Spain Might Be The World’s Most Important Climate Test


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Juan Medina / Reuters

A woman holds a placard reading “There is no Planet B” during a protest demanding global politicians take urgent action to fight climate change in Madrid in September.

At the start of this year, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez became the first major world leader to endorse the idea of a “Green New Deal,” adopting the slogan U.S. Democrats have popularized over the last year for his plan to transition fossil fuel workers to new jobs.

Now, as Madrid prepares to host the United Nations’ 25th Conference of the Parties following Chile’s abrupt decision to back out amid fiery protests over inequality, Sánchez’s government is offering an alternative vision of what it might look like to close the income gap and lower emissions at once. That will be on full display this week as world leaders hash out plans to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goals, and under the terms of the pact, consider more ambitious targets. 

On the face of it, Europe’s fifth-largest economy makes a sweeping industrial policy to curb emissions and expand the public sector look like good politics. In April, Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, or PSOE, won reelection, even picking up votes in the coal-producing region where, just months earlier, his government shuttered most of the country’s remaining mines. 

It was a narrow victory and, without a majority in Parliament, the Sánchez administration was forced to call another snap election last month. The Socialists again eked out a slim win, and this time agreed to form a coalition with Unidos Podemos, a party to its left. If Sánchez’s center-left vision of a Green New Deal could be criticized for not being ambitious enough, the inclusion of the anti-austerity Podemos could make the country the first to seriously attempt the kind of Green New Deal progressives elsewhere have laid out to curb soaring economic inequality and planet-heating emissions. 

Green New Dealers on both sides of the Atlantic argue that addressing both crises at once is key to staving off a resurgent neo-fascist right wing. Vox, a far-right party openly nostalgic for Franco-era Spanish authoritarianism, surged from zero to 24 parliamentary seats last April. November’s election brought that total to 52, making it the third-largest party in Spain. 

But, even with a new left flank in the governing coalition, experts say the chances of making transformative changes are slim, thanks to the European Union’s rules on spending and public ownership. It’ll be a test for how much effectively the Green New Deal can beat back the far right while still confined by what one researcher called the “straitjacket of austerity.” 

Climate On The Backburner

The devastating heat wave in Western Europe this summer roasted Spain. At least two Spaniards ― an 80-year-old man and a 17-year-old boy ― died as weather stations across the country documented record June temperatures. Seven stations recorded their hottest temperatures ever. The worst wildfires in decades, meanwhile, scorched nearly 13,000 acres in the northeastern province of Catalonia.

Sergio Perez / Reuters

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias shake hands during a news conference on Nov. 12. 

It’s a glimpse, scientists say, of the years to come as the planet heats up. The latest United Nations climate report found the world needs to reduce emissions 7.6% every year from 2020 to 2030 to keep warming within the 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit range, beyond which projections show catastrophic effects on food systems, freshwater supplies and coastal cities. Yet emissions from fossil fuels alone grew by nearly 2% last year to hit a record high. That figure looks set to soar, as current forecasts show the world’s top 10 fossil-fuel-producing countries plan to extract 120% more oil, gas and coal than is consistent with keeping warming in a safe range.

Between 1990 and 2017, Spain’s emissions grew by 17.9%, even as the European Union’s fell on average 23.5% during the same period, according to a bloc-wide report. More vehicles on the road and increased production of electricity and heating drove the spike. Spain is Europe’s second-largest carmaker and biggest importer of liquefied natural gas in the European Union.  

The spike in emissions reflected efforts to rev Spain’s beleaguered economy, which last year grew by 3%, faster than France or Germany. In 2017, 90% of new jobs in the country were temporary, with a third lasting less than three weeks, according to The New York Times. This year, the unemployment hovered at about 14.2% all year. It was the lowest in a decade, and down from a 2013 peak of 27%. But the rate was still more than double the European Union average. 

The Sánchez administration’s efforts have been largely focused on triage. The government started the year with an unprecedented 22% hike to the minimum wage. After Parliament rejected his budget, Sánchez called a snap election in April, where the Green New Deal debuted as a platform issue. 

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In November’s election, the issue once again took a backseat. Sánchez pivoted away from climate, pitching the Socialists as the best chance at stability as tensions erupted over Catalonia’s attempted independence vote, Britain’s exit from the European Union and a slowing economy. Podemos veered left, campaigning on structural critiques of the market economy itself, said Riccardo Mastini, an environmental policy researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

“The Green New Deal sounded like too reformist an idea,” Mastini said. “So they preferred to talk about capitalism as the issue.”

Más País, a new ecosocialist party formed as a green breakaway from Podemos, made the most vibrant appeal to climate voters. But it only won three seats in the Parliament. 

“It’s not easy to see how the green agenda on its own has a real sell to Spaniards,” said Victor Lapuente, a Spanish political expert and professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. 

The Denialist Right

Vox’s official party line, meanwhile, is that anthropogenic climate change is “una tomadura de pelo” ― a term roughly translating to “a joke.” In September, all parties in the Spanish Parliament except Vox voted to declare a state of emergency over the climate crisis. Rocío Monasterio, Vox’s leader in Madrid, celebrated the schism within Podemos that gave rise to Más País as a potential opportunity to peel off left-wing voters. 

It’s not a unique position. Despite 97% of peer-reviewed climate science indicating humans’ emissions are the primary cause of warming, and significant flaws in the other 3%, the conspiracy theory rejecting that reality has remained a consistent talking point on the far right. President Donald Trump in the United States and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are among the most powerful adherents to the belief. 

Susana Vera / Reuters

Supporters of Spain’s far-right party Vox wave flags in Madrid during the Spanish election in November. 

Yet some of the European far-right parties that back Vox are starting to shift away from denialism. Following Green parties’ surge in April’s European parliamentary elections, the far-right Alternative for Germany’s youth wing in Berlin conceded that climate moves “more people than we thought” and urged its party leaders to abandon the “difficult to understand statement that mankind does not influence the climate.”

France’s National Rally vowed in April to make a “Europe of nations” the “world’s first ecological civilization.” Its leader, Marine Le Pen, claimed those “rooted in their home” are “ecologist,” and suggested “nomadic” people “do not care about the environment; they have no homeland,” alluding to Nazi-era blood-and-soil myths about ethnic ties to geography.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s market-friendly efforts to curb emissions have done little to quell the forces driving Le Pen. In fact, his bid to raise gas taxes last year ignited a fiery protest movement that arguably created an opening for Le Pen’s newfound climate populism. 

Vox rode a different political wave to power, surging in polls after taking a hardline stance against Catalonia’s chaotic vote to secede last year, vowing to rein in decentralized Spanish regional governments and crush autonomist movements. But the party shares the same anti-immigrant rhetoric and romantic view of authoritarianism that nearly propelled Le Pen to the presidency in 2017 and handed a stunning electoral sweep to white nationalist Dutch party Forum for Democracy this spring. 

“They share the same cause if not the same symptom, which is a shared feeling that the government ― whether it’s in Spain or whether it’s in France ― has failed to deliver fundamentally for the needs of citizens around the country,” said David Adler, a policy coordinator at the think tank Democracy in Europe Movement 2025. 

Resistance In Brussels 

The problem, Adler said, is that “the Spanish government, like the French government, has been unable and unwilling to challenge the restraints on investments” put in place by the European Union. 

The 1992 Maastricht Treaty that established a transnational government on the continent and laid the groundwork for a single currency poses significant hurdles to left-wing Green New Deal proposals like bringing more industries under public ownership. While European law does not necessarily bar member nations from nationalizing the energy sector or creating a public bank, European Court of Justice precedents could stymie or reverse such efforts.

If you’re looking for Spain to engage in massive fiscal stimulus through a big Green New Deal, I’m sorry to say that’s not likely to happen.Robert Fishman, a political science professor at Carlos III University in Madrid

Under the rules outlined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, member states cannot run a budget deficit exceeding 3% of gross domestic product or rack up a public debt greater than 60% of GDP. With a nearly 98% debt-to-GDP ratio, Spain’s government has little wiggle room to take out loans to pay for the Green New Deal program. 

“If you’re looking for Spain to engage in massive fiscal stimulus through a big Green New Deal, I’m sorry to say that’s not likely to happen,” said Robert Fishman, a political science professor at Carlos III University in Madrid. “It’s not so much because of a lack of commitment on the green and environmental front, but because of the resistance the government will encounter from European institutions.”

The United States, with control over its own currency and a much larger economy, would still be the easiest place to enact a Green New Deal. (And, as the world’s second-largest emitter, it would also have the biggest impact.) The United Kingdom could offer another potential test if the Labour Party wins in this month’s election and completes its so-called Brexit, making it easier to implement the sweeping Green New Deal proposal party leader Jeremy Corbyn put forward without interference from officials in Brussels, the Belgian city where the European Union’s bureaucracy is based.

Spokeswomen for the European Commission did not respond to an email requesting comment. 

The fight now appears to be headed toward supranational level. Adler’s group is set to unveil a new proposal next week for what a progressive Green New Deal at the European Commission would look like. It’s an alternative to the “green deal” European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen, a conservative German politician, made a central plank of her platform. Though the name borrows two of the three words in the Green New Deal slogan, Adler said the proposal slaps a fresh coat of paint on the European Union’s investor-centered status quo, “giving a face to the world that suggests a deep and profound commitment to a just transition while maintaining a firm attachment to some of its most unjust economic policies.” 

“The European Commission has been very successful over the past five years at greenwashing austerity,” he said. “We have very little confidence that the so-called ‘green deal’ resembles anything like a Green New Deal and would create a space for governments ― no matter how far left ― in Spain to deliver on the promise it has made to Spanish voters.”

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