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The environmental politics of rightwing populists in power are fraught with inconsistencies. But is it ideology or political opportunities that determine their behavior on environmental issues? Balša Lubarda and Manuela Caiani find that the ideology of the rightwing populist response to green issues is a “conditional” or “yes, but” environmentalism, according to which environmental policies are based on ecological modernization insofar as it does not damage the (predominantly economic) interests of the people. In other words, populists become less radical on the environment once in power.


Balša Lubarda and Manuela Caiani

September 13, 2023


The relentless tide of rightwing populist politics over the last 15 years or so has led to a matching tide of scholarly interest in rightwing politics in general. This has had negative consequences: whitewashing and ignoring the mainstreaming of the far right, but also, at times, blowing its relevance out of proportion. However, there have also been positive developments, two of which our recent paper in Environmental Politics focuses on.

The first is the recognition of the ideological nuances and differences between the parties belonging to the “populist” spectrum. Over the years, rightwing populism has become too big of a beast to be looked at as a monolith. This has led to a number of conceptual innovations (far right, radical nationalism, rightwing populism) but also to attempts to parse these different terms on an ideological continuum, such as differentiating between national conservatives, the populist radical right, and neoliberal populists. Such explorations allow us to test the discursive and policy differences between these different actors.

The second trend in populism studies is the increased attention to the populist effect on various policy domains, such as sports, music, and the environment. With their increased domestic and international relevance, rightwing populists influence a variety of policy domains, and they forge ideological and strategic preferences and partnerships. Environmental politics is one example where they have (re)discovered an interest, building on 19th century environmental thought that was replete with obsessions with purity, vitalism, and naturalism.

The thus re-emerged ‘far-right ecologism’ of the 21st century, integrating also the rightwing populist perspective on the environment, brings together eclectic but ideologically linked patterns of ecological thinking: appreciation of small-scale family farming, vivisection and animal liberation nationalism, self-dependent energy autarkists, primitivists, and technological cornucopians. Far-right political parties have started integrating elements of this ideological conglomerate into their manifestos and political programs. The  “Patriotic Ecology” of France’s National Rally or the “Volksland Project” of Greece’s ecofascist section of the Golden Dawn are rather distant in their content but ideologically bundled through an emphasis on organicism, naturalism, and Manicheanism.  All these parties’ focus on the environment is also significantly motivated by strategic reasons: the climate crisis and the interest of younger voters in these topics, the funding involved in energy-transition policies, and the opportunities for investments.

Our article maps the environmental discourse and policy actions of rightwing populists in power—a position in which they have plenty of political space for maneuvering but also are constrained by the “pragmatism” of power-holding and power-sharing (in case of coalitions). We focus on three cases: Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS), Italy’s Lega, and Hungary’s Fidesz. This choice is motivated by the different time spent in power by these parties and by the fact that they represent distinctive ideological variations along the rightwing populist spectrum. We distinguish between national conservative parties—a center-right variety of populism focused on preserving national and cultural identity by blending traditionalist and social conservatism—with PiS and populist radical right parties—characterized by anti-elitism, authoritarianism, and nativism—with Lega, placing Fidesz something of a borderline far-right party.

The three cases are similar on several accounts. First, the three parties share populist governing mechanisms. Second, none is at the very far-right end of the spectrum, and each is challenged by at least one other party on this ideological spectrum, that is: Ruch Narodowy in Poland, Fratelli d’Italia and Casapound in Italy, and Mi Hazánk and formerly Jobbik in Hungary. This requires each of the parties to offer something distinct in terms of ideology and policy. Third, all three cases are European. This Eurocentrism of the analysis means that the findings are not entirely generalizable to all right-wing populist parties around the world, but given the shared ideological traits between such parties, they still teach plenty about how their environmentalism unfolds when in power.

At the same time, the cases are fundamentally different on many levels, most of which related to political opportunities influencing different outcomes. For instance, Poland is heavily dependent on coal, which determined PiS’s push for “clean coal”, with the party even organizing an International Coal and Climate Summit in Warsaw in parallel to the UN Climate Change Conference in 2022. Italy, on the other hand, has seen massive Fridays for Future rallies, which put increasing pressure on political parties to act on climate change. Hungary has long pushed for investments in the energy sector, especially related to its Paks nuclear power plant.

Departing from these contextual circumstances, it may seem as if ideology matters very little in determining policy preferences and outcomes for rightwing populist parties. For example, Fidesz’s pronounced nativism and anti-immigrant sentiments seem to matter very little when it comes to environmental policy. After all, blaming environmental degradation on “climate migrants” or Roma, as done by Slovakia’s, Kotlebists, is hardly going to work even with the pro-Fidesz electorate due to the different trajectories of anti-Roma sentiments in the two countries. Unlike the extreme-right Mi Hazank, Fidesz has worked closely with the Roma communities and influencers to ensure electoral support.

Yet, we found many common discursive threads in the three parties. Particularly emblematic is what we called “conditional” or “yes, but” environmentalism—the need to protect the environment insofar other, mostly economic, aspects are satisfied. Thus, solar farms are acceptable if they do not damage agriculture, carbon taxes are acceptable if they do not economically damage the people, and reducing packaging is acceptable if it does not expose national businesses to greater costs. This would appear to indicate a fundamental lack of interest and motivation to advance environmental policies. However, this view is incorrect given the investments made in different aspects of environmental and energy transition by these parties in government.

“Solar farms are acceptable if they do not damage agriculture, carbon taxes are acceptable if they do not economically damage the people, and reducing packaging is acceptable if it does not expose national businesses to greater costs.”

Their conditional environmentalism is mainly justified through a self-purported “methodical” and “rational” care for the environment. Such environmentalism is fundamentally technocratic, using often cherry-picked statistics as evidence that a policy works. Its proponents frame themselves as an antidote to what they regard as the emotional, annoying, and unrealistic ecologism of the greens. This allows rightwing populists in and out of power to contest the left’s dominance of green issues, offering their own brand of ‘far-right ecologism’ that morphs old tales of purity, naturalism, and eugenics into the “new” topics of overpopulation, diet, and climate breakdown. What is equally important, in line with the core populist values, is that foreign or domestic elites should bear the costs of fighting climate change, instead of the diligent and ethnically pure “people”. These simplistic and ideal-type arguments are articulated less directly in the political arena, and they may even lead to egalitarian outcomes, which is why the rightwing populist discourse on the environment deserves more attention.

Depending on the strand of populism represented by the three parties, there is more or less emphasis on responsibility toward the past and the future generations of the nation, accentuating domestic production and consumption by eating local products or voicing the need to protect domestic species over “imported” ones. Another common trend over the past decade, characteristic of far-right parties around Europe too, is the shift toward accepting the reality of climate change. Fidesz never openly disputed climate science (regardless of the public statements of some of its officials)  while PiS and Lega officials used to do so but no longer. These shifts have been followed by the introduction of policy responses that aim to address the most pressing domestic issues with regard to climate change (air pollution in Poland, water pollution in Hungary, energy costs in Italy). This is not to imply that rightwing populists have somehow become intrinsically “greener”; rather, they have identified a politically advantageous space. In other words, policy changes have not been followed by ideological changes or the realization of having been wrong. Instead, they discursively adjusted to the “new” policy stances (for example, accepting the existence of climate change and the need to mitigate its harmful environmental consequences). Thus, “the people” who were oppressed by “unnecessary climate regulations posed by the elites” are now to be “protected by taking swift measures to combat climate change”. In spite of the presence of shared discursive traits, the lack of visible differences in environmental discourses and policies across the rightwing populist spectrum (national conservative/populist radical right) and the importance of political opportunities indicate that the environmentalism of rightwing populist parties in power is predominantly driven by the contextual settings.

Still, the dualism between ideology and practice or opportunities is arguably misplaced. As our study of Fidesz, Lega, and PiS shows, the “conditional” environmentalism of these rightwing populist parties is surprisingly similar on a general level. Thus, ideology is still how policies, however diverse, are justified. What is perhaps more challenging is the realization that rightwing populist environmentalism borrows its content not only from the thin ideology of populism but that of ecologism as well. This rational, pro-people, Christian ego-ecology looking only at the “needs of the nation” is characteristic of rightwing populist parties—resembling a head-in-the-sand nationalism not willing to comprehend the fundamentally transnational nature of environmental dangers. Such logical discrepancies between the rightwing populist inward looking environmentalism and the solutions that require an outward looking, global perspective is undermining the savvy attempt of populists to extend their political dominance to the environmental terrain. Coming to terms with their misgivings—in this case, in relation to climate change—speaks volumes about the populists’ adaptability in adjusting their ideological principles to justify a broad range of policies. In the years to come, their “conditional” environmentalism may not lead populists to champion green issues, while its “yes, but” technocratic bent of will continue to affect domestic and international environmental policy, posing a challenge to the fundamental and radical transition that the climate crisis requires.



For more information, see the author’s accompanying paper entitled “Conditional environmentalism of right-wing populism in power: ideology and/or opportunities?” in Environmental Politics.




Balša Lubarda is Head of Research at Damar Institute (Montenegro). He is the author of the recently published book “Far-Right Ecologism: Environmental Politics and the Far Right in Hungary and Poland” (Routledge, 2023).

Manuela Caiani is an Associate Professor at Scuola Normale Superiore (Italy) and associated faculty at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IHS) in Vienna.

The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their individual authors.



Photo credit: fietzfotos via Pixabay

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