Wildfires in southern Europe last summer didn't automatically transfer into votes for green parties (Photo: Unsplash)


Hot south vs. cool north: The EU-election climate paradox

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The recently concluded EU elections exposed the complexity of climate policy. Many researchers, decision-makers, and business leaders believe that the consequences of climate change need to become clearer, i.e. more noticeable to citizens, before a climate transition with radical changes can gain sufficient public support to be implemented.

For example, ministers from all around Europe often underscore that further climate action cannot be achieved without the support of the people. But is it really that simple? The results of the EU elections reveal an unexpected dynamic between the consequences of climate change and voters’ acceptance of climate action.

In the EU countries hardest hit by climate change, such as Italy, Greece, and Spain, the climate was not a high priority. Despite the record-breaking hot summer of 2023 in Europe with droughts, wildfires, and floods; poverty reduction, health, and employment ranked significantly higher than combating climate change in these countries, according to the EU's official attitude survey before the EU elections.

The outcome of the EU elections also showed that the environmental movement lost ground. The EU's green group lost a total of 18 seats in the European Parliament (seven were lost due to Brexit), leaving them with only 53 out of 720 seats.

Meanwhile, the far right made significant gains and increased its number of seats in the EU Parliament, for example, Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia) became the largest party in Italy. This group of parties opposes climate policies.

In the northernmost member states, which, on the other hand, have been less affected by climate change, climate awareness and the willingness to take climate action are significantly stronger.

Despite that last summer was experienced as relatively cool in the Nordic countries, the people of Sweden, Finland, and Denmark rank climate change among the top three most important issues for the EU.

In Sweden, respondents even considered climate change to be the most important of all political issues in the debate leading up to the EU elections.

It was therefore expected that the Green Party (Miljöpartiet) in Sweden would make significant gains in the EU elections, from 11.5 percent to 13.8 percent.

The fact that voters in the northern EU countries prioritised climate change significantly higher than voters in the south, despite the fact that the consequences of climate change were much more tangible in the south than in the north, suggests that there is no clear correlation between consequences of climate change, on the one hand, and openness to climate action, on the other hand.

Rather, this paradox suggests another correlation: namely, that a positive attitude towards climate policy correlates with the degree of implemented climate measures.

The Nordic countries, for example, have implemented a significantly higher proportion of energy based on renewable sources than Southern Europe.

The share of energy that is renewable is highest in Sweden within the EU, at 60 percent, and this is obviously also where there are the most positive voters for climate action.

When implemented, the population can experience that climate policy can also have positive effects such as cleaner air, and low and stable energy costs, which can be difficult to witness before climate policy has been implemented, as in the central Mediterranean countries, where only about 20 percent of energy comes from renewable sources.

Those who are waiting for the consequences of climate change to become clearer in order to create openness to radical measures may therefore wait in vain.

Other problems such as health, security, and the economy may be more palpable for individuals and therefore prioritised higher, both now and in the future.

The feasibility of climate policy seems to be rather determined by the political will to do something here, now, and already decided climate measures.

The introduction of other policies like smoking bans, corporal punishment bans, seatbelt mandates, gender-equal parental leave, vaccinations, and same-sex partnerships has been accompanied by a marked rise in public acceptance of these issues.

If the Euroepan Parliament fails to provide strong climate leadership, public support for climate action could wane over time.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s, not those of EUobserver

Author Bio

Nils Johansson is a researcher and a teacher at the Royal Institute of Technology KTH in Stockholm, Sweden.

Wildfires in southern Europe last summer didn't automatically transfer into votes for green parties (Photo: Unsplash)


Author Bio

Nils Johansson is a researcher and a teacher at the Royal Institute of Technology KTH in Stockholm, Sweden.


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