Unprecedented Disasters and Environmental Emergencies: What the Rise of Right-wing Populism Means for Transitions towards Sustainability, and What We Should Do Next



Winnifred R. Louis, Kelly Fielding, & Joanne Smith


The rise of right-wing populism has seen a vigorous destruction of institutions, regulations and programs to mitigate climate change and to promote sustainability. Around the world, the rise in power of new right-wing movements has provoked a sense of crisis among environmentalists. In this talk I will discuss what I think we did right, what we got wrong, and what we need to do next. I will present environmental behaviour as a property of groups as well as individuals, and I will argue that many environmentalists have ignored group processes that are well known, predictable and fundamental. This neglect has greatly undermined our persuasive efforts with political opponents. I approach the topic as a social psychologist who studies decision-making in conflict, and I argue that by employing tactics known to create backlashes in conflict, environmentalists co-create variants of reactionary partisanship. Partisanship on environmental issues means that climate scepticism and indifference to sustainability become badges of political ideology, with profound negative consequences for the planet whenever conservatives come to power. Yet this dynamic is not inevitable. I present a series of studies linking decisions made by individuals with group identities and norms (groups’ standards or rules), and demonstrating particular forms of positive persuasion vs. toxic backlash. The key problem that I identify across the studies is that persuasive messages that work for true believers are ineffective or counter-productive with opponents. I close with five key recommendations for change in our approach: now that we have built a sense of problem recognition and motivation on our side of the political fence, we must change tactics to foster those beliefs and motivations among other voters and citizens. The social psychology of group processes and intergroup relations provides tools for new bipartisan transitions towards sustainability.



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