The Fuse

Climate Crisis Influences Multiple Elections in Europe and North America

by Nick Cunningham | September 16, 2021

Climate change is becoming an increasingly important issue for voters across the world, playing a prominent role in several elections this month.

As heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes and floods ravage many parts of North America and Europe, the climate crisis no longer feels like a far-off threat. While it will surely influence elections in the future, there are signs that it is already becoming a major electoral issue.

Climate top of mind for voters

Nearly three-quarters of citizens in 17 different countries from North America, Asia and Europe say that climate change is already or will soon personally affect them, a sharp increase from polls in previous years. And that survey was conducted this past spring, before the summer’s long list of climate calamities.

On Monday, Norway held a highly-anticipated election that saw the return of the Labour Party after nearly a decade out of power. Not normally something that might be newsworthy outside of northern Europe, Norway’s election had the potential to make global headlines.

The future of Norway’s oil industry was one of the most widely discussed issues on the ballot.

The future of Norway’s oil industry was one of the most widely discussed issues on the ballot. The pro-oil Conservatives matched up against the slightly less supportive but still oil-friendly Labour Party. However, in recent months, the Greens and other left-wing parties were polling relatively well, and they had demanded an end to oil exploration in Norway as a prerequisite to them joining a governing coalition.

In the end, the Labour Party (Ap) performed moderately well and the Conservatives slipped while the Greens came up short of expectations, receiving a bit less than the 4 percent threshold needed to receive bonus seats in Parliament, which would have enhanced their leverage. As a result, Labour may only need the Center Party and the Socialist Left to form a majority in Parliament. Only the Socialist Left has made strong demands on climate change, but have not gone as far as demanding an end to oil exploration.

As it stands, the end of Norway’s oil exploration is not yet on the cards. Nevertheless, the climate crisis has played a big role, shaking up politics in Norway, which has been a major oil producer for decades. By all accounts, the International Energy Agency’s “net zero” report earlier this year that called for an end to new oil and gas projects, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report on the climate crisis, forced climate change higher up on the political agenda.

“There is now potential for change,” Poppy Kalesi, an energy expert based in Rogaland, an oil and gas-rich region in the south-west of the country, told the New Statesman. “In the last two months, the conversation has moved more than in the last two years.”

Norway is already a global leader in the adoption of electric vehicles, aiming to phaseout sales of the internal combustion engine by 2025. EV sales in Norway took 85 percent of the monthly share of total car sales in June.

A day after Norway’s election, California voted on whether or not to recall Governor Gavin Newsom, which, if it had succeeded, would have injected a ton of uncertainty into the state’s climate policies. With Newsom easily winning, many of the state’s policies remain on track – which include some of the nation’s leading decarbonization standards on transportation and electricity. However, the oil industry still exerts significant influence, scuttling some more ambitious policies year-in and year-out.

While the state continues to be scorched by record wildfires, the election hinged much more on the pandemic and other political issues. Only if the vote had gone the other way would there have been a big shakeup (i.e. rollback) in climate and energy policy.

Upcoming elections

Another significant election later this month is in Germany, where the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is polling in its worst position in decades. Deadly floods earlier this summer in Germany thrusted climate change to the top of the issues of concern for voters, and CDU’s candidate lost ground after the disaster, in which he was photographed smiling and laughing while touring flood-ravaged areas.

Deadly floods earlier this summer in Germany thrusted climate change to the top of the issues of concern for voters.

Most of the top parties agree on Germany’s climate target – cutting emissions by 65 percent by 2030 – but they disagree on how to get there.

For now, the Social Democrats are leading in the polls, and in theory could form a government with the Greens, and perhaps the Left, although the exact coalition remains unclear. Other combinations are possible.

But the Social Democrats’ (SPD) chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz promised climate protesters in early September that he would enact more ambitious climate policies immediately if he takes office as Chancellor. He has favored an expansion of renewable energy.

“The next government will be the last to have an active influence on the climate crisis, and I am deeply convinced that we can do it,” Green Party candidate Annalena Baerbock said during a Sept. 12 debate. “It is an enormous opportunity for our country.”

A group of young people are leading a hunger strike in Berlin, calling for much more aggressive decarbonization plans.

A few days before Germany’s election, Canadians will head to the polls. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election a few weeks ago, hoping to build a stronger majority. He immediately stumbled out of the gate, and the Conservatives moved into the top spot in the polls, at least temporarily. The Liberals and Conservatives are now neck-and-neck, with the New Democrats in third, and a smattering of other smaller parties with smaller percentages.

The election has heavily featured climate change and energy policy, following the horrific wildfires that have blazed in British Columbia for much of the summer.

The election has heavily featured climate change and energy policy, following the horrific wildfires that have blazed in British Columbia for much of the summer. Polling shows that climate change shot up to the top of the list of issues of concern for voters, forcing Trudeau and the Liberals making promises to tighten up climate policy in an effort not to lose support to the NDP. But it begs the question: Where has Trudeau been all these years?

Trudeau announced a 40 to 45 percent emissions reduction target by 2030 earlier this year, a target that is notably weaker than the U.S. and other major economies. Meanwhile, emissions have actually increased since Canada signed the Paris Climate agreement in 2015. Trudeau also purchased the Trans Mountain Expansion a few years ago – a major oil sands pipeline – in order to keep the project alive. One of the great disconnects during his time as Prime Minister is Trudeau’s lofty climate talk but stout support for the oil industry by and large.

The Conservatives favor a weaker 30 percent reduction in emissions, while the NDP wants to increase it to 50 percent, but has left the details vague. The Liberals and NDP have battled back and for over who has a better climate plan. At this point, it is entirely unclear what the next government will look like.

These are just a handful of elections in this month alone. As the climate crisis grows worse, no doubt it will upend politics in the years to come.