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“It is patriotic to protect the climate”

Sverker Sörlin (KTH Professor of Environmental History and member of the Swedish Climate Council 2018-2022), Maria Wolrath Söderberg (docent in rhetorics with a specialisation in climate adaptation, Södertörns högskola)  and Nina Wormbs (KTH Professor of History of Technology) have published a highly commentated opinion piece in Dagens Nyheter on 25 September 2022. Following Sweden’s close parliamentary election results, which find the left and the right block head to head with a slight advantage for the right, the three authors try to situate necessary climate policy within a potential future right-wing government. In the following we post our English translation of the article.
Photo: Unsplash


DN Debatt. “It is patriotic to protect the climate”

It looks like that we are getting a government with low ambitions and bad premises to achieve the climate goal. But all is not lost. The person who searches through the parties’ fundamental ideological values can actually find something to build on – in all four parties. A smart leader does best when listening. To the person’s own conscience, to science and to the electorate – write three researchers.

In the past it was difficult for Sweden to live up to its reputation as a pioneering country for environmental policy. Just one out of 16 environmental goals set by the Riksdag/Parliament were met. Every year since 2018 the Swedish Climate Council has stated, that decided policies were inconclusive, and that Sweden belongs to the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, with an emission per citizen twice as high as the global average.

Emissions need to shrink with more than 10% per year, thus most in the next few years, for Sweden to have a chance to keep within the national emissions-budget specified in the Paris Climate Agreement. Before the pandemic hit, the rhythm of reduction was 1-2%. Nearly 2000 researchers recently have demanded that climate policy should be drastically sharpened.

This difficult situation has been drastically exacerbated by the election of the Swedish parliament. It looks like we are getting a government with parties which, according to several studies, have the lowest ambitions and the worst premises for reaching the climate goal.

The Moderates (M), Christian Democrats (KD) and Liberals (L) have put all their political weight into the electrifying campaign and they show no signs to reevaluate, even though we are witnessing skyrocketing prices. They do not want to offer adjustments to Swedish way of life, even though science is unified in saying that personal and societal transformations are necessary.

But isn’t there nevertheless a possibility for a powerful climate policy with the new government? We do not ask this question of changing the reasoning of a government without being unsettled by the possibility that climate politically invaluable years could be lost. This gives us the moral right, independently of the parties forming the government, to push that Sweden takes responsibility.

Big and durable political changes cannot happen during a conflict between the parties’ fundamental ideological values. Therefore we have evaluated those under the question whether they can be used – by smart and responsible leaders – to form the parties towards work on reforms. This is an urgent task.

We presume that the governing parties are not hypocritical, but that M, KD, and L actually want to achieve the climate goals they themselves have been involved in deciding. Hence it would be smart from the Moderates to link up to their conservative heritage and underscore that nature is not only a resource for the industry, but also has spiritual and national value. The conservative tradition highlights personal responsibility over the generations and that there are higher things other than material gains.

Even those who usually focus on ownership and entrepreneurship have something to pick up here. The business community is already criticising the right-wing parties for their unwillingness to see Sweden take the lead, most recently in the petition of 227 Swedish companies ahead of the election.

The Christian Democrat’s climate policy so far was messy and inconsistent. Agriculture is highlighted as already climate-smart (a puzzling exaggeration). Transition work is supposed to happen in other countries. They see a rising electricity usage unavoidable in Sweden.

But Christian values have a lot to offer. Christian Democratic parties on the continent like to emphasise the idea of solidarity: that you cannot unilaterally take advantage of the limited resources of the atmosphere just because you are a rich country. The creation should be managed for the good of all. Older generations need to think about younger ones. Christian values show special consideration with the people suffering and weak. Ideological conditions for being cautious thus exist.

A key point in liberalism is that one’s freedom should not inflict upon the freedom of others. The liberals’ climate policy is more ambitious than those proposed by the Moderates and Christian Democrats. L takes the climate crisis serious, but their hopes into techno-fixes, bio-fuel and CO2-captureing are unrealistic. Many of their favourite technologies take decades to materialise and it is not probable that they can be scaled up to the degree necessary.

To join freedom with responsibility is part of liberalism’s understanding of freedom, for example by living modestly. John Stuart Mill, Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt have warned against the barbaric circumstances, which lurk around the corner if we do not manage to create a sustainable society, which in turn can only achieve legitimacy if it can be combined with justice, as the Paris Climate Agreement presumes. But in our time, liberalism’s understanding of freedom has been pushed into the direction that one’s freedom is to choose what one wants. Such a position does not at all guarantee that the planet could be preserved.

Within the government base, the Sweden Democrats stand out. They deny climate science and claim that “Sweden has no climate crisis”. They want to shift responsibility for the large Swedish emissions to other countries where it is envisaged that corresponding emission reductions can be made at a lower cost. The Sweden Democrats want to reduce electricity prices and prices for fossil fuels, remove the reduction obligation and the aviation tax, the very driving forces that the progressive business community wants to maintain and strengthen in order to speed up the transition.

Support can thus be found in the values that once bestowed on us conservative and liberal parties: solidarity, care for the neighbour, love of creation, freedom for all not to suffer from the freedom of choice of others.

SD draws from two irreconcilable myths: that Sweden is the best and that this is a pity for us. None are true. For a responsible right-wing government it would be easiest to completely isolate SD in questions of climate policy. But if SD demands influence on the basis of its de facto position of power, the governing parties should appeal to the natural ideology that SD’s sister parties in eastern and southern Europe run, where their own “national nature” is nurtured as a unifying primordial force. Successful climate work would also reduce the risk of large climate migration, which SD wants to prevent.

In order to achieve that the Swedish climate policy does not fully lose  contact with its goal, we have to think about the becoming government parties as open for development. They have so far more or less ignored research and facts. At the same time, nine out of ten Swedes think the climate is an important question which influences them. There are also many in M, KD, and L who really want to see a sustainable future.

Regarding the climate question it is not the people that deceive, but politicians who deceive the people. Therefore, they should listen to their consciousness and take responsibility in regard to this fateful question. There is also support to be found in the value that once gave us conservative and liberal parties: solidarity, care for your neighbour, love towards creation, freedom for all to avoid suffering from the freedom of choice of others. The argument is not only that we all deserve that the climate goal can be reached and promises been kept (like with the saying “pacta sunt servanda”, pacts should be kept). The parties should also be positively surprised, to get sympathy and to be able to develop a long-lasting greener right-wing policy. The parallel is of course the Reinfeld-government’s wise triangulation of welfare policy. The new Moderates took over their opponents’ best policy, safety for everyone, and called it their own.

This is just the beginning. After that it should be clarified that Sweden listens to science (which is patriotic) and that we shape policies in accordance to research. Then Sweden does not need to be embarrassed amongst climate-progressive Europe.

Translated from the Swedish original, Sörlin/ Wolrath Söderberg/ Wormbs: Det är fosterländskt att värna klimatet, in: Dagens Nyheter 25 September 2022.

Working as a doctoral student in the Nuclearwaters-Project (ERC Consolidator Grant, PI Per Högselius), I focus on the nuclear history of Eastern Europe, especially on the territory of the former Soviet Union and its successor states. Furthermore, I investigate expert cultures in nuclear discourses, with a special interest in water-related issues in nuclear power plant decision-making. In addition, I am intrigued by the entanglement of the commercial, scientific and political interests concerning nuclear technologies, with its sometimes harsh consequences on human societies and the environment. Recently this interest has extended to energy systems as a whole in Eastern Europe, including fossil fuels and renewables. Questions of transition within international energy systems in the face of the climate crisis and recent political developments become more important, as my work progresses.