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What can a resurgent nationalism teach the climate movement?

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By Christopher Caldwell

· 5 min read

Nationalist parties are surging across Europe. France has just come through a wracked election – one called by Macron but forced by Le Pen. Italian leader Georgia Meloni has also recently consolidated her position whilst in Germany, the AfD were the big story of the European elections. The European Parliament will have more hard-right members than ever before, occupying close to a quarter of the 720 seats. Meanwhile, here in the UK, the media vultures are circling the smoking corpse of the Conservative Party, with Farage’s jackal-grin waiting in the wings.

All else aside, tackling climate requires a radical cooperation the nationalist wave has no interest in – so its recent European success has shot fear through an environmental community scarred by years of global populism. Trump did all that he could to extricate the US from the Paris Agreement; Bolsonaro got busy rolling back regulation protecting the Amazon; and Le Pen has done her darndest to villainise international environmental policy.

But Trumpism and Brexit have demonstrated the dangers of dismissing populist leanings as isolated episodes of xenophobia. At play are widespread, and even legitimate, fears around globalism. Despite the imperative for international cooperation when it comes to climate change, not everyone wants to be a ‘citizen of nowhere.’

If voters are craving control and nation-focussed solutions, should we instead be asking how nationalism can be turned into a pro-climate force? Is there anything that the movement can learn from their populist counterparts?

Uplands ahead…

In part, nationalism feeds upon citizens who feel increasingly marginalised by globalisation. They see industries stagnating, watch workforces sacrificed to global supply chains, and read constantly about immigration in the right-wing press. MAGA-style sloganeering speaks to an electorate tired of feeling aggrieved and afraid, and keen to reclaim their place in the world. They just want to feel great again.

Interestingly – and perhaps in response – more patriotic language around climate action is starting to emerge in mainstream political rhetoric. A vote for the Labour party in the UK meant “harnessing Great British Energy to cut your bills for good”. In his speeches before the election, Starmer emphasised “The opportunity of clean British power to make us energy independent, remove Putin’s boot from our throat, and cut bills in your home — for good.”  There’s certainly a Churchillian ring to it all – but this time we’re not digging for victory so much as tilting to become a global cleantech superpower.

Spanish President Pedro Sánchez has also been touting an enticing green future for Spain as “a locomotive of the green revolution.” Green energy will “benefit the pockets of Spaniards,” whilst investment will “attract the entire value chain, thereby reindustrialising our country.” Biden used similar framing to get his version of the Green New Deal through – though it remains to be seen what part this will play in the November elections.

In working-class heartlands, climate action is cast as a way to reclaim independence and revolutionise flagging manufacturing sectors. But whilst the rhetoric feels powerful and hopeful, I can’t help but wonder if it’s enough to build a compelling national story around. Can fields of wind turbines really lift the national flag again? Nationalism is fundamentally backward-looking – and progressives have yet to find a story that stiches the past and the future together in a tone that moves beyond critique.   

…but culture left behind?

In Caroline Lucas’s book, "Another England: A New Story of Who We Are and Who We Can Be", the Green Part pioneer sets out to redefine Englishness beyond nationalist right-wing politics. She argues that the traditional narrative of English identity – dominated by Brexit, imperial nostalgia, and exceptionalism – does not truly encompass the rich and inclusive aspects of England's cultural fabric.

Citing an array of literary and historic figures, from mediaeval scripts through to the Romantic poets, Lucas shows how our sense of nationhood has evolved around our connection to nature. She also highlights the progressive and inclusive elements of England's history and culture, from the Chartists to the Suffragettes. 

The stories we choose to highlight from history, the people we laud as our national heroes and heroines, and the references that run through our music, literature and art are all relevant to our national identity. The environmental movement has a rich seam of contributions to draw from within that tapestry. But the project of nationalism does not stop at nostalgia and the past alone. The present that also matters.

Making identity local again

In 2024 a strong sense of national identity still plays out closer to home. Football matches and pubs, Saturday night TV and the chippy, the National Trust and the motorway service station: the local and every day is just as important to a shared national identity. The climate movement needs to be as relevant at this very localised level of national identity as it does in nostalgic historical terms or future prowess. 

Beyond local politics (where Greens are having outsized success), the last few years have seen some brilliant organisations looking at how climate is already impacting the things we love at the local level. They’ve highlighted the number of local football matches have had to be cancelled in the last year due to flooding, or how the price of a chicken tikka masala has rocketed due to climate change. Stories of communities building their own green energy or food systems and using the profits to invest back into the issues that matter to them most, are increasingly common.  

On the grand stage, resurgent nationalism is a real worry. But we must disentangle far-right party politics from a strong sense of national belonging. The latter need not sit in opposition to environmental action. Indeed, it offers ties to bind our history, future and communities together around an old-new green story. Tying all these elements together is no mean feat; but there are signs that a new story of who we are is trying to emerge.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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