has already moved to favour business interests over the environment as has too often been seen in recent times. In signing an executive order in early 2019 that transferred decision-making over the Amazon rainforest to the Agriculture ministry, Bolsonaro has opened the door for lobbyists to influence and infringe on the protected lands for private gain in the mining and agricultural sectors.

Only the Beginning

In a similar vein, the rise of populism has led to increased attempts to subdue and undermine activist work that aims to bring the vital issue of climate change to the forefront of policymaking. Bolsonaro has already moved to reduce the power of environmental agencies in Brazil and has expressed his desire to ‘end all activism in Brazil’. Trump’s protectionist measures have seen the Paris Accord rendered even less effective and has set back environmental groups in the USA who will struggle to lobby a stubborn executive branch for at least the next two years. The Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party, which won 12.7 per cent of the federal vote and gained 94 seats in the German Parliament in 2017, has itself treated the issue of climate change with hostility and suspicion. While the party has not gained any executive power yet, the German system facilitates coalition building and the AfD could hold significant leverage in the future because of this — corrupting one of the most powerful European states.

Things looks unlikely to get any better either. The 2019 edition of the ‘Timbro Authoritarian Populism Index’ highlights that 2018 was the, ‘best year to date for populist parties across Europe with the average voter support at 22.2 percent’. As Jonathan Watts wrote in a Guardian article: ‘our planet can’t take many more populists like Brazil’s Bolsonaro’. Yet, the likelihood is that more populists like him will gain further power soon, which could end up jeopardising our futures in the long term.

In a world currently full of division and hostility, we must unite on this issue at this pivotal moment before our own personal desires get in the way of bigger stakes.

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