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On climate activism as (left) populism

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Sofie Hellberg | 22 January 2020

Photo used with permission from the author

Over the last several weeks, a debate on climate activism and populism has been raging in Swedish (social) media. The springboard for the debate was the claim of Swedish Television’s foreign correspondent (soon to be climate correspondent), Erika Bjerström, that the message of Greta Thunberg is increasingly becoming “left-populist” (link here).

As always when something concerns Greta Thunberg, the reactions were massive. In relation to the Blogfest on populism, the debate raises questions on the concept of populism in general and that of a left-populism in particular and how these relate to climate activism. These are the questions that I will concern myself with in the following text.

In response to Bjerstöm’s analysis, Andreas Gustavsson, editor in chief at Dagens ETC, wrote, that it is “Stunning” and “Ominous” that public service gives right-wing populist the power to define who is a left-populist (link here); while Anders Lindberg in an op-ed in Aftonbladet argued that Bjerström’s claim is wrong simply since the environmental movement has failed to incorporate the class dimension (link here). What especially had caught Bjerström’s attention, she explains later in a response to Viktor Pressfelt in Aftonbladet (link here), was that Thunberg together with fellow climate activists Luisa Neubuer and Angela Valenzuela as well as Evan Meneses and Hilda Flavia Nakabuye had called out “Colonial, racist, and patriarchal systems of oppression” to “have created and fuelled” the climate crisis (link here): a move from a focus on scientific facts to politics, according to Bjerström. In the debate that followed in social media, the tone was harsh against Bjerström. This led her eventually to leave Twitter after she, in her own words, was accused of being a “nazi,” a “climate denier,” and that she was “bought by oil companies.”

There are several issues at stake in this debate. First, there is the question of understanding politics. Viktor Pressfelt already placed this in focus in Aftonbladet where he argued that it becomes troublesome when Bjerström calls Thunberg, whose activism is based on well-established science, a left-populist, while neoliberal proposals are presented as apolitical and uncontroversial (link here). Second and relatedly, in Dagens Arbete, Kristina Alstam addresses the question of why the suggestions from the climate activists are understood as “left” and argues that it is because business as usual, ie. market liberalism, is not an option if we are to address the challenge of climate change (link here).

The question of how we can understand the concept of populism in relation to climate activism is, however, a matter of debate. Populism in everyday language is something that is understood as inherently negative and involving political claims and promises that resonate with the masses due to their way of presenting easy solutions to complex problems. From such a perspective, it couldn’t be more wrong to call Greta Thunberg and Fridaysforfuture populists. The core message of these activists is that we – especially in the rich parts of the world - need to take action and change our ways of organizing society and our ways of living in order to combat climate change. Nothing on the political agenda can get more inconvenient to convey to the public than this.

However, such a negative way of understanding populism is not the only way of defining the concept; after all, the origins of the concept is about support from ordinary people, not a foreign idea in democratic societies. Chantal Mouffe, a leading European political theorist, has recently presented a defense of left-populism as an alternative to neoliberalism in which the ‘people’ are constituted through a range of heterogenous democratic demands united by the idea of a ‘radical democratic conception of citizenship’ (Mouffe 2018: 206). Mouffe builds on an understanding of populism developed by Ernesto Laclau in which the concept can be understood as a strategy of constructing the we/they political frontier by mobilizing the ‘underdog’ against ‘those in power.’ If we apply such an understanding of populism to Greta’s activism, it is a bit more truthful to call her a (left) populist as she refers to “the people” as a hopeful alternative to established political and economic actors.

However, even this way of understanding populism does not quite capture the claims of the climate justice movement. To address climate change challenges the idea of a left-populist strategy à la Mouffe. Climate change, in accordance with the views of these activists, is an issue that requires a politics of the global. In other words, in contrast to a left-populist strategy, which premieres the national level in the forming of collective identities, we need a politics that can transcend the construction of the people within the borders of the national.

Relatedly, addressing climate change also needs a politics beyond the idea of ‘a people’ as a referent object, one that includes not only human but also non-human lives and the environmental conditions that make life possible. For the climate activists, what needs to be cared for is not solely a people, or even the people but the planet. A (left) populist stance does not foreclose this but what the climate justice movement does is to require us to think about politics and political subjectivity in new ways and in different terms compared to the traditional agonism between right and left alternatives within the realm of the state. Thus, a climate populism is something that cannot simply be described as “left” or “populist” or “left-populist” in current political discourse.



Mouffe, C. (2018) For a Left Populism Verso: London & New York.


Sofie Hellberg is a senior lecturer in Peace and Development Research at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. Her research interests center around environmental issues and (bio)politics, especially relating to water, climate change and education for sustainable development.


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