Politicians are vowing to roll back green policies and downplaying climate change ahead of key elections on both sides of the Atlantic, casting doubt on whether countries can maintain momentum in the transition away from fossil fuels.

In the U.S., former President Donald Trump, who has a long record of climate denial, is the front-runner to challenge President Joe Biden in November. On the campaign trail, Trump has minimized the effects of climate change, attacked electric vehicles and pledged to repeal Biden’s signature climate law.

Meanwhile, in Europe, polls show right-wing parties that oppose strong climate action are likely to increase their representation after the European Union’s parliamentary elections in June, while the climate-minded Greens are expected to lose seats.

That raises the prospect of the U.S. and the EU, two of the world’s top three climate polluters, retreating on environmental ambition following the world’s hottest year on record.

The shift is a mix of backpedaling — goals being pushed back or watered down — and backlash. The growing hostility in some cases veers into outright climate denial and is part of a drift into authoritarian rhetoric that relies on attacks and emotional appeals more than traditional policy debate.

Scientists warn that what’s at stake is a livable planet. Earth has already warmed 1.2 degrees Celsius compared to the preindustrial era, and that’s on track to go up to about 2.5 C by the end of the century if the world doesn’t speed up the shift to clean energy. Any slow-walking comes at the risk of additional warming that’s already driving disasters and costing billions of dollars every year.

Climate isn’t a core issue for most voters the way the economy and security are. But the populist right has made climate policy another culture-wars flash point — an example in their eyes of costly, intrusive overreach that compromises personal choice and national sovereignty.

Much of the right believes that the bigger threat "is not climate change; it’s the actions taken by governments to decarbonize economies,” says Mahir Yazar, a researcher at the Center for Climate and Energy Transformation at the University of Bergen in Norway.

Part of the reason the political winds are shifting is that climate regulations, as they ramp up in stringency, are starting to impinge more on people’s daily lives — at a time when many feel squeezed by inflation and the cost of living.

"Do you choose a heat pump in your house? What car are you going to drive? These are emotional things to people,” said Bas Eickhout, a Dutch member of the European parliament with the European Green Party.

Far-right politicians have prospered by tapping into that sentiment. Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders won over voters last year by promising to scrap the Netherlands’ climate law and exit the Paris Agreement. Libertarian Javier Milei, who has called global warming "a socialist lie,” became Argentina’s new president in December. Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which rejects the decades-old scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, has promised to tear down Germany’s wind farms and has recently broadened its public support.

Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders
Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders | Bloomberg

Closer to the political center, leaders are scrambling to show they’re not prioritizing net-zero policies, intended to balance greenhouse gas emissions to the amount taken out of the atmosphere is equal to the amount emitted, at the expense of household budgets or consumer choice.

In the U.K. — by some measures a world leader in efforts to cut carbon emissions — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hit the brakes on decarbonizing as one of his ministers vowed the Conservative government wouldn’t "save the planet by bankrupting Britons.” The rival Labour Party has dropped its own pledge to invest £28 billion in green projects should it win the country’s next general election.

But abandoning pledges is one thing; undoing settled policy is another. The U.S. Inflation Reduction Act and European Green Deal are enacted as law, and many billions of dollars have already been spent by governments and the private sector alike on renewable power, electric vehicle infrastructure and scaling up new technologies like clean hydrogen.

Speaking about Trump, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said last month that even if he wins, "we would see a continuation of this progress toward zero carbon.” During Trump’s first term, Gore said, "we continued to march toward renewable energy on the business side and state governments continued to pursue carbon reduction.”

Rhetoric sometimes runs headlong into a different political reality. Wilders, for example, is struggling to form a government in the Netherlands and may have to sacrifice his anti-climate stance to get support from more centrist parties. Climate-denying Milei is looking at setting up a carbon market as a way to increase revenue for Argentina’s government.

On the flip side, as Trump attacks electric cars and U.S. growth in EV sales slows, the Biden administration is preparing to ease aggressive proposed requirements for cutting vehicle emissions.

Here's a closer look at how rhetoric relates to policy and where backward steps are most likely:

United States

There are few issues more polarized in the U.S. than climate change. Democrats overwhelmingly support the government acting to address the crisis, and Biden has taken more steps to do so — chief among them the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — than any of his predecessors.

Republicans, in sharp contrast, are much less inclined to support climate measures, and Trump knows it. He’s said that people are too worried about global warming, and described solar energy as "massively expensive” when it is in fact cheaper than coal in the U.S. and much of the world. He has repeatedly bashed electric vehicles and has falsely described Biden’s signature climate law, which he vows to repeal, as "the biggest tax hike in history.”

If Trump prevails and Republicans also gain control of both chambers in Congress, they would likely try to narrow eligibility for IRA tax credits and incentives so that fewer people and businesses could claim them.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump
Former U.S. President Donald Trump | Bloomberg

But overturning the IRA — a sprawling law that supports the ramp-up of renewables and clean technology across the economy — would be very difficult, experts say.

"Its major parts are durable because Congress has a hard time doing anything unless it changes drastically,” said Samantha Gross, director at the Brookings Institution’s Energy Security and Climate Initiative. Even on a textual level, it’s not easy to unravel. "The IRA is pretty prescriptive — there’s less interpretation to be done there that you can then go to the courts and say, ‘The Treasury didn’t interpret this correctly.’”

There are many other things Trump could do to stymie the climate fight if he wins on Nov. 5, said David Victor, co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California at San Diego. His first term as president offers clues.

He could pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement again, unravel climate-related executive orders with a flick of the pen, pause crackdowns on polluters, water down or undo regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency and shut down climate initiatives within the State Department and other federal agencies.

A recent analysis by the San Francisco think tank Energy Innovation found that if Trump were to win a second term, repeal the IRA and dismantle other environmental regulations, U.S. emissions would continue to fall, but at a greatly diminished speed — getting to 24% below 2005 levels by 2030, compared to 50% if Biden were re-elected and pursued the same policy course.

European Union

Undoing current climate policy in the European Union would be even harder than torpedoing the IRA. The EU’s target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 is a matter of law, and there are dozens of more specific laws that regulate how to do it.

"If you’re looking at the next five years, the risk of rolling back climate legislation isn’t significant,” said Manon Dufour, head of the Brussels office at think tank E3G. "But the risk of slowing down is there.”

But a newly floated, aggressive target to cut carbon by 90% by 2040 has already triggered a heated response just four months ahead of EU Parliament elections.

Sylvia Limmer, a German lawmaker in the body and an AfD member, called the target "political climate madness.” The bloc’s executive branch, the European Commission, preemptively watered down an agricultural component of its new climate road map as farmers blocked roads and staged other protests against green rules.

The center-right European People’s Party is expected to retain a plurality of seats in the June elections, but weaker results for other parties that support climate policy would make approving new rules more challenging. "It’s all about how strong of an electoral win the EPP has in June, and what kind of choices they make in this new reality,” Dufour said. "If they side with the far right in parliament, that could slow down the transition very significantly.”

The outcome could mean "the difference between really meaningful, sharp emissions reductions versus the sort of gradual decrease” that would make the bloc’s path to net zero steeper, said Anand Gopal, executive director of policy research at Energy Innovation.

The far right’s traction doesn’t mean Europeans overall aren’t concerned about the climate crisis. A recent survey found it has changed how people think about the future more than any other issue.

United Kingdom

Mixed signals reign in the U.K., where Sunak has called for a "more proportionate” response to the climate crisis but insists the government is still serious about reaching net zero.

In his messaging, Sunak has tried to balance acknowledging that climate change exists with playing to anxieties about the cost of ameliorating it, said Gideon Skinner, head of politics research at pollsters Ipsos Mori. This is because the British public consistently says it cares about climate change and thinks the government isn’t doing enough to tackle it.

Sunak postponed a key green target last year, moving the deadline to end the sale of new gas vehicles (excluding used ones) from 2030 to 2035. Likewise, the government also pushed back a deadline for ending the sale of oil boilers, scrapped requirements for landlords to improve the energy efficiency of privately rented properties and is considering dropping a planned requirement for boiler companies to sell a minimum number of heat pumps.

At the same time, it has taken other emissions-cutting steps. It increased the subsidy offered to homeowners for installing a heat pump, prompting a rise in demand. The government also introduced a mandate requiring all car manufacturers to make an escalating proportion of their sales electric.

A spokesperson for the government’s Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said in a statement that its approach is "fairer and more pragmatic” and will give families more time to make the transition, noting that the U.K. halved its emissions before any other major economy. "We will continue to lead the way with some of the strongest green targets in the world,” the spokesperson said.

Companies and industry groups say the current approach sows confusion. "Mixed messages, delays and U-turns do nothing for market confidence,” said Tamsin Lishman, CEO of the Kensa Group, a heat pump company.

Last September, a group of over 250 businesses and NGOs published an open letter to the prime minister, noting that the business community had made "substantial investments” in the energy transition and that sticking with net zero policies was crucial to building confidence and mobilizing investment.

David Victor, of the University of California at San Diego, contrasts politicians who "want to speak to a constituency that doesn’t want climate action and, more fundamentally, doesn’t want government involved in the economy,” with those who more pragmatically retreat from targets they don’t think they can meet.

In the U.K., he said, "You’ve got both of those things going on simultaneously, and it makes for very, very chaotic public policy.”

So far, it’s not helping Sunak’s Conservatives in the polls, either: His party trails Labour by a wide margin.


In Argentina, economist Javier Milei rose to power last year on a libertarian platform that appealed to voters grappling with inflation and poverty.

During his campaign for the presidency, he denied that global warming was being caused by human activity — at one point he labeled the proven science part of a "socialist agenda” — and said he wouldn’t promote green finance, since it should be down to free energy markets, not governments, to "pick the winners.”

His rival in the election, incumbent leftist Sergio Massa, singled out Milei’s climate denial in an attempt to dim the enthusiasm building around him. It didn’t work.

Drawing comparisons with Donald Trump (the two have expressed admiration for one another), Milei took office in December with a promise to deregulate the economy to solve Argentines’ struggles. That made him an outlier among his South American neighbors: Brazil, Chile and Colombia have all recently elected leftist leaders who’ve pledged strong action on climate change. Brazil slowed deforestation in the Amazon last year, while Colombia is trying to become less dependent on fossil fuels.

As Milei has focused on macroeconomic reforms and austerity, his government scrapped the ministry for the environment and sustainable development, relegating those areas to the department for sports and tourism.

Argentina's President Javier Milei
Argentina's President Javier Milei | Bloomberg

But despite being a maverick, Milei has quickly learned that in order to govern he must make concessions. And his signature reforms legislation — which failed a first attempt to get the approval of congress — includes the introduction of a carbon cap and trade system.

Under the proposed rules, which Milei is looking for a way to revive, Argentina would seek to meet its globally-agreed 2030 climate goals through annual caps on greenhouse gas emissions that the government would assign industry by industry. Companies exceeding the cap would incur fines, or they could fall back on a government-created marketplace to "buy” emissions from others that meet the cap with room to spare.

Whether or not Milei ultimately delivers on a policy that is so at odds with his fiercely anti-climate rhetoric, Argentina is not a top global emitter. Neither is the U.K. But the U.S. and EU are, and if they backslide in tandem, it will not only compromise their own and the world’s targets but send a signal to other nations that cutting emissions at a slower rate is sufficient.

This year of elections is also a year when, under the Paris Agreement, countries are supposed to submit more ambitious national climate goals to the United Nations.

The energy transition will continue even if Europe’s momentum flags, E3G’s Dufour said, but decarbonizing sectors like agriculture and heavy industry would become more challenging: "That’s where a slowdown in Europe and the U.S. would have negative impacts.”

A U-turn by the U.S. would be consequential on a global scale, said Gopal of Energy Innovation. It would carry the "implication that the U.S. is once more not taking climate seriously,” he said, and "could lead other countries to have less and less ambitious targets.”