Framing climate politics
The importance of activism and grassroots engagement in influencing Icelandic parliamentary election 2021
Climate change has become a central concern across the globe, for policy makers as well as the private sector and individuals. The broad scientific consensus represented in the status reports of the IPCC not only underline the gravity of the climate crisis and catastrophic consequences of not lowering carbon emissions, but also provide policymakers with a scientific assessment to frame the action needed to stay within a 1,5-2-degree trajectory. Yet, there is a major emissions gap in nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. Therefore, there‘s increased pressure on governments to take clear steps towards addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation in their policies.
In the parliamentary elections held in Iceland on 25 September 2021, climate policy became a mainstream topic dealt with in some capacity by all of the political parties, arguably for the first time. This shift in the debate and push of climate action from the fringes to the centre of political debates can be seen as a result of increased awareness of the necessity of scaling down carbon emissions. Crucially, grassroots engagement has also contributed to “decoding” the complexity of climate change action and ambitions by the political parties, and can be viewed as a catalyst to framing the issue in the public discourse, pushing climate to the centre of the political campaign.
Climate change and action in the Nordics
The Nordic countries have a reputation of being a sustainable region, and tend to top global rankings of sustainability. When it comes to climate policy, the goals of the Paris Agreement have led to ambitious targets being adopted across the region.
In addition, multilateral collaboration in the Nordics has further entrenched the intention of taking on a strong climate leadership. In 2019, the Nordic council adapted a pledge to make the region the most sustainable and integrated region in the world by 2030, an ambitious vision that is considered to be cross-cutting in all Nordic collaboration. This ambition is also taken forward in the Declaration on Nordic Carbon Neutrality, which aims to use the foundation of cooperation to tackle “climate change at a national, regional and global level”. However, while climate and environment have been central to Nordic collaboration in recent years, this has yet to manifest in binding goals. Also, the individual carbon footprint of Nordic citizens remains high, and unsustainable production and consumption remain an issue.
In the context of Iceland, Iceland‘s emissions profile is somewhat atypical, in that the biggest sources of emissions come from unsustainable land use, mostly caused by the historical practice of draining wetlands. Besides land use, industry, road transport, agriculture, fisheries and waste management are the biggest sources of emissions. However, Iceland benefits from a largely renewable electricity generation and heating, with nearly 95% of electricity being renewable.
The Icelandic government has set an ambition to reach carbon neutrality by 2040, though the pathway towards that goal remains to be concretized. Further, under the Paris Agreement Iceland has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emission by 40% by 2030. To this end, Iceland’s first fully funded Climate Action Plan that contains 48 actions was updated in 2020. In light of increased urgency and heightened ambitions, it has become clear that the Action Plan will need to be revised to reflect that.
What are the coalition parties’ positions on climate change?
As has been discussed, the political landscape of climate action is changing rapidly, with increased clarity of climate science on the threat of climate change and the importance of keeping within a 1,5-2-degree trajectory. While climate change mitigation and adaptation have to this point been relatively marginal to parliamentarian elections in Iceland, the discussion dominated the elections in September 2021 in many ways . In Iceland, the last few years reveal a changing political landscape and an increased focus on climate and environment, but the paths towards solving what most recognize as the largest challenge of our times differ across the political spectrum.
Political orientation is typically associated with a set of values and goals, and as such it makes sense that it is closely connected to how the causes and solutions to particular issues are formulated – climate change being no exception. While climate scepticism might be more prevalent on the right globally, in Iceland there is a strong consensus among people and political parties on the urgency of halting anthropogenic climate change. Despite this broad recognition of the negative consequences of climate change, that is not to say that the parties from left to right agree on the urgency and the action needed.
The distinctive difference in the approaches and solutions to the climate crisis are illustrated by the current coalition consisting of the Left-Green movement, Progressive party and the Independence party, which spans the entire political spectrum from left to right. This rather unusual coalition has been in power since 2017, and will be continuing the collaboration for a second consecutive term.
Broadly speaking, the Left-Green movement, founded in 1999, has the strongest mandate when it comes to policy on climate and conservation. Building on four pillars, the movement works from the principles of environmental protection, feminism, peace and freedom on a global scale and social justice. In the 2017-2021 coalition the party held the Ministry of Environment and got the first fully funded action plan for climate change though Parliament and pushed through raising carbon tax. Prior to the parliamentary election the movement drafted an updated party policy for climate and environment, substantially increasing its prior ambitions.
The Progressive party, founded in 1916, is the oldest party in the Icelandic parliament. The Progressive party has historically been a stronghold in rural Iceland, though it has been changing in the last decades and they are gaining traction in urban areas. As a centrist party, they favour a moderate approach to climate policy, and tend to emphasize nature conservation and agriculture when it comes to environmental policy. During the campaign, however, they did suggest establishing a ministry of climate as one of their campaign promises, as a way to place climate policy firmly on the political agenda.
The Independence party was founded in 1929, when the Conservative party and the Liberal party merged. It is the largest party in Parliament, and in the 31 coalitions since its foundation, it has been part of 22 of them. As a right-wing party, they emphasize private undertakings and have a liberal market approach to solving societal issues such as climate change. In the parliamentary campaign of 2021, they focused on Iceland’s role as ”a leader in energy exchange by harnessing green domestic energy”, and pledged to ”bring about a revolution in green energy”. As such, their focus is mainly on market based solutions and technological innovation.
While there is tradition for ideologically broad coalitions in other country contexts, historically that has not been the case in Iceland. In addition, three-party coalitions have been rare and largely unsuccessful in Iceland’s political history, only twice finishing a full term and never more than one term. Seen in this context, the fact that this coalition is currently in its second term is in some ways historic, but certainly not without challenges. As the climate crisis becomes a more tangible issue to be dealt with politically, the ideological differences could prove to make meaningful climate action difficult to implement. “Cross-block coalitions” such as the current one in Iceland, or the recently formed “traffic light” coalition in Germany need to compromise on their preferred policies in one way or the other, as they typically encompass different political views. This can increase probability that people vote for parties on the fringes of the political spectrum, as the collaboration is perceived as standing in the way of delivering on key policies. In the context of climate policy, this certainly creates a dilemma as three very different parties with different approaches and solutions to the issue have to work together. In the next sections this will be further discussed in the context of how the ruling parties scored on a scale developed by an environmental youth organization to assess the engagement of party policy on climate, environmental protection and circular economy.
Grassroots engagement and impact in the 2021 elections
Community engagement is a fundamental part of democracy, and essential to developing a pathway towards inclusive and just transitions. Over the last few years, grassroots engagement has increasingly taken up space in public debates, and had a measurable impact on policy making. In the space of climate activism, the last few years have witnessed a profound shift, with an unprecedented rise of youth groups, organizations and individuals fighting for action in line with the 2-degree goal of the Paris Agreement. Greta Thunberg has become a globally known face, transforming her individual strike for the climate to millions of climate strikers globally that together form the movement Fridays for Future. There is no doubt that the voices and values of youth have been seen and heard through climate activism, and by expressing dissent to the diverse economic, social and environmental policies and practices that cause climate change, these voices have the potential to shape the policy outcomes of the future. With the release of The Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC in August, the stark message of urgency functioned as a means to legitimize the call for immediate climate action.
In Iceland, community engagement urging political action for the climate has been on the rise, particularly among youth organizations. In previous elections this type of engagement has typically been seen as at the fringes of the debate, but during the 2021 election grassroots engagement on climate policy became more influential and got more attention in the public debate as well as among voters. As an example, The Icelandic Youth Environmentalist Association was successful in pushing and in many ways framing the conversation on climate policy prior to the 2021 election. The association describes itself as a “non-governmental organisation with the primary objective of giving young people a platform to positively influence the way society interacts with nature”. In 2021 they initiated several projects aimed at informing the public on the status of climate change and possible solutions. Perhaps the most influential one was a tool called “Sólin” ( The Sun) designed to rate the strengths and weaknesses of the environmental policies of the parties running for Parliament. The main aim of this project was “to inform the public and put pressure on political parties by rating the policies of the parties before the 2021 elections”. The process was transparent and carried out in close collaboration with the political parties. The rating criteria were designed by an interdisciplinary team consisting of a biologist, a political scientist and a psychologist, and the result of that work was published in May. This was to give the political parties ample time to revise their policies in time for the announcement of the results on September 3rd, also making the criteria a useful guideline for parties to engage with climate policy. The maximum possible points were 100, and the categories of evaluation were climate change (40 points), nature conservation (30 points) and circular economy (30 points).
The results from The Sun were presented by the Icelandic Youth Environmentalist Association around three weeks before the election, and all the political parties rated were invited to receive the rating of their policies. This event got significant amount of media attention, and the results were widely discussed in the campaign. As shown in the graph below, only three of nine political parties “passed” the test. The Pirate Party had the highest overall score (81,2), followed by the Left-Green Movement (80,3) and Vidreisn, (76,3). Meanwhile the other coalition parties, The Progressive Party and The Independence Party, only scored a total of 13 and 21 points, respectively. This stark difference illustrates the variation of climate policy ambitions within the coalition; a fact that was pointed out repeatedly by the opposition as well as civil society during the campaign. In many ways this project was successful in framing the discussion around climate action, by setting the parameters of how climate was discussed in media and by some of the parties. Naturally, a tool like The Sun is not exhaustive, as is the case for any kind of framing of an issue. Framing is an essential part of climate change communication, and is an exercise that will inevitably emphasize certain issues at the cost of others, consequently shaping how the issue is understood and dealt with. In a situation where most of the political parties take up the climate issue in one way or another and have put forward goals and targets, this framing is a helpful instrument in helping voters understand what would otherwise be a very technical question for a political campaign.
Indeed, engaging directly with policy makers is a way for climate activists to challenge the dominant framings of climate change. This type of “protester policy engagement”, defined as “the processing, production and communication of plans for societal change from a position outside the established system”  is increasingly used as a tactic to urge action, and the Sun clearly illustrates the potential of such engagement.
The chart illustrates how the parties’ policies scored on circular economy (pink) environmental protection (blue) and climate (brown). Of the 9 parties, only three scored above 50 points of 100 available. Of the three parties in the coalition, only the Left-Green Movement passed the test.
The election outcome and the challenges ahead
The recognition of The Sun in the broader political debates, and the general sense of urgency around the issue of climate change, led many to claim this election as a “climate election”. This sentiment echoed in other countries that went to elections in 2021 too, such as Germany with the rise of the Greens, and Norway where the Green party witnessed a surge in polls and new members after the publishing of the latest IPCC report. Though climate was firmly on the agenda, the outcome of the election did not necessarily indicate that climate policy was a key voter issue.
The coalition parties increased their majority, holding 37 of 63 seats in Parliament. The Independence party remained the biggest party, with 24,4% of the vote, but the Progressive Party was in many ways a winner of the election, with 17,3% of the vote and 13 seats in Parliament, an increase of five since the last term. Meanwhile, the Left-Green Movement received three fewer mandates than in the last election, and with 12.6% of the vote they are the largest left-wing party in Iceland.
The results indicated that a majority of the voters supported the governing coalition, and after a long negotiation, the three parties settled on ruling together for a second term. During the coalition talks, energy and climate issues were at the forefront of the discussion, as they are arguably the point of the biggest disagreements between the three parties.
While the coalition has remained the same, the second term marks a significant change in terms of Ministries. The Left-Green Movement remains in the Prime Ministry, but no longer sits in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and the Ministry of Health. Instead, they have taken over the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries and the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Labour Market. The fact that the Left-Greens are no longer in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources has caused concern among environmentalists, particularly in light of the seeming lack of ambitions in climate policies among the other coalition parties.
Of course, as climate change is a cross-cutting issue, there are many opportunities to implement progressive policies across ministries. The Agreement on the Platform for the Coalition Government presents the focus of the next term, and it reflects an ambition to introduce a more progressive climate policy built on the basis of scientific knowledge. Crucially, the coalition has agreed to set an independent, national target for 55% reduction in emissions by 2030, compared to 2005 levels.
The Sun only measured the ambitions of party policy, and the implementation of those ambitions remains to be materialized. In the years to come, community engagement will be crucial to framing the discussion on climate policy and holding the government accountable to national and international commitments. Strategic community engagement with climate politics is a way to communicate the threats we face to policy makers and the broader public, and this framing remains an important element of the structural change needed for a sustainable pathway.
About the author
Eva D. Davidsdottir is an Icelandic PhD student in Environment and Development studies, working on a project on the green economy and climate policy in the Global South. In addition, she is an alternate Parliamentarian for the Left-Green Movement in Iceland and has a special interest in Nordic collaboration for climate action.
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 (Finnsson 2020)
 (Gregersen et al. 2020)
 Taken from the Independence party web page : https://xd.is/english/
 (O'brien, Selboe, and Hayward 2018)
 (Badullovich, Grant, and Colvin 2020)
 (Corry and Reiner 2021)
 Chart retrieved from https://www.visir.is/g/20212151102d