When The Ecological Divide Becomes Impossible to Ignore. Why transition policies will increasingly shape European political systems
Jean-Yves DormagenPresident and founder of Cluster17, professor of political science at the University of Montpellier
A long-avoided divide
Until now, Europe has differed from North America in its near total absence of political platforms that emphasize climate skepticism, or at least the rejection of transition policies, as a means of mobilizing voters. In the United States, as we are well aware, a number of Republican leaders, including Donald Trump, have championed climate skepticism and expressed their hostility to policies designed to combat climate change. Recall Trump’s deliberately confrontational comments on the eve of the 2020 presidential election when he visited California, which had been hit by particularly catastrophic and deadly wildfires: “It’ll start getting cooler”, in response to concerns about climate change. Remember as well, that one of the former American president’s first major decisions was to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement in 2017, and that he devoted some of his time in office to undoing the environmental policies implemented by the Obama administration. These are not isolated positions within the Republican camp — far from it. During the first televised debate between the main candidates in the Republican primary this past August 23rd, the moderator asked for a show of hands when asking: “Do you believe human behavior is causing climate change?” As Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson alone began to raise his hand, Ron DeSantis, who was Donald Trump’s main challenger at the time, opted to interrupt the situation by stating that “We’re not schoolchildren”. But ultra-conservative entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy seized the opportunity to assert that “the climate change agenda is a hoax”, adding “the reality is that more people are dying from bad climate change policies, than they are from actual climate change”. In Canada as well, climate issues and transition policies have been polarizing and divisive. While the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) presented itself as the standard bearer of decarbonization and climate change policies, the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) adopted a stance against carbon taxes and, more generally, ambiguous rhetoric on climate issues. As a result, at its convention in March 2021, PCC delegates narrowly rejected (54%) a motion to acknowledge the existence of climate change and tackle it. Such a stance is undoubtedly no stranger to Conservative victories in provinces such as Alberta, which draws a major share of its revenues from oil and gas extraction, and whose population shows little enthusiasm — to put it mildly — for decarbonization policies.
Viewed from Europe, this type of political stance has long appeared to be a “North American” quirk. No major governing party, no major political influence, had made an explicitly climate-related (let alone climate-skeptical) case in the public arena, or even positioned itself clearly and squarely in opposition to transition and decarbonization policies. Until now, ecology has remained a rather secondary theme in electoral debates, largely due to the lack of opponents, within the framework of an apparently soft consensus. In France, for example, none of the presidential elections have been polarized and shaped by environmental issues, which has contributed to the low returns for green candidates. Despite its stated ambitions and the impact it would have on European economies, the European Green Deal hardly aroused any major public controversy when it was adopted in 2020. In France, for example, compare this with the heated debates surrounding immigration, the wearing of headscarves, or social reforms such as marriage for all, and it’s easy to see that the ecological transition has not, for the time being, aroused the same passions. But all that is undoubtedly changing, as the climate issue seems set to become a major division in Europe as well.
Until now, climate skepticism and climate relativism in Europe have only been supported by a faction of right-wing populist groups. Indeed, this political movement has been, and continues to be, divided on the climate issue. Some organizations have clearly asserted their climate skepticism and opposition to decarbonization policies. As early as the late 1990s, for example, the Dutch PVV (Party for Freedom) party was claiming that there was no scientific proof of human responsibility for climate change. Similar statements have been made by the Austrian FPÖ, the Danish People’s Party, the Brexit Party and the German AfD. In their 2019 platform for the European elections, German populists also claimed that the fight against global warming was preventing access to cheap energy, and defended combustion-powered vehicles, especially diesel-powered ones.
in favor of policies to combat climate change. As for the majority of this movement’s elements, they have adopted a cautious, “moderate” stance on the climate issue; they acknowledge the reality of climate change without making it a central point of their respective platforms. This approach is typical of parties such as Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, the Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy Party, Italy’s Lega Party, Greece’s Golden Dawn and France’s Rassemblement National. The latter has long pursued a strategy of avoiding divisions on this issue: in its 2017 presidential platform, it supported cutting the amount of fossil fuels used by half in 20 years, as well as banning shale gas drilling.
Given this backdrop in Europe, ecology, and the climate issue in particular, have not really emerged as a significant political divide. This is not to say that all the political players were “ecologists” or that they were concerned about the climate issue, or, of course, that implementing decarbonization policies was not a battleground for diverging interests, but to emphasize that this division was in some ways neutralized in the context of an apparent (soft) trans-partisan consensus on the need to act in favor of the climate and, more importantly, in the absence of combatants, i.e. political forces explicitly adopting, in the manner of American Republicans, climate-skeptic positions or, at the very least, an oppositional attitude towards decarbonization policies.
Division over transition policies
This soft consensus is breaking apart before our very eyes. The appearance of the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging, BBB) on the Dutch electoral scene is a sign of things to come. Founded by Caroline van der Plas, a former member of the Christian Democrat party, the BBB is a new kind of “single issue party”: like the ecologists, it focuses on environmental issues, but for the first time on the opposite side of the divide, directly opposing anti-pollution policies. The BBB was formed in reaction to the “Nitrogen Plan”, which calls for 50% reduction in these emissions by 2030, forcing the intensive farming model to be reconsidered and Dutch cattle herds to be drastically reduced. The Farmer-Citizen Movement has been able to feed off the anger of the farming community, but its spectacular success in provincial elections shows that it has succeeded in attracting support far beyond the circles directly concerned by the “Nitrogen Plan”; with 19% of the vote in the March 2023 elections, it has established itself as the leading electoral force, coming out on top in every province of the country. It is, of course, far too early to say whether the BBB will be able to maintain such results, particularly as provincial elections are traditionally an intermediate ballot in which voters can express their disapproval and express their opinions with the ballot. But this surge in support for the BBB, which came at the expense of Mark Rutte’s Liberals, is nevertheless a signal that has greatly concerned a number of European political players. It demonstrates that ecology can become highly polarizing and divisive when translated into public policies that create winners and losers. In a way, whatever one may think of the measure, this was already illustrated by the Yellow Vests movement in France as a reaction, let’s not forget, to a proposed “carbon tax”. Beyond opposition to the “Nitrogen Plan”, it’s interesting to note that the BBB stokes the rural/urban divide, playing on the supposed contempt for rural populations held by the upper classes of major metropolises. In keeping with a strategy of turning stigma on its head, and with a consummate sense of stagecraft, Caroline van der Plas attended the opening of Parliament on a tractor. To further our discussion, it is also important to note that the BBB’s position is not limited to this opposition, but embraces other themes: rather liberal on the economy (tax cuts, deregulation), conservative on social issues (against eliminating the five-day reflection period before an abortion can be performed), anti-migration (in favor of a stricter asylum policy) and tinged with Euroscepticism. Behind these issues we can discern the ideological profiles of the voters the BBB is seeking to rally behind its agenda. As we will see later, this combination of positions undoubtedly reflects quite well the reality of political demand in the Netherlands.
The emergence of a climate-relativist political position (“it’s exaggerated”, “we’re overdoing it”, “there are other priorities”) and/or one opposed to concrete measures implemented as part of the transition does not necessarily require, far from it, the creation of new political forces. In most cases, it will involve well-established political parties repositioning themselves on these issues. We can see this today in a country like France, where the Rassemblement National (RN) seems to be taking the turn towards climate-relativism, and increasingly adopting a stance that is hostile to most transition policies. Of course, the RN’s collective message is not explicitly climate-skeptical and, for the moment, it does not dispute the need for policies to combat climate change. Nevertheless, it should be noted that some of the RN’s top leaders have recently taken public positions in this direction: for example, RN deputy Thomas Ménagé, interviewed in the middle of this summer’s heatwave on France Inter, declared: “We don’t want to fall into a punitive ecology, we don’t want to fall into degrowth. (…) We don’t want to guilt the French, and we can’t solely rely on IPCC data (after, the journalist seemed surprised by this statement). It’s not just a matter of automatically following what can be done with the IPCC data, it’s also a matter of having a political vision that takes global warming into account, but as Marine Le Pen said, they sometimes tend to exaggerate (…) it’s also our role to temper things so that if we blindly follow the IPCC’s data, we don’t run the risk of undermining the quality of life of the French people…”. Far from expressing a singular point of view, these remarks reveal the RN’s new doctrine. The speaker uses the word “we”, has not been criticized by his party, and refers to Marine Le Pen herself. Indeed, she seems to have significantly modified her position on climate issues. Abandoning her strategy of dodging the issue, she delivered a speech on May 1, 2023 that was very hostile to many aspects of transition policies. During the last presidential election, the RN’s fight against wind turbines, which it accused of destroying landscapes and being an “ecological scam”, had to some extent paved the way for this repositioning. But in her speech given to mark May Day, she took things a step further. The “ecological transition” is vilified in its entirety as “the playground of climate hypocrites”. According to her, “for the past 30 years, ecology has been hijacked and has been quietly implementing the highly ideological concept of degrowth”, she continues, “the ecological revolution we’re being sold […] is a leap into the nettles of punitive ecology […] into the thorns of new taxes […] it’s a revolution whose first sacrificed victims will be the most fragile, the poorest”. Calling this transition a “theory”, an “apocalyptic vision”, a “suicidal folly”, she takes particular aim at the “hunt for the internal combustion car”, claiming that the aim of this policy is “not to ban internal combustion cars, but to ban cars altogether”, because “understand my dear friends, behind this very ideological approach lurks the idea of the demise of industrial activity and indeed of all human activity”. It’s clear to see what the RN’s current strategy is: to oppose “ecological transition” policies in their entirety, and most of the measures that underpin them. Renewable energies, particularly wind turbines, and the scheduled end of internal combustion vehicles, have become key areas of conflict. Various arguments are used to discredit these policies. A certain climato-relativism is on display, which consists of portraying scientists — the IPCC in particular — as excessive and too radical. Presenting these as “theories” is another way of relativizing their content and reality. Transition policies are also presented as socially unjust and detrimental to the quality of life of the French. They are also presented as anti-ecological, with RN leaders claiming that wind turbines and electric vehicles will only exacerbate environmental problems. Finally, they claim that these policies are pointless, since technical progress and science will provide the solutions and enable us to meet the climate challenge.
This strategic repositioning is not an isolated occurrence in Europe, nor is it confined to the populist right. Several traditional right-wing parties seem to have developed tension around transition policies, decarbonization objectives and the European Green Deal. Without attempting to offer an exhaustive review of these developments, we will limit ourselves to a few examples taken from recent events. In a noteworthy interview given to leading media on September 12th, the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, distanced herself from the “Green Pact”. Clarifying that she was speaking “as President of the Parliament, not on behalf of the EPP”, she expressed concern about the impact of “overly restrictive” and costly regulations, which she felt could fuel populist votes. It is this type of concern that has led to both the PPE and some of Renew’s liberal members to call for a pause and even a moratorium on implementing the Green Deal. Political leaders, particularly from the center and the right, perceive, with varying degrees of clarity, that the ecological transition has the potential to become a major source of political division, encouraging the rise of right-wing populists at their own expense. It is this kind of electoral anticipation that seems to have convinced British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to announce, on September 20th, that his government was slowing down the transition’s pace to adopt “a more pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach” approach. Among the main decisions announced were the postponement by 5 years (from 2030 to 2035) of the ban on cars running on petrol and diesel, the relaxation of conditions for eliminating gas-fired boilers, and the abandonment of an energy efficiency measure for homes that was weighing on property owners. Struggling in the polls, the Prime Minister seems to have convinced himself that such a shift was necessary after the surprise defeat of the Labour candidate in a local election in West London. The result was interpreted as a rejection of a tax on polluting vehicles that had been applied to the whole of Greater London by the Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan.
The developments described thus far concern political stances. Using the examples of the Netherlands (BBB) and France (RN), they show how right-wing populist parties are seizing on transition policies to turn them into a major political division. They also show that traditional right-wing parties (liberals and conservatives) are tempted to distance themselves from transition policies for fear of competition from populists on this divisive issue.
How transition policies divide society
The rift over transition policies that can be seen in political positions reflects a deeply divided public opinion on the issue. It is these fractures — which, as we shall see, run deep — that can be observed on the citizens’ side that are the main factor in the political side reconfiguring its political stance. To analyze these rifts, we will rely on studies carried out in France in recent months. The French example allows us to understand how the climate divide is at work within the population, and what are the attitudes that shape positions on one side or the other of this divide. Of course, comparative studies will have to be carried out in other European countries to establish whether the French case can be generalized, but also, conversely, what are the specific features of each national context.
There is no consensus on the origins of climate change
What is essential here is to start from the way in which the problem to be solved is perceived by the population. If there is no consensus on a definition of the climate problem, there will be even less consensus on how to respond to it (and even simply on the need to respond to it). If we are to agree to change some of our behaviors and support transition policies, we need to recognize the reality of climate change and, equally important, the fact that it is caused by human activity.
But contrary to what we may believe, there is no public consensus on this issue. More precisely, the consensus is limited to the reality of global warming: according to our studies, only 2% to 3% of the public deny it (see PDF). Radical climate denial therefore remains very much on the fringes. However, the origin of this change is already a fault line. Nearly a quarter of French respondents (24%) believe that “global warming is primarily the consequence of a natural cycle”. This refusal to attribute the cause of climate disruption to human activity, particularly to greenhouse gas emissions, is how climate skepticism manifests itself in French society; the skepticism does not concern the phenomenon itself, but rather its origins. Despite extreme climatic events in recent years, climate skepticism seems to be on the rise. Be that as it may, we can easily recognize that it feeds the initial resistance to environmentalist rhetoric and the implementation of transition policies. It is also significant that a similar proportion of citizens (21%) believe that “the seriousness of global warming is often exaggerated”, despite the fact that the question was asked this past July, during a summer that saw record-breaking heat, severe drought, and devastating wildfires across Europe.
The population typology employed by Cluster 17 allows us to explore in greater depth the distribution of climate skepticism. Without going into too much detail here, this typology is based on 16 clusters, which were created on the basis of people’s attitudes and values. These attitudes and values were identified on the basis of a 30-question test featuring deliberately divisive metrics. We believe that this test clearly identifies the system of divisions that shape a society. As for the clusters, they group together individuals who share the same positions on the primary divisive issues: identity, immigration, attitudes towards elites, economic redistribution… In short, this typology has been designed to provide a detailed understanding of citizen demand, particularly on divisive issues that involve people’s deeply held attitudes and values.
When applied to the questions we’re interested in here, segmentation by value clusters immediately reveals the extent to which climate-skepticism (denying human origin) and/or climate-relativism (believing we’re exaggerating) are not randomly distributed in the social space (see PDF). In certain clusters, these two attitudes are totally or almost totally absent: Multiculturalists, Social-Democrats, Progressives, the Solidarity-minded, Centrists, and the Outraged. In others, on the contrary, these attitudes are widespread (Liberals, Conservatives), or even in the majority (Social-Patriots, Identitarians). Generally speaking, there is a very strong association between a group’s position in the overall spectrum of divisions and the likelihood of it having a significant proportion, or even a majority, of climate skeptics.
Therefore, the further to the left a group is on the identity axis that structures the space of division, the more “climate-convinced” it will be, i.e. inclined to recognize the human origin of climate disruption (graph 1). This observation means that one’s attitude towards the climate is part of wider systems of opinion, and in this case, being open to cultural diversity and progressive on social issues goes along with support for the scientific consensus on climate change. Put simply, progressive attitudes and pro-ecology attitudes go hand in hand. This is reflected in the fact that the group furthest to the left on the divide — the Multiculturalists — is also the only one to 100% acknowledge the human origins of climate change (see PDF). The question regarding the severity of global warming confirms this relationship (see PDF). The most left-wing groups on the identity axis are also — with the notable exception of the Centrists — the most inclined to believe that “the severity of global warming is generally underestimated”: 69% on average vs. 27% among the rest of the population. Logically, they are also the ones who express the greatest sense of ecological urgency, in that a non-negligible fraction of them call for “the environmental issue to be the government’s top priority, ahead of all others (the fight against inflation, the fight against crime, or the war in Ukraine, etc.)” (see PDF): 38% versus 12% among the rest of the population.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, climate-skeptic and climate-relativist positions reach significant levels in groups on the right and extreme right of the divide, i.e. groups characterized by high levels of social conservatism and strong identitarian positions. Three of these groups — the Conservatives, the Identitarians and, even more so, the Liberals — are located fairly high up in this space, because while they are conservative in terms of values, they are also rather elitist and seek social stability (vertical axis). Moreover, these clusters are mainly made up of older middle- and upper-class individuals. They have long been the pillars of the right-wing coalitions, and largely contributed to Nicolas Sarkozy’s success in 2007. With the exception of the Social-Patriots, these clusters are therefore more akin to the traditional right than to “populism”. This is an important point if we are to understand the traditional right’s difficulties in positioning itself on climate issues.
Overall, these four groups are diametrically opposed to the eco-progressive coalition previously described. In addition to harboring a number of climate skeptics, as we have seen, they frequently consider that “the severity of global warming is generally exaggerated”: 40% versus 11.5% in the rest of the population (see PDF). Moreover, only 4% of them consider that “the environmental issue should be the government’s top priority”, compared to 26% of the rest of the population. Cultural conservatism and identity-based values foster a climate-skepticism and climate-relativism which naturally feeds a particularly pronounced rejection of transition policies.
Distrust of elites and conspiracy theories fuel rejection of transition policies
While climate skepticism is largely a matter of cultural conservatism, the rejection of transition policies is also rooted in another attitude that is totally independent of the first: distrust of elites, which often goes along with acceptance of conspiracy theories. Over the last few months, the climate crisis and transition policies have become one of the preferred playgrounds for creators of eco-conspiracy narratives, most of whom come from the anti-vax sphere, particularly on social media. In France, since the summer of 2022, messaging on social media has been spreading, denouncing, for example, the “IPCC ideologues” who are allegedly manipulating data, an alleged plot by the elites to create a “climate dictatorship”, or the threat of a “carbon pass” that would be the “ecological” counterpart to the “health pass”. We would be remiss to underestimate the potential for such statements to disseminate and win support. Our surveys show that a significant proportion of the population is inclined to share this view of the climate crisis and ecological policies. For example, 42% of those polled agreed with the suggestion that “the elites are planning to establish a climate dictatorship”. Varying the wording slightly does not alter the results: 42% still agree that “the climate crisis is a pretext used by world governments to limit people’s freedoms” (see PDF).
Analysis of the responses by clusters confirms that the reasoning behind climato-conspiracy differs in part from that of climate-skepticism. Axis 2, the opposition between the people and the elite, tends to overwhelmingly determine responses. This explains why an elitist group such as the Liberals, despite its climate-skeptic leanings, is one of the least likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories. Conversely, the Revoltés, although “climate-convinced”, are mostly in agreement with this type of anti-elitist narrative. Broadly speaking, the more a cluster is located in the south-eastern part of the graph (combining identitarianism and anti-elitism), the more it will carry a generalized distrust of the dominant climate crisis narrative, and therefore of the policies pursued by institutions. From our perspective, it is important to emphasize that these clusters are mainly made up of individuals from working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds, and that three of them (Réfractaires, Euroskeptics and Social-Patriots) make up the Rassemblement National’s core electorate.
A prevailing sense of injustice regarding the distribution of effort
The acceptability of transition policies comes up against this climate-skepticism and climate-conspiracy in part, but also, more broadly, against people’s perception of them in terms of equity and social justice — all these dimensions being somewhat intertwined. The prevailing public belief is that efforts to combat climate change are, and will continue to be, unfairly distributed.
This is reflected in questions about the distribution of costs. And so, a statement such as “energy sobriety is only imposed on the people, but not the elites” receives overwhelming approval: 76% (see PDF). A cluster-by-cluster reading of the results shows that people’s ecological sensibilities have no influence on their responses. The only groups to disagree with, or at least be divided on, a statement of this type are the three most elite clusters: Social Democrats, Centrists and Liberals.
Similarly, a statement such as “the poorest are the ones paying for the climate and energy crisis when it’s the richest who are responsible for it” receives even higher support: 79% (see PDF). Only two (very elitist) clusters out of sixteen, the Liberals and to a lesser extent the Centrists, have reservations about this type of statement. All the others support it at rates often reaching 90%.
What do these results tell us? That any appeal for sacrifice, or simply for even modest contributions to the fight against climate change, is likely to come up against this kind of narrative. To put it very simply, it’s easy to see how difficult it would be to justify an eventual ban on diesel vehicles in urban areas — as planned by the ZFE in France (see below) — or even simply a ban on the sale of internal combustion vehicles (starting in 2035 in the European Union), while at the same time allowing yachts and private jets to operate. You do not need to be an expert in CO2 emissions to see that it is not the biggest polluters who face the most restrictions. It is far from certain that greater climate justice would be enough to bring about widespread adoption of more sober and ecologically responsible behavior, but it is certain, however, that any failure on the part of public officials to set an example (such as taking airplanes for short trips) and any exemptions with regard to the behavior of the wealthiest individuals will inevitably be leveraged by whole sections of the population to refuse any effort to combat climate change; all the more so, given that free riding (or the stowaway attitude) is the most common attitude in this respect.
The stowaway strategy
Although deep-seated attitudes, such as climate-skepticism or climate-conspiracy, are an essential dimension of the relationship with transition policies, the second dimension to be taken into account is the cost of these measures and, even more so, the level at which each individual is asked to contribute to them. When it comes to climate, as in other areas, most people seek to minimize costs, whether these costs are economic or psychological, and whether they involve paying a tax, making an effort, or giving up a pleasure. From this point of view, the ecological transition is particularly conducive to a “stowaway” strategy: letting others pay the full costs of the transition, while enjoying the collective benefits of limiting global warming.
This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why so many citizens refuse to make any sacrifices whatsoever to combat global warming. We attempted to measure this with a question inspired by Dutch transition policies. After losing a court case against civil society for “climate inaction” (the Urgenda case), the Dutch government was ordered to adopt effective measures to combat greenhouse gas emissions. Mark Rutte’s government, though known to be pro-car, was forced to drastically lower the speed limit on freeways from 130 to 100 km/h between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m.
This prompted us to test the following proposition in a survey: “Highway speeds should be limited to 110 km/h to limit greenhouse gas emissions”. From the point of view of understanding the relationship between citizens and transition policies, such a suggestion is particularly informative for a number of reasons. It has no cost other than longer journey times (for those who travel by car on highways). It has no negative economic impact — on the contrary, driving slower reduces fuel consumption, so it has a positive externality in this respect. It is very egalitarian and has the advantage of making direct polluters contribute, via a reduced effort, in this case those who drive at over 110 km/h on the highway. Yet, even when presented as contributing to the reduction of GHG emissions, such a measure is overwhelmingly rejected: by 67% of those polled (including 37% who strongly disagree, see PDF).
The distribution of responses by clusters allows us to better understand how opinions and willingness to contribute to the transition are combined. Values do have a significant influence on the willingness to make an effort in favor of the climate. As such, the three groups in favor of this measure all consider the climate issue to be a priority (Multiculturalists, Progressives and Social Democrats). All other groups are (generally speaking) clearly opposed to this speed restriction. And this rejection logically reaches particularly high levels in groups with climate-skeptic and/or climate-conspiracy leanings: 87% among Social-Patriots, 88% among Liberals and even 91% among Identitarians. As we can see, any restrictions, even in the absence of direct financial cost, tend to be rejected, in an especially strong and resolute manner, among segments of the population characterized by climate-skeptic or climate-conspiracy leanings.
No wind farms in our backyard
Varying the wording of questions about wind farm installations offers another way of identifying stowaways on environmental issues. If the question about wind farm construction is asked without any context, it receives the support of more than half the population: 59% (see PDF). However, all it takes is to specify “near your home”, and the share of support drops by more than 20 points, to 37% (see PDF). And even then, the survey does not allow us to identify the answers of only those concerned, i.e. respondents living in rural areas where such projects are more likely to be implemented.
On this subject as well, adopting a NIMBY attitude is not unrelated to one’s value system. The clusters that remain mostly in favor of wind power, even close to their homes, are generally the same as those that supported speed restrictions on highways: Multiculturalists, Progressives and Social Democrats (with the addition here of the Eclectics, a cluster that is also sensitive to ecological issues). As with the previous question, groups characterized by conservative and identity-based value systems are particularly hostile to wind power (see PDF). Rejection among them is not only very high, but also very resolute, as revealed by the proportion of “very unfavorable” responses often exceeding 50% (even though these are often not individuals directly concerned). On this subject too, segmentation by value system reveals major divisions: the gap between Multiculturalists and Identitarians on wind farm installations reaches the remarkable level of 70 points.
The relationship to flying as an indicator of the spread of free-riding (including among groups sensitive to ecological issues)
The plane is an interesting object, as its use is less commonplace than that of the car and remains more frequent in the middle and upper social classes. For example, when asked if they were “ready” to “limit themselves to four airplane flights in their lifetime” — a measure proposed by Jean-Marc Jancovici — 55% of respondents answered in the affirmative (see PDF).
But the distribution of support deserves particular attention, as it doesn’t fit in with the previously observed pattern. In this instance, holding a progressive social values system is not enough to inspire support for such a proposal, while conversely, being conservative or even climate-skeptic is not necessarily predictive of rejecting the measure. And so, Social Democrats and Progressives, two groups who believe in the urgency of climate change, are mostly “not ready” to reduce their use of airplanes, while the Solidarity-minded, Réfractaires, Euroskeptics, Social-Patriots, and Anti-welfare are overwhelmingly willing to do so. It’s clear that what we’re seeing here is mainly a difference in socio-economic status, which comes with very different lifestyles and, more specifically, very different ways of using airplanes. Progressives and, even more so, Social Democrats are among the groups with the most economic and cultural capital, and therefore also among the most frequent flyers. And although their value system encourages them to adopt eco-friendly behaviors, they are nonetheless the most reluctant to limit their use of airplanes. Conversely, the clusters that represent the most working-class groups, even among those who tend to be climate skeptics, are “ready” for this type of commitment, since it has no impact on their actual habits and practices. Philippe Coulangeon and his co-authors already made this point in their book La conversion écologique des Français (The Ecological Conversion of the French). Describing the group of “eco-cosmopolitans” — so named because their habits reflect sobriety and environmental awareness — the authors point out that, paradoxically, “the use of airplanes is high: more than a third have used them twice or more to travel in the past year…”. Such an observation highlights the difficulty of giving up certain pleasures and lifestyles in order to limit one’s carbon footprint, even in groups displaying a certain level of ecological awareness.
The suburban ideal is more powerful than the climate crisis
Asking the French whether they are “ready” to “give up living in a detached house” reveals their attachment to the “suburban ideal” and to lifestyles that we know are not the most compatible with sustainable development and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
When questioned about this possibility, 77% of French people said they were “not ready” to “give up living in a single-family home” (see PDF). This result is all the more noteworthy given that it is even higher than the proportion of French people currently living in single-family homes: 66% vs. 41% in Germany or 31% in Spain, for example (source INSEE, tableau économique de la France 2022). Even the most ecologically-minded groups (Multiculturalists, Progressives) are not prepared to forego the single-family home. As for the most conservative and identitarian groups, their opposition to such a possibility is nearly 90%. We can therefore understand the political risk of stigmatizing the “suburban lifestyle”, and how such stigmatization can galvanize groups who are already reluctant to support transition policies in the first place. As with other issues, direct and personal interests exert a strong influence here. For instance, respondents living in smaller communities naturally express a greater attachment to single-family homes: 96% of those living in communities with fewer than 3,000 inhabitants say they are “not ready” to give them up (see PDF).
The car, a highly flammable object
To conclude this non-exhaustive review of areas causing tension with regard to the objectives of decarbonizing our societies, it is impossible to ignore the automobile. Given the place it occupies in our societies and lifestyles, it is a crucial issue for transition policies. As we know, the European Union has set 2035 as the date for banning the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles. Replacing them with electric vehicles is at the heart of transition policies. Similarly, the 2019 LOM (Mobility Orientation Law) requires French metropolitan areas to implement ZFEs (Low Emission Zones) aimed at excluding the most polluting vehicles (particularly diesel-powered) in order to improve air quality in urban areas. Such policies are particularly divisive, and the cultural battle is far from won by the pro-environmentalists.
In the study we carried out on eco-conspiracy, we demonstrated that mistrust of electric vehicles was overwhelming: 68% of those surveyed agreed with the statement that “electric cars are a scam”. The only overwhelmingly pro-electric groups were those that hold both pro-climate attitudes and trust in the system: Social Democrats and Progressives. In contrast, the identitarian and anti-system segments — largely made up of the working and lower-middle classes — are staunchly hostile to electric cars. It is important to emphasize, however, that, contrary to what is sometimes misinterpreted in public debate, attitudes towards electric vehicles are not based solely on purchasing power. Buying an electric vehicle is not just a question of means, but also of desire. How else to explain the fact that 62% of the group with the most economic capital, the Liberals, consider “the electric car to be a scam”; not to mention the Identitarians — a cluster composed mainly of middle-class people — who share the same rejection of electric cars at 87%. Such responses undoubtedly demonstrate a real attachment to traditional cars and internal combustion engines, and no doubt express a sort of “principled” rejection, both political and aesthetic, of one of the main symbols of energy transition policies.
It is therefore no great surprise to find that 59% of French people say they are “not ready to give up the internal combustion car (gasoline and diesel engines)” (see PDF). On this issue too, powerful ideological divisions are at work. Progressive groups who consider climate policies to be a priority are overwhelmingly opposed to the use of internal combustion engines. On the other hand, the attachment to internal combustion engines is very high in all groups characterized by value systems marked by conservatism and identitarianism.
Given this context, the prospect of banning the most polluting combustion-powered vehicles (ZFE), and diesel-powered cars in particular, can understandably become a major source of social and political tension. At present, the ban on diesel vehicles in major city centers is rejected by 70% of French people. When it comes to such restrictions, even multiculturalists are divided (no doubt because the measure is seen as mainly penalizing the working classes). And, of course, there is strong consensus opposing the measure among all the anti-system and conservative groups, with the Social-Patriots and Identitarians rejecting it by over 90%.
Before worrying, or even penalizing, we mustn’t overlook the fact that these initiatives — whether we like it or not — inevitably have a stigmatizing aspect: they point the finger at suburban and rural populations using diesel vehicles (often the working classes) as being responsible for pollution and global warming. They perpetuate the stereotypes that pit the bicycle-riding urbanites against the diesel-powered country folk. When we analyze the way they are received in the public opinion by clusters, we have to admit that these points of conflict are likely to encourage the electoral alliance of the small conservative right with a large faction of the anti-system working classes, forming an ecological backlash that could contribute to reconfiguring European political systems.
Conclusion: the coming showdown
There are several lessons to be drawn from these figures and studies. First and foremost, and most regrettably, they show that the ecological transition does not enjoy consensus. On the other hand, the data we have presented helps us to understand why ecology is increasingly divisive, and why it is likely to be even more so in the years to come.
It is increasingly divisive because it comes up against interests and inherently involves transforming lifestyles, which a non-negligible proportion of the population rejects. As we have seen, the majority of individuals are not “ready” to contribute — or for the most part not very much — to reducing the intensity of climate change. As a result, those who feel — whether correctly or incorrectly — the most threatened by the phasing out of internal combustion vehicles, by possible fuel taxes, by the installation of wind farms, or simply stigmatized by their (suburban) lifestyle, will be more likely to identify with rhetoric and positions hostile to transition policies.
But what our segmentation into value groups also shows is that our relationship with ecology is deeply rooted in more global divisions. It is therefore highly correlated with the opposition between multiculturalists and progressives, on the one hand, and conservatives and identitarians, on the other. All our results demonstrate that ecology is not an isolated issue, separate from other divisive issues that are scattered randomly across the social space. Ecology is therefore not a divide in itself in the sense that it imposes its own divisive logic independent of other existing divides. This is illustrated by the distribution of climate skepticism and climate relativism. There is virtually no climate skepticism or climate relativism in the most progressive groups, whereas these attitudes are widespread, as we have seen, in the most conservative and/or identitarian groups. The same type of relationship can be observed when it comes to acceptance of transition policies. Admittedly, most individuals are reluctant to contribute, and almost everyone finds it difficult to give up sources of satisfaction or pleasure, or even simply highly polluting habits, such as flying. But for roughly equal costs, values systems are determinant, as evidenced by the majority support of Multiculturalists for almost all measures aimed at decarbonization. Conversely, climate skeptics and climate relativists are, logically, the most radically opposed to any effort to combat climate change.
All this helps to explain why climate-skeptic or climate-relativist positions are on the rise among right-wing populists. This (re)positioning along the new climate divide corresponds with a demand largely originating from within their original electoral coalition. This division is, in fact, well aligned with their other key dividing lines: anti-immigration, anti-Islam, anti-elites and even, to some extent, anti-system (cf. eco-complotism). It also offers a major advantage: it enables them to join forces with most of the traditional right-wing clusters. Indeed, because of their cultural conservatism and attachment to lifestyles that may seem stigmatized by environmentalist discourse, they are often even more hostile to transition policies than populist voters. What we are seeing is the emergence of a potential conservative coalition combining social conservatism, nativism and — this is new — climate skepticism or climate relativism.
On the other end of the spectrum, the clear divisions and alignment of conflicts should lead to the emergence of an equally powerful eco-progressive coalition. When it comes to identity and social issues, this coalition is completely opposite: tolerant of foreigners, progressive on social issues and, of course, eager to make climate change a public policy priority. In a country like France, the clusters that make it up are mostly from the political left (in all its stripes), but also in part from certain “moderate” segments. In order to prevail, it will have to make the ecological transition acceptable by integrating it into a global plan for a desirable society.
Whether we want it or not, the showdown between these two models seems hard to avoid, and the fate of the climate transition depends in part on its outcome.
Jean-Yves Dormagen, When The Ecological Divide Becomes Impossible to Ignore. Why transition policies will increasingly shape European political systems, Jan 2024,
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