Center for American Progress

The Nexus Between Green Backlash and Democratic Backsliding in Europe

The Nexus Between Green Backlash and Democratic Backsliding in Europe

Far-right parties are exploiting discontent with environmental policies, undermining progress on climate change and endangering democracy in Europe and beyond.

In this article
Photo shows the back of Geert Wilders wearing a blue suit in the foreground, slightly blurry, and a large crowd facing him as he speaks, with trees in the background
Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch far-right Party for Freedom (PVV), speaks to farmers during a demonstration against the country's nitrogen policy rules in The Hague, Netherlands, October 2019. (Getty/Remko de Waal/ANP/AFP

Introduction and summary

Across Europe, policies designed to alleviate grave climate and ecological distress are coming under harsh scrutiny.1 Far-right factions and populist movements are leveraging dissatisfaction with and misconceptions about environmental regulations to advance far-right agendas and anti-EU rhetoric often unrelated to climate and environment. Once in power, these parties have impeded hard-earned progress on climate, coddled far-right conspiracy theories and deep social-cultural grievances, and, at times, endeavored to erode democratic institutions.

Over the past three decades, Europe has significantly advanced its climate action: It has reduced overall emissions by approximately 32.5 percent since 1990, including a notable 3 percent decrease in 2022 alone.2 In the electric vehicle sector, Europe has experienced remarkable growth, with sales rising more than 15 percent in 2022; electric vehicles now account for more than 1 in every 5 new cars sold.3 Europe has also made a significant move away from fossil fuels, with 162 out of 324 coal plants closing or confirming pre-2030 retirements—marking the halfway point in the effort to retire all coal plants on the continent by 2030.4

On the policy front, the European Union unveiled the European Green Deal in 2019, adopted the European Climate Law in 2021, and passed the Nature Restoration Law in 2023.5 Inspired by U.S. President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which promotes industrial policy and clean energy transitions through subsidies and tax credits, the European Union also introduced a Green Industrial Plan for the Net-Zero Age in February 2023.

However, these recent achievements face backlash. Climate champions in Europe and beyond are struggling to implement their ambitious climate policies amid rising disinformation and threats to the rule of law. Stated plainly, the progressive push for climate and conservation action in Europe may be ebbing—and ebbing fast. French President Emmanuel Macron, a historically forward-looking climate champion, has called for a pause on environmental legislation, and in July, members of the European Parliament watered down a historic nature law after a campaign of misinformation helped derail the legislation.6 Frans Timmermans’ departure from his leadership position on the European Commission’s Green Deal portfolio,7 and the uncertainty surrounding upcoming elections in the European Parliament, further threaten the durability of progress on combating climate change.

Climate champions in Europe and beyond are struggling to implement their ambitious climate policies amid rising disinformation and threats to the rule of law.

This report provides an overview of recent instances where rising far-right populism, threats to democracy, and growing resistance to climate policies have intersected in Europe. The country-specific case studies in the next section illustrate how the nature and strength of Europe’s green backlash span a continuum—from adverse reactions to specific environmental policies, to the spread of misinformation and disinformation about these policies. In some cases, this has culminated in the far-right’s capture of government, a development that often contributes to the erosion of democratic institutions.

Europe’s experience offers insights into how democratic societies can grapple with populist anti-environmental challenges. This report illustrates the current challenges and potential pathways forward, highlighting the importance of balanced and inclusive approaches to climate governance and underscoring the critical need for a persistent and thoughtful push for progressive environmental policies. Such efforts are vital not only to sustain environmental achievements but also to avert democratic backsliding, a threat to the core principles of equitable and just climate policy.

Stakeholders should consider the following policy recommendations to better navigate these complex challenges:

  • Enhancing public communication involves creating and disseminating clear, accurate information about environmental policies.
  • Supporting and advocating for inclusive policymaking means ensuring that environmental initiatives are equitable, a strategy exemplified by the inclusive approaches in the Inflation Reduction Act.
  • Strengthening democratic institutions and civil society engagement focuses on fostering transparency and participation in environmental decision-making.
  • Building an investment-forward approach means actively directing funds and resources toward emerging and sustainable technologies that may not yet be cost-competitive to help accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.

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Case studies from across Europe

Backlash to climate policy in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is experiencing a pivotal shift in its approach to climate action, with economic pressures and populist discourse reshaping the environmental policy landscape. The Conservative Party, in power since 2010 and previously a champion for climate action, has now begun leveraging rising concerns over cost of living to fan green backlash among citizens and backtrack on key climate policies.8

In September 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced plans to abandon or delay crucial parts of the government’s climate strategy. The government delayed a ban on gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles, reneged on a plan to phase out gas boilers, proposed easing water quality rules for developers, and approved a major North Sea oil drilling project.9 Sunak also snubbed a high-level climate convening at the U.N .General Assembly, earning scorn from climate activists both at home and abroad.10 The abrupt pivot undermines the government’s commitment and ability to meet a legally binding net-zero target: a 100 percent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2050.11

The Conservative Party’s policy shifts mark a significant departure from its previous stance on climate at both the national and local levels, with the party embracing more populist and increasingly climate-skeptic rhetoric. In the lead-up to and following the Glasgow climate summit (COP26) in 2021, the United Kingdom, under the Conservative Party’s leadership, played an important role in advancing global climate ambition. The United Kingdom’s presidency program12 for COP26 focused on driving climate action and negotiations, with themes ranging from supporting clean energy and zero-emissions transport to protecting nature and promoting inclusivity.13 Under the United Kingdom’s leadership, the percentage of the world covered by net-zero targets increased from 30 percent to around 90 percent, and 154 parties submitted new national targets, representing 80 percent of global emissions.14

This apparent commitment to climate action on the global stage stands in stark contrast to the Conservative Party’s evolving—some would say devolving—domestic policy approach. This divergence becomes more evident when examining specific policies, most notably London’s ultralow emission zone (ULEZ) policy. In 2015, then-London Mayor Boris Johnson, a member of the Conservative Party, introduced the ULEZ policy amid a grave public health emergency to improve the city’s air quality by disincentivizing the use of older, higher-polluting cars and vans.15 Under the policy, London’s transport authority evaluates vehicles based on the European emissions standards—continentwide emissions regulations that all new vehicles must meet. Vehicles that do not meet the standards receive a daily 12.50-pound charge—about $15—and failure to pay can lead to sizable accrued penalties.16

In August 2023, London’s Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan expanded Johnson’s ULEZ to outer London.17 Despite more than 90 percent of cars in outer London meeting emissions standards and being exempt from the charge, the timing of the expansion during an acute cost-of-living crisis raised concerns. Critics argue it disproportionately affects low-income drivers.18 The controversy around the ULEZ, aimed at reducing carbon emissions and improving air quality, highlights a key challenge: Environmental policies must balance their objectives with the need for social equity, particularly for those who depend on transport for their livelihoods.

Economic pressures and populist narratives can rapidly erode commitments to environmental action.

Against this background, ​​the Conservative Party focused its campaign in the 2023 Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, an outer London constituency, on opposing the ULEZ expansion.19 This approach not only resonated with voters’ concerns about financial hardships but also cast the more progressive Labour Party as being hopelessly out of touch. Despite expectations of a Labour victory, the Conservative Party surprisingly held onto the seat.20 Their success is largely attributed to a campaign that fueled public anger against the ULEZ, effectively transforming the election into a de facto referendum on the issue. The surprise outcome highlights how the cost-of-living crisis is being used to stoke public discontent and potentially weaken climate policy.

The Uxbridge by-election provides an indication that climate policies will take center stage in the much-anticipated 2024 general election, where Labour is favored to come to power after 13 years of Conservative government.21 While the United Kingdom has cut carbon emissions by 25.2 percent in the past 10 years, there are worrying indications of backsliding both on climate goals and, increasingly, democracy.22 The United Kingdom has recently joined other countries in an effort to curtail climate activism, notably with the Public Order Act 2023, which introduces new criminal offenses for engaging in common protest actions, enhances police powers to stop and search suspected protesters, and even allows for certain individuals to be banned from protesting altogether.23 The act was met with robust criticism, with some comparing it to legislation one might expect to see in an authoritarian state rather than in a democracy such as the United Kingdom.24

The criminalization of climate activism has inspired dire warnings from civil rights groups who see it as part of a larger trend toward democratic backsliding.25 By stifling the voices of climate activists, the government is not only jeopardizing the United Kingdom’s climate agenda but also undermining the democratic principles that allow for public discourse and protest. The passing of the controversial legislation, compounded by the Conservative Party’s tactical opposition to climate policies, reflect a concerning trend in which critical national policies around climate action are drowned in political and electoral calculus—harming both the planet and people in the process.26

The United Kingdom’s pivot away from strong climate policies underscores a worrying phenomenon: Economic pressures and populist narratives can rapidly erode commitments to environmental action. Here, the Uxbridge by-election serves as a lesson that climate policy must be both economically and socially sustainable to withstand shifting political realities. Ill-conceived or rushed policies not only risk electoral backlash but also jeopardize the long-term durability of climate action.

Political scandal in Germany over heat pumps

Some political actors in Germany have also put climate progress in their crosshairs, propagating deliberately false and misleading narratives. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right party founded in 2013, has exploited societal fissures and grievance-based politics to amplify its influence in German politics.27 Initially centered around Euro-skepticism, the AfD has pivoted toward anti-immigration policies and climate change denial.28 The latest scandal it has stirred up centers on a federal government regulation regarding heat pumps.29 Heat pumps, functioning much like reverse refrigerators, extract heat from the environment to warm houses and water. They can also cool spaces in hot weather, utilizing a quarter of the energy required by a standard gas boiler.30

The AfD has criticized the present coalition, under the leadership of Chancellor Olaf Scholz and comprising the Social Democratic Party, Greens, and Free Democratic Party, for passing a new law31 to facilitate the purchase of heat pumps amid growing public concerns over costs.32 The AfD’s parliamentary group leader, Alice Weidel, falsely claimed that the government’s plans would lead to a “heating massacre” and force struggling families to sell their homes.33 The accusations follow a long history of climate denial34 by the AfD: The party accuses its critics of “degenerate fear-mongering” over climate change, routinely lambasts renewables as a waste of money, and warns against transforming Europe into “a deindustrialized settlement covered in wind turbines.”35

The AfD's parliamentary group leader … falsely claimed that the government's plans would lead to a "heating massacre" and force struggling families to sell their homes.

Against this background, the AfD has repeatedly mischaracterized the heat pump law as out of touch and has helped propagate misinformation36 on the cost and timeline associated with implementing the regulation.37 In April of this year, the AfD introduced legislation in the Bundestag to end the prioritization of heat pumps and to prevent the prohibition of gas heating systems.38 Although widely derided as a stunt, the strategy may be resonating with some German voters.39 Recent polls show that support for the AfD stands at 22 percent nationally and as much as 32 percent regionally,40 a stark rise from the 15 percent registered a mere six months ago.41 The rising poll numbers suggest a concern among some Germans regarding the pace and costs of transitioning to environmentally friendly heating systems—a narrative that the AfD has skillfully exploited.

Attacks on the so-called lifestyle left—a term used to describe a segment of the political left that emphasizes cultural, social, and environmental issues over traditional economic class struggles—are not limited only to the far right in German politics. Sahra Wagenknecht, a prominent, and now former, member of the Left Party (Die Linke), has criticized the environmentalist Greens, who are part of the governing coalition in Berlin.42 “People think this government is haphazard, shortsighted, plain, incompetent and ideologically driven,” Wagenknecht remarked in an interview with The New York Times. “And that — in fact — is the case.”43 Such critiques from the far left underscore a growing discontent toward policies that seemingly exacerbate the hardships working people face.

Indeed, the situation in Germany underscores the complex relationship between climate policy, socioeconomic disparities, and the rise of populist movements such as the AfD. The transition to renewable energy, crucial for tackling climate change, can entail short-term costs, but studies also indicate significant savings. To foster the transition to greener heating solutions, the German government offered subsidies to homeowners covering up to 35 percent of the total costs of installing heat pumps, maxing out at 4,000 euros per unit.44 Furthermore, there is real interest within the Chancellery in replicating aspects of the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act to further support sustainable investments in green energy.45 Germany aims to introduce tax credits for solar, wind, and grid investments,46 reflecting a commitment to green 80 percent of its power production by 2030.47 This strategy is now in jeopardy following a blockbuster Constitutional Court ruling that declared unconstitutional the government’s plan to reallocate 60 billion euros of unused pandemic-era debt to its Climate Transformation Fund.48

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Germany witnessed a notable uptick in the demand for alternative heating systems.49 The shift toward renewable energy solutions, such as heat pumps, promises to be an important part of Berlin’s energy security strategy50—an imperative given Germany’s historical dependence on cheap Russian gas.51 The heat pump backlash, driven by climate denial and misinformation from the far right, not only jeopardizes an all-important climate objective but also undermines Germany’s long-term geopolitical security and, by extension, that of Europe.

It is important that incentives toward cleaner energy, alongside broader climate policies, be effectively communicated to gain the widest possible base of support and to avoid being mischaracterized by opponents. By dismissing climate science and slandering regulation, the AfD has fomented a powerful populist backlash. Navigating this challenge requires a thoughtful approach that helps mitigate sudden financial burdens while also laying the foundation for a more sustainable, economically viable, and secure future.

Farmers’ rebellion in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, environmental backlash has not only galvanized far-right groups, but also led to the rise of a new political party altogether. Just as misinformation and political manipulation in Germany have exacerbated public anxieties over the transition to renewable energy sources, the Netherlands has experienced its own struggles with a policy-driven green backlash. Indeed, the Netherlands witnessed an early instance of green backlash against EU environmental policy in 2019 when protests broke out52 over a directive to cut nitrogen pollution in agricultural lands.53 Despite its small size, the Netherlands is an outsize agricultural powerhouse—coming in second only to the United States in agricultural exports by value, in billions of U.S. dollars.54

This agricultural success comes at a significant environmental and climate cost. Agriculture accounts for about half of nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands in the form of ammonia, with the other half coming from burning fossil fuels in the form of nitrogen oxides,55 and in more than 60 percent of terrestrial ecosystems, nitrogen exceeds critical loads.56 The danger is acute: Nitrogen pollution can lead to unsafe drinking water, eutrophication, and the loss of biodiversity, as well as contribute to climate change.57 Agricultural pollution has long been recognized as a problem in the Netherlands, with halfhearted attempts throughout the years to rein in its costly environmental impact.58

These attempts came to a head in late 2019, when a series of court rulings, culminating in a national court decision, found that the state’s previous nitrogen policies were in violation of EU law and failed to adequately meet environmental standards.59 The ruling forced the government’s hands and brought about a new policy that aims to reduce pollutants, primarily from nitrogen, by 50 percent by 2030. To carry out this goal, the government must undertake a series of actions, including compensated farm buyouts, targeted relocations away from sensitive and biologically diverse natural areas, shifts to more sustainable forms of agriculture, and state-supported transition to other industries. It is estimated that thousands of farms will need to be closed.60

In reaction, some Dutch farmers launched wide-scale protests—including blocking highways with tractors,61 manure, and hay bale62—to express their objection to policies they see as an attack on their cultural history, way of life, and livelihoods. The protests gained worldwide notoriety, catching the attention of other far-right populists in Italy and Poland, along with then-U.S. President Donald Trump.63 Additionally, the protests fueled the creation of a new political party in the Netherlands, the center-right Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB),64 and emboldened the extreme far-right Party for Freedom (PVV).65 This rapid political mobilization not only reflects the salience of anti-climate messaging, but also points to the dangerous rhetoric that can often emerge from far-right populist movements. Alarmingly, some protesters leveraged antisemitic and anti-immigrant tropes around the nitrogen law, including a claim that the government was shutting down farms to house immigrants, an offshoot of the “Great Replacement Theory,” a far-right conspiracy theory that claims minorities are replacing white native-born European populations.66

The political situation in the Netherlands exemplifies how important environmental regulations can inadvertently lead to the rise of extremist views when not properly managed and messaged.

The farmer protests saw their greatest success during provincial elections in March, when the BBB won a significant voting bloc in the Senate.67 The party’s platform extended beyond the anti-nitrogen law platform, including embracing anti-EU and anti-immigrant policy positions.68 In July, the government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte collapsed over immigration policy,69 with Rutte stepping down after 13 years in power.70 The subsequent November 22 national elections dramatically altered the Dutch political landscape, with the extreme right-wing PVV becoming the largest party in the House of Representatives, and the incumbent coalition parties experiencing significant losses. In this context, Frans Timmermans, the former EU climate chief and leader of the Labor-Green alliance, is poised for an opposition role, acknowledging the electorate’s shift toward populist right-leaning parties.71 Despite an increase in seats for his alliance, Timmermans’ chances of forming a government appear slim in the face of the PVV’s significant gains and the complex coalition-building process ahead, which is anticipated to extend well into 2024.72

The political situation in the Netherlands exemplifies how important environmental regulations can inadvertently lead to the rise of extremist views when not properly managed and messaged. While both farming and environmental interests have legitimate concerns73—there is a rational anxiety that comes with economic transition, especially one as rapid and culturally rooted as this—the Netherlands’ farming industry does significantly contribute to the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss. Unfolding events in the Netherlands demonstrate how environmental policies can be co-opted by unrelated far-right grievances—notably, immigration.

In contrast to the investment-forward approach of the Inflation Reduction Act’s support for climate-smart agricultural practices, the Netherlands followed a more restrictive course of action.74 Indeed, without proper messaging, buy-in for transition plans, and stakeholder engagement, environmental laws can face backlash that fundamentally transforms the political, economic, social, and biophysical landscape.

The far right’s engagement in climate denial amid environmental crises in Italy

In Italy, the ascent of the far right, with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at the helm, has resulted in a double game on climate politics, casting doubts on the consistency and sincerity of her commitment to environmental issues. Meloni’s election in 2022 garnered global attention as it signaled the mainstreaming of a neo-fascist-aligned party, the Brothers of Italy, a first in post-World War II Italy.75 The party’s rise drew widespread concern, prompting Meloni to reassure the public that her election would not threaten Italy’s democracy or trigger a much-anticipated “authoritarian turn.”76 A year after the election, Meloni’s support for Ukraine77 and immigration reform78 has moderated her image among some analysts, yet she continues to bolster the far right’s agenda across Europe.79 Meloni lent her influence to Spain’s Vox party, which, in the lead-up to Spain’s contested elections, promised to wage war on women’s rights,80 and stood with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on a litany of socially conservative causes, including coming out against abortion and same-sex marriage.81 Orbán, known for his embrace of so-called illiberal democracy82 and the rollback of human rights for LGBTQ83 and immigrant84 communities in Hungary, has proved an effective European ally for Meloni.

Meloni has sought to play both sides on climate policy, releasing a joint statement with President Biden acknowledging the threat of climate change and promising to act this decade to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, in alignment with the Paris Agreement.85 Yet, back in Europe, Meloni’s comments have been anything but reassuring. She warned at a Vox rally this July that “ultra-ecological fanaticism” threatens economic success.86 And in the wake of devastating floods in northern Italy in May 2023, Meloni faulted climate policies—not climate change itself—for the considerable destruction.87 She has vehemently opposed climate initiatives coming out of Brussels around energy efficiency standards, phasing out internal combustion engine vehicles, and cutting industrial emissions, citing economic harm as the driving factor. Under her leadership, Italy even reversed course on its 2021 Glasgow commitment to stop financing fossil fuel projects abroad.88

This anti-climate rhetoric extends beyond Meloni herself to the wider governing coalition in Rome, which has driven a whole-of-government shift toward climate denialism. Italian Minister of Infrastructure and Transport Matteo Salvini dismissed a question about youth climate anxiety and downplayed historic shifts in temperature by attributing them to natural seasonal variation.89 Minister of the Environment and Energy Security Gilberto Pichetto Fratin equivocated when speaking to the cause of climate change, claiming that he was unsure how much climate change is due to human activity as opposed to the “Earth’s [natural] climate change.”90

This anti-climate posturing by Meloni and her government is out of step with the experiences and concerns of Italian citizens. Italy has experienced a number of destructive climate events in recent years, including flooding in the north,91 wildfires in Sicily,92 extreme heat,93 and intense hailstorms,94 illustrating how vulnerable the country is to climate change. In July 2023, in just one of many record hailstorms that affected the country this year, a storm in the small town of Mortegliano that lasted fewer than 10 minutes resulted in 80 million euros worth of damages.95 Beyond economic costs, these extreme weather events have cost lives: A study published in July 2023 attributes 18,010 deaths in Italy to extreme heat from mid-July to mid-August 2022—more than in any other European country during that same period.96 Unsurprisingly, these events have contributed to concern among the electorate, with public polling conducted by the European Commission in May 2023 showing that a resounding 83 percent of Italian respondents consider climate change to be “a very serious problem,” a much higher share than EU citizens overall.97

Yet Meloni’s government continues to cater to a minority of climate skeptics despite widespread support for climate action among Italians. While Italy is only one of several European nations driving the backlash against climate policy, Meloni’s doublespeak on the issue provides a playbook for other right-wing leaders looking to placate Western allies while advancing an anti-climate agenda.98

A turning point for climate action and democratic values in Poland

Mirroring trends seen in other European nations, Poland’s political landscape underscores how climate policy debates are increasingly intertwined with national identity and sovereignty issues—reflecting the broader European struggle to balance environmental stewardship with populist backlash. In the run-up to the October 15 parliamentary elections, Poland’s ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), leveraged an anti-EU and anti-climate campaign to garner public support, portraying itself as a defender of Polish interests against what it viewed as Brussels’ bureaucratic overreach.99 This strategy was evident in the party’s criticism of the European Commission’s “Fit for 55” package, a bold series of initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions 55 percent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels.100

The PiS vowed to oppose certain directives within the initiative.101 Minister of Climate and Environment Anna Moskwa said she would challenge the EU directive mandating all new cars be net-zero emitters by 2035.102 She also expressed the government’s strong opposition to the expanded emissions trading scheme,103 which would bring carbon pricing to transport and heating sectors, calling the measures “authoritarian.”104 The PiS government’s staunch resistance to the European Union’s climate directives mirrors a tendency to push back against what it perceives as attacks on Polish sovereignty. Indeed, over the past eight years, the PiS government has targeted Poland’s democratic institutions to curtail the influence of the European Union,105 undermine judicial independence,106 and pressure the free press.107 These actions have triggered domestic and international concern, further straining Poland’s relationship with the European Commission and undermining its international climate obligations.

Despite, or perhaps owing to, its pitched battles with the European Commission, the government’s populist campaign—and staunch anti-climate stance—was met with a strong rebuke at the polls.108 Although the PiS garnered a plurality of the votes in the October 15 elections, it failed to form a majority coalition,109 marking a significant setback for a party Freedom House had recently labeled a threat to Polish democracy.110 The unexpected outcome was buttressed by an unprecedented youth voter turnout of 68.8 percent; this demographic overwhelmingly supports more ambitious climate policies.111 The results highlight Polish civil society’s resilience amid mounting illiberalism, which has threatened both EU climate directives and the bloc’s rule of law.

Read more about Poland’s recent elections

The incoming Civic Coalition in Poland is expected to chart a different course and embrace a more proactive approach toward climate issues and EU relations.112 The new government plans to hasten the deployment of renewable energy, revise regulations for onshore wind turbines, and better integrate renewables into the energy grid.113 Taken together, the expected policy shifts are considerable, especially for a country that so heavily relies on coal.114 The coalition is also expected to enhance energy efficiency, invest in sustainable transportation infrastructure, and boost green technology research and development, more closely aligning Poland with the ambitious targets set forth by the European Green Deal.115

The October 15 election in Poland offers an encouraging counternarrative of resilience against populism and climate skepticism. The failure of the PiS to secure a majority, despite its strong anti-EU and anti-climate stance, reveals a growing public awareness and demand for responsible climate policies. The surprising election results, propelled by significant youth voter turnout and a preference for EU values, including bold progressive climate action, signals a positive step toward coupling environmental concerns with rule of law concerns. Poland exemplifies how informed and engaged citizenry can effectively challenge and overturn regressive political agendas, paving the way for more sustainable and democratically aligned environmental policies.

Policy recommendations

Lessons from the country-specific snapshots

Important lessons can be learned from exploring the case studies detailed above, including:

  • Consider socioeconomic concerns: The United Kingdom’s experience shows that failing to consider socioeconomic concerns can lead to policies being maligned.
  • Communicate clearly: Germany’s struggle with misinformation about heat pumps highlights the need for clear communication during abrupt policy transitions.
  • Understand the consequences of delaying action: The Netherlands’ delayed environmental policies starkly demonstrate how postponing climate action can result in heightened backlash and extreme policy reactions.
  • Be wary of populist bedfellows: The Italian case illustrates the pitfalls of far-right populism in climate policy, where leaders may favor short-term political victories at the expense of long-term global environmental responsibilities.
  • Do not discount the role of informed citizenry: Contrasting these examples, Poland’s recent electoral outcomes emphasize the importance of an informed and active citizenry in resisting populism and guiding climate policy.

It is imperative for advocates, experts, and policymakers in the United States to actively engage in supporting the advancement of progressive climate action while reinforcing democratic principles, both abroad and domestically. This aligns not only with the Biden administration’s commitment to global environmental stewardship but also with its strategic interest in promoting stable, democratic societies.

Recommendations for policymakers at home and abroad

In this vein, stakeholders both at home and abroad with an interest in advancing climate and environmental goals should consider the following policy recommendations.

Enhance public communication

Experts and thought leaders should focus on developing comprehensive communication strategies that clearly articulate the benefits of climate policies, debunk myths, and address economic concerns. This involves collaborating with local leaders, influencers, and organizations to craft messages that resonate with diverse communities and that emphasize the long-term economic and environmental benefits of these policies. For example, experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management vigorously and publicly debunked misinformation about offshore wind farms in New Jersey116 by countering special interest claims falsely linking whale deaths to offshore wind development. Additionally, environmental groups effectively refuted industry-backed groups who propagated equally spurious claims in local- and state-level elections, many of which originated from groups tied to conservative lobbyists.117

Support and advocate for inclusive policymaking

Policies that disproportionately affect vulnerable or marginalized groups can fuel discontent and economic anxiety that opposition groups can easily exploit.118 The social conditionalities included in the Biden administration’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act can provide a road map to inform the design of local and national laws and policies that also seek a just transition that supports working people.119 The law not only incentivizes fair wages and apprenticeships in the clean energy sector but also ensures that these benefits reach across political divides.120 Particularly notable is the act’s impact in majority-conservative “red states,” where 60 percent of new project investments are concentrated, amounting to $4,200 per capita, compared with $2,400 in majority-progressive “blue states.”121

Strengthen democratic institutions and engagement in civil society

Recognizing the correlation between the erosion of democratic institutions and the success of far-right agendas, it is essential to support efforts that strengthen democratic processes from the local up to the national level.122 This includes backing initiatives that promote transparency, accountability, and the rule of law.123 The California Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan exemplifies this approach124 by bringing together different stakeholders such as community members, Indigenous leaders, and civil society groups to collaboratively identify areas for conservation and renewable energy development across 10.8 million acres. It aims to streamline renewable energy development while conserving unique desert ecosystems and providing outdoor recreation opportunities.

Early engagement effectively minimized opposition at the project stage and provided immediate protection for crucial desert habitats. Fostering robust civil society engagement also ensures that a diverse range of voices are heard in policy discussions and counters the narrative of elitism often associated with environmental policies. Building a broader base of support for climate action ultimately can insulate it from backlash. The success of the Biden administration’s 2020 green coalition, including groups such as the youth-led Sunrise Movement125 and various labor unions,126 in advocating for the Inflation Reduction Act underscores the power of diverse coalitions in driving major climate wins. The effort led to passage of the act—the single largest investment in clean energy in U.S. history—and the creation of more than 170,000 new green jobs.127

Build an investment-forward approach

Particularly for sectors with decarbonization pathways that may be technically available but not yet cost-competitive, democracies should consider an investment-forward approach. Much as the Inflation Reduction Act laid a strong foundation for effective standards, investments can address economic and political challenges that might otherwise complicate effective standard-setting.128

Here, governments can play a pivotal role by offering tax credits and subsidies to sectors struggling to achieve cost competitiveness in decarbonization. This approach not only accelerates the adoption of green technologies but also stimulates economic growth by creating new markets and job opportunities. Furthermore, developing a regulatory environment that is supportive of green investments can attract private sector participation, ensuring a robust and sustainable transition to a low-carbon economy.


Across Europe, far-right groups and populist movements are increasingly instrumentalizing environmental policies to achieve their own ends. These movements, while diverse in their origins and motivations, share a common thread in leveraging public discontent or confusion over environmental regulations to further anti-climate political agendas. They frame environmental policies as elitist while stoking economic anxiety and nationalism, which erodes trust in democratic institutions and further distracts from genuine environmental concerns.

Together, the case studies detailed in this report emphasize the need for a whole-of-society approach to building resilient and inclusive climate policies. Such an approach requires enhanced public communication, inclusive policymaking, strengthened civil society engagement, and investment-forward approaches.


  1. European Council and Council of the European Union, “Climate change: what the EU is doing,” available at,-Exactly%20a%20year&text=As%20an%20intermediate%20step%20towards,greenhouse%20gas%20emissions%20by%202030.&text=The%20new%20goal%20was%20a,by%2040%25%20agreed%20in%202014(last accessed November 2023).
  2. Directorate-General for Climate Action, “Climate Action Progress Report 2023” (Brussels: European Commission, 2023), available at​​.
  3. International Energy Agency, “Global EV Outlook 2023: Executive summary” (Paris: 2023), available at​​.
  4. Bloomberg Philanthropies, “50% of All Coal Plants in Europe Set to Close, Marking Major Milestone in Phase Out of Coal in Europe by 2030,” March 23, 2021, available at
  5. European Council and Council of the European Union, “European Green Deal,” available at,it%20during%20its%20December%20meeting (last accessed November 2023); International Energy Agency, “European Climate Law,” available at (last accessed November 2023); European Commission Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency, “New Nature Restoration Law boosts biodiversity and climate action across Europe,” July 12, 2023, available at,benefits%20for%20every%20euro%20spent.
  6. Audrey Tonnelier, Elsa Conesa, and Virginie Malingre, “Macron’s call for ‘pause’ of EU environmental regulation causes controversy,” Le Monde, May 12, 2023, available at; Ajit Niranjan, “EU passes nature restoration law in knife-edge vote,” The Guardian, July 12, 2023, available at
  7. Karl Mathiesen, “Does the Architect of Europe’s Green Deal Truly Understand What He’s Unleashed?”, Politico, November, 16, 2023, available at
  8. Fatima Al-Kassab, “Rishi Sunak defends U.K. climate policy U-turn amid international criticism,” NPR, September 22, 2023, available at,will%20now%20come%20into%20force.
  9. Ibid.; Danica Kirka and Jill Lawless, “Britain approves new North Sea oil drilling in welcome news for the industry but not activists,” The Associated Press, September 27, 2023, available at
  10. Fiona Harvey, “Rishi Sunak avoiding UN summit after being warned about potential rejection,” The Guardian, September 9, 2023, available at
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