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‘An agenda to control you’: How climate solutions got sucked into a fevered culture war

It began with a law about heat pumps. It ended with stones being thrown at politicians and a surge in popularity for the far right.

For an example of how climate change is increasingly becoming a flashpoint in the culture wars, Germany is a good place to start.

A proposed law — championed by the Green Party, part of the coalition government — aimed to ban almost all new heating systems that run on oil and gas in favor of more energy-friendly heat pumps.

The backlash was swift and severe. Already stretched by soaring food and energy prices, many Germans feared the law would translate to huge upfront costs for homeowners — fears stoked and weaponized by the populist far right-party Alternative for Germany, or AfD.

Dubbing it Heizhammer — “heating hammer” — they framed the law as an unaffordable luxury pushed by the out-of-touch elite “moving into your house and deciding what you can and can’t do,” said Miranda Schreurs, professor of environment and climate policy at the Technical University of Munich.

Anger morphed into protests, then violence. In September, Green politicians were pelted with stones during an election event in southern Germany. The next month, the AfD surged in the state elections. Despite eventually pushing through a weakened version of the law, it was a disaster for the government.

As climate solutions and policies move from the abstract to the personal — our cars, our food and how we keep our homes warm — it has created fertile ground for anger and fear, and has fanned the flames of a culture war long in the making.

Those who push these narratives often divide the world into “virtuous” ordinary people on one side, and corrupt, indifferent “elites” on the other, said Stephan Lewandowsky, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol.

As British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak watered down key climate targets in September, for example, he rebranded himself a defender of motorists against the “ideological zeal” of climate advocates.

“I am slamming the brakes on the war on motorists,” Sunak said in a video posted on X, as he delayed a ban on selling new gas and diesel cars.

Similar rhetoric has been used in other parts of Europe. In the run-up to Poland’s recent elections, the populist right-wing Law and Justice party claimed the opposition wanted to ban meat and force people to eat worms.

Meanwhile, Spain’s far-right Vox party vowed to defend the country against “the new climate religion.”

But to understand why climate change and the culture wars have become so enmeshed globally, experts say the United States probably holds the key.

‘An agenda to control you’

Standing in front of a West Texas oil rig in September, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican candidate for president, described the Democrats’ climate and clean energy policies as an all-out assault on freedom.

“This is all part of an agenda to control you; and to control your behavior,” DeSantis said. “They are trying to limit your choices as Americans, they’re trying to circumscribe your ambitions.”

This rhetoric is dark, but it’s not new. The same speech could have been made by an American conservative decades ago, said Michigan State University sociologist and climate expert Aaron McCright. “And why has it stuck around? It’s effective, it does scare people.”

The origins of the climate culture war in the US lie in the early 1990s, when a new push for global climate action collided with big geopolitical change, McCright said.

In 1992, more than 100 countries agreed to tackle planet-heating pollution in a treaty which was extended by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, compelling major developed nations to lower their climate pollution from coal, oil and gas.

Around the same time, the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving a vacuum for a common enemy among Americans.

“The communist menace that people on the American right have railed against for decades is gone, and there’s no more boogeyman,” McCright said. The environmental agenda was, in many ways, a perfect replacement.

Climate “became the stand-in for everything that’s wrong with the government,” he said. “‘You can’t tell me what I can and can’t do on my land. Federal government — stay away from me.’”

At the same time, fossil fuel companies, which knew about the climate impact of their products as early as the 1970s, according to a slew of studies, pumped huge amounts of money into undermining climate science, Lewandowsky said. “They started a propaganda campaign very early.”

These events shattered a brief moment of bipartisan consensus on climate. Republican politicians — who had previously been mostly aligned with Democrats on these issues — started to vote en masse against climate action.

The public followed In 1992, there was a gap of just 5 percentage points between Republicans and Democrats on support for environmental protection, according to a 2012 study from Pew Research Center. By 2012, that gap had ballooned to 39 percentage points.

“If you went into a coma in ’88 and you woke up in ‘95,” McCright said, “you’d probably wake up going ‘what the heck happened?’”

In December 2022, a Democratically controlled Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest climate bill in US history. It was largely a tax incentive package to encourage people to buy discounted electric cars, electric stoves, solar panels and energy-efficient heating and cooling systems — all carrot and no stick.

Not one Republican voted for it.

Lightning rod for right wing media

Conservative media has played an outsized role in fueling culture war narratives, according to experts.

When progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced the Green New Deal in 2019, a nonbinding resolution aimed at tackling the climate crisis, it became a lightning rod for right-wing media.

“The most radical, dangerous policy proposal offered in modern history,” “economic enslavement,” an “eco-fascist” proposal — these were just some of the responses in right-wing publications and on TV networks.

Watching Fox News’ coverage of the Green New Deal, you would think “you were going to not be able to have hamburgers, your travel was going to be radically restricted, your freedom of movement was getting taken away,” said Allison Fisher, director of the climate and energy program at progressive media watchdog group Media Matters.

Fox has “been laying the groundwork necessary for positioning climate policies as a culture war issue for a long time,” she said. The network’s message has been simple and effective, she added — the “idea that the radical left has manufactured the climate crisis to seize control of every aspect of American life.”

This narrative taps into a defining fear of people on the political right, said Lewandowsky, the psychology professor. “If you’re a conservative or libertarian, then climate change is hell,” he said, because dealing with it means taxes, regulation and bigger government, and for some, “that is extremely challenging at a deep, emotional and intellectual level.”

Even in countries like the UK, which tend to be less polarized and hostile toward big government, the conservative media has also been whipping up division over climate, said Ed Matthew of climate think tank E3G.

The aim is to make climate action controversial, Matthew said, “and that’s a very dangerous game to play.”

Winning social acceptance

While there is plenty of polling in the US and Europe that shows most people believe climate change is a threat and that they are broadly supportive of climate action, there is still an “incredible gulf” between recognizing the problem and doing something substantive about it, said Jennie King, a climate disinformation expert at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue think tank.

This chasm has become wider as the cost of living soars, with many countries teetering on the brink of recession and there are genuine fears about who will pay for climate action.

Governments trying to pass climate laws find themselves in a bind: Push bold agendas at the risk of backlash — fueled by those who gain from stoking fear and opposition — or go slowly and put the world even more off track to limit catastrophic global warming and secure a livable climate.

Germany — where, for a moment, a heat pump threatened to tear apart the government — is something of a cautionary tale, said Matthew of E3G. The country tried “bringing in regulation really so fast that people just weren’t ready,” he said, giving far-right parties the chance to exploit it and garner support.

The key to rapidly transforming economies to slash planet-warming pollution will be “bringing society along and winning social acceptance,” Schreurs said. But, she added, “it’s not going to be easy.”

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