Interview with Manuela Caiani and Balša Lubarda, on right-wing populism and environmental policy.  

In this interview, Manuela Caiani and Balša Lubarda discuss the research and findings of their recently published article in Environmental Politics: Conditional environmentalism of right-wing populism in power: ideology and/or opportunities?

What is the key argument or finding you would like people to take from your recent article in Environmental Politics?

In this article, we explore how right-wing populism in power engages with environmental politics. More specifically, we look at whether ideological principles, such as the ones voiced in electoral manifestos, or ‘practice’ – political opportunities, determine policy outcomes of populists in power. In terms of the cases, we looked at the European ‘usual suspects’: Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz (Hungary), Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice (PiS, Poland) and Matteo Salvini’s Lega (Italy).

What is interesting is that our cases resembled different ideological variations within the right-wing populist spectrum which we tried to test: national conservatives and the populist radical right. We found that this distinction established by some scholars bears little relevance when it comes to the environmental terrain as the populist environmentalism is ideologically similar. However, the differences in domestic political opportunities, e.g., the salience of environmental issues in the country, the relative position in the domestic political system and the international pressures will determine the outcomes of populist environmentalism in power.

But we also found something arguably more important in the process: the distinction between ideology and practice or political opportunities as such is unimportant as the opportunities are themselves ideologically rendered. Ideology may not be everything, but anything can be explained through ideological lenses.

What motivates the ‘environmentalism’ of right wing populism?

Both ideology and ‘strategy’ (another term used synonymously with practice). On the ideological level, we found that the main feature of populist environmentalism is its conditionality, or the ‘yes, but’ form. This basically means that populists are not anti-environmentalist, as some of the scholarship used to imply, but that their environmentalism is dependent on the extent to which it would (negatively) affect ‘the people’. Thus, environmentalism that is not overtly costly for the citizens is the environmentalism that is eagerly pursued by the right-wing populists in power.

Of course, there is more than that. Another feature of populist environmentalism in power is rationalism and ‘coldheadedness’, mostly expressed through the discourse of ecological modernization and the emphasis on technocratic solutions and investments in resolving the environmental crisis, all while eschewing a more fundamental critique of the economic modes of production and consumption. If such critique is to happen, it is buried in electoral manifestos as a praise of localism (e.g., ‘eating homemade food’) and scaling down economies but without substantive development.

There are also other prominent features of populist environmentalism, like autarky – belief in energy self-dependence or far-right ecologist nostalgia for the past times and environments, e.g., slow food. Moreover, the us-them component, particularly pronounced in the contempt towards the elites, is found across the three cases. This can sometimes take the form of antagonism towards ‘Brussels’ as the external imposers of environmental regulation or the emotional leftists and uneducated ‘greens’ pursuing senseless policies for the lives of the ordinary people.

Another feature of right-wing populist environmentalism, particularly visible over time, is climate acceptance or assuaging climate scepticism. With the exception of Fidesz, a party that never openly questioned the scientific evidence in relation to climate change (but whose officials have nonetheless occasionally espoused scepticism), both PiS and Lega have travelled a long way from climate scepticism to (even if tacit) acceptance of climate change and proposing climate policies. This is indicative of a broad turn in far-right politics, also showing the preparedness to bring investments as a part of climate change mitigation through projects.

Your article discusses three cases of right wing populist political parties and their environmental policy approaches. How did these cases differ?

The similarities outlined above are nonetheless very general and they obfuscate rather different outcomes in climate policies in each of the three countries. In Hungary, the investments in nuclear energy are conditioned by Russian geopolitical influence, which frames the debate rather differently than in the case of Poland which is heavily dependent on lignite (thus explaining the climate scepticism) or Italy, with its historical development of ‘energy federalism’. Even in terms of ideology, the emphasis on rational environmentalism is more pronounced in the Hungarian and the Polish case than in the case of Lega. Also, coalition partners impacted the majoritarian forces we examined rather different trajectories, with PiS being the most specific.

Finally, what does this article mean for future research?

Our findings should serve as an indication of future trends when it comes to populists and the far right in power. On the one hand, we need to come to terms with the fact that populists no longer simply oppose climate change but integrate their policy-related scepticism into the care for the people. This basically means that ideological principles can be easily adjusted to the new circumstances. In other words, ideology remains very relevant in determining future trends but it is the political opportunities that we should look for in explaining the right-wing populist behaviour in power.


Manuela Caiani is an Associate Professor at Scuola Normale Superiore (Italy) and affiliated scholar at the Cosmos Center for Social Movement Studies (SNS). Her research focuses on Social Movements and Europeanisation; Far Right Politics; Extremism online; Right Wing and Left Wing Populism; Movement-parties; Qualitative methods of social research.

Balša Lubarda is the Head of Research at Damar Institute (Montenegro) and previously a Fulbright Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley (United States). Specialising in political ideologies, environmental theory, radical and Eastern European politics, Lubarda is the author of ‘Far-Right Ecologism: Environmental Politics and the Far Right in Hungary and Poland‘ (Routledge).

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