Elections highlight the missing energy transition narrative

Chief Europe Correspondent
Illustration of people gathered around a table from above, table is green and holds little objects like a euro symbol made of coins, mini cows, a toy car, a toy tractor, and a small wind turbine. The hands around the table are all pointing at different objects.
Illustration by Nadya Nickels.

Climate laws need public backing — but one doesn’t necessarily follow the other.

To effectively address climate change, governments need to both enact the right laws and ensure their populations support those laws, so they stick around long enough to make a dent in our planet’s warming. 

It’s this second half of the equation that politicians in Europe and the United States are starting to realize has been overlooked — or missing, some would argue — as an essential complement to the myriad existing rules and political ambitions aimed at decarbonizing our economy. 

The recent results of the European parliamentary elections are a testament to that fact.  

In 2019, a green wave swept across Europe as climate issues topped voters’ concerns. Five years later, the European Union has the European Green Deal, one of the most ambitious packages of climate policies in the world.  

Now, some people want to dial it down a notch. The June elections saw the rise of far-right populist parties that campaigned in part on rolling back climate policies, while the eco-conscious green parties took a tumble (the center mainstream parties held). 

Climate policies were less prominent in people’s minds this time around. The last five years also saw the world grappling with a global pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine has been keeping energy prices high in Europe and brought defense concerns to the foreground, while the cost of living has gone up across the continent. 

The lack of a social narrative to keep people on board with a speedy energy transition risks hampering our ability to act swiftly to keep the planet from heating up further, experts say. 

Social narrative, while hard to define, in broad strokes refers to the story politicians tell to encourage people to embrace the energy transition complemented by socially-minded policies that compensate workers who might lose their decades-long fossil-heavy jobs and need to retrain to work in a cleaner industry. 

“The politicians who articulated the Green Deal did not understand the political consequences,” said Tom Burke, chairman and co-founder of the climate think tank E3G. “People have begun to realize they’ve really got to change, and then they feel insecure, and then the right is tapping into that insecurity in pursuit of power.” 

Change is hard

The impact of green policies on people’s lifestyles and wallets in a post-pandemic, high-inflation, war-time world brought a reality check for politicians.  

My conversations living and traveling across Europe, particularly these last few months, have shown this dynamic.  

Farmers rolled through Brussels, the EU capital, in their tractors, setting fires across the city to protest proposed environmental regulations. In Germany, thousands of people protested last year against a proposal to phase out oil and gas heaters (the proposal became law, albeit with a longer timeline). Drivers across Europe worry about plans to phase-out the diesel engine. Workers in the fossil fuel and automotive sectors worry about their futures. In the Eastern European countryside, villagers complain they cannot afford to install solar panels on their roofs.

A man rides a bicycle next to tractors that line the streets of Brussels.

A man rides a bicycle past farmers’ tractors near the Cinquantenaire Arcade during a protest by farmers’ organizations in Brussels on February 26, 2024. Farmers across Europe protested for weeks over what they described as excessively restrictive environmental rules, competition from cheap imports from outside the European Union and low incomes. Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP via Getty Images.

The Achilles heel of the European Green Deal is the lack of a proper social framework, said Judith Kirton-Darling, general secretary of industriAll European Trade Union, a federation of European trade unions representing workers from various sectors, including energy, mining and chemicals. 

There’s a false expectation that the social dimension is a natural process that will take care of itself, and all the attention is on the sexy part of the transition, new technologies, the business-friendly environment,” Kirton-Darling said. “Money isn’t the only thing.” 

Burke at E3G described policy as a map and politics as the journey. The European Green Deal is solely a “technology transition policy,” he said. 

“As we’re discovering… you don’t have to offer people a better policy prospect to get elected,” he said. “You have to offer them a political prospect.” 

Burke, whose London-headquartered group also has an office in Washington, D.C., said the signature climate law passed under U.S. President Joe Biden, the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, is “demonstrating that a policy option that addresses climate change is actually much better for the economy in all sorts of ways.” 

Although that is Europe’s perspective, most Americans aren’t aware of the law or its economic opportunities, with the administration failing to properly communicate those policy successes as the country gears up for the November presidential election, as The New York Times reported 

Republican candidate and former president Donald Trump, meanwhile, is offering to reverse the clean energy changes Biden put in motion, courting the fossil fuel industry.  

“[Trump] is offering identity, a culture war,” said Burke, adding that when it comes to climate change: Trump is “doing politics and Biden is doing policy.” 

Human contradictions

What makes social acceptance of climate policies an even more elusive goal is the contradiction between what outcomes people say they support and what they are willing to do to achieve them. 

European citizens listed climate and the environment as the second top issue (after security and defense) that the EU should tackle in the next five years, according to spring polling results used by EU institutions. A vast majority of people (over 80%) agreed the EU should invest massively in renewable energy and increase the energy efficiency of buildings. Meanwhile, a plan to ban the sale of new vehicles using petrol or diesel was the least popular in a list of proposed measures because people see it as a big change to their lifestyle.  

In the U.S., recent studies show most Americans expect the effect of climate change to get worse during their lifetime, but nearly two-thirds are unwilling to pay any amount of money to combat it. 

“The United States may very well vote for Trump at the same time as 60-odd percent of people think that climate change is a major problem that must be dealt with,” said Burke. “People are not required to be consistent.”  

To some conservatives, the problem isn’t about social narratives, it’s about money. 

“Folks are having to make choices between, ‘Do I invest in new technology that might be cleaner and could potentially save me money in the long run, or do I have to think about my immediate costs for food and fuel as I try to support my family and my life?’” said Emily Domenech, senior vice president at the Washington, DC-based Boundary Stone Partners and who has previously worked for Republican leaders in the House of Representatives. 

While social acceptance matters in tackling growing local resistance to building clean energy projects, getting people to adopt new technology comes down to affordability, she said. 

An aerial shot of an EV parking station in Italy.

An electric vehicle charging station in Corvara, Italy in July 2022. Photo by Matt James.

So, what do we do?

One way to tackle the social acceptance issue is by boosting the role of local governments in communicating and delivering the changes needed for the energy transition “street by street,” Burke said. 

Kirton-Darling said countries, such as Denmark, where consultations with workers and collective bargaining is a standard part of the political process, tend to have a higher social acceptance of the energy transition. In those cases, many people feel that even though they had to make trade-offs, the tradeoffs were fair and negotiated. Denmark, a renewable energy leader in Europe, is also an example of a country where workers transitioned from offshore fossil fuel jobs to offshore wind energy jobs with better pay and working conditions. 

During a trip to northern Spain earlier this year, I heard from local residents in a wind-farm heavy region they were open to the clean energy projects near their homes because developers asked about their opinions early on and they understood the local benefits. 

“The more you can use public policy to empower local people to take control of their own energy into their own hands… the more participation you get,” Burke said. “People believe what they do.”