IN the past two weeks, environmental groups in Europe have staged a series of protests — including throwing mashed potatoes at a painting of Claude Monet and hurling tomato soup at a Vincent van Gogh painting to remind people of environmental issues — which have drawn global attention.
These radical environmental groups in European countries started their relevant actions in 2021. They have now upgraded their methods and an immediate reason is the setback in the European Union’s energy transition process. Another reason is that environment-related affairs are gaining increasing attention and support with the EU population.
The EU has committed to playing a role as the global climate political leader, and has formulated and implemented a series of green environmental protection policies. Among them, the transformation and upgrading of energy structure which is an important part. However, due to the different energy structures within each member state, the goal of shifting away from fossil fuels to renewable energy has not progressed as planned. From the European energy crisis that started last year to the Russia-Ukraine conflict this year, European countries have begun to rethink their previous “one-size-fits-all” timetable for green energy transition.
While the energy crisis caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict may further strengthen the EU’s will to continue its pursuit of clean energy in the medium and long term, the current European energy gap caused by Western sanctions against Russia can hardly be filled by clean energy any time soon. To make up for this gap, even Germany, a leading member state on the road to energy transition, has gone back to burning coal to ensure heating this winter, and other countries affected by high energy prices, such as Hungary and Poland, have turned to cheaper and more polluting energy sources.
In addition, EU greenhouse gas emissions increased by 5 percent in 2021 compared to 2020 due to the post-pandemic economic recovery, and Europeans have experienced several rounds of extreme heat last year and this summer. All these factors have prompted radical environmental groups to take more eye-catching means to awaken the public to the issue of climate change.
Second, environmental protection issues have an increasingly strong public opinion base in Europe, and environmental political forces are on the rise. In the 2019 elections for the European parliament, Green parties in EU member states suddenly emerged and achieved historic results in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Austria and the Netherlands, according to statistics from the European Greens website. The European Green parties’ soaring popularity reflects a trend in European politics that cannot be ignored: people in EU member states, particularly the youth, expect more from the EU in terms of addressing climate change. As green energy and emission reductions become “political correctness,” radical environmental groups are resorting to extreme actions to draw more public attention to this issue.
Finally, the recent actions by radical environmental groups can be interpreted as a signal that those groups are shifting toward a political force — to be specific, a significant radical left-wing force. In recent years, the influence of traditional mainstream political parties has declined greatly, and has been replaced by the rise of extreme political forces. Compared to the prominence of the radical right, the radical left has faded. Thus, such actions by radical environmental groups are an attempt to compete with the radical right for voters who are disappointed with traditional mainstream parties.
The issue of combating climate change resonates better with young Europeans. At a time when the leadership of Europe’s radical right-wing parties is becoming younger, reaching out to more young people is a solid foundation for these organizations to grow into strong political forces in the future.
There are divergent views within European society on recent environmental actions. Some doubt that whether this approach really captures the essence of solving the problem at a time of high energy prices and soaring inflation. When the EU’s energy transition process is suffering setbacks, the series of radical actions are aimed at not only attracting public attention but also making preparations for the environmental organizations to develop into a more influential political force. The implications of this for future political development in Europe will be complex.
BY TU DONG, GLOBAL TIMES
The author is an associate research fellow at Center for European Studies of Sichuan University. This article was first published in the Global Times on Oct. 31, 2022. The Global Times is an English-language Chinese tabloid under the People’s Daily, an official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party. The views expressed here are the author’s and not necessarily those of The Manila Times.