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Beset by fire and heat, Meloni’s government flirts with climate denial

by editor

On the world stage, Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni talks up the dangers of climate change. But at home, even in the face of record heat, fires and floods, her government is far from convinced.

“It’s hot, yes, without a doubt. In summer it’s hot, in winter it’s cold,” Transport Minister Matteo Salvini joked on Sunday evening in response to a question about mounting climate anxiety among young people.  

Last week, Environment Minister Gilberto Pichetto Fratin said “if the climate is changing, it is because of the climate … I do not know how much climate change is due to man and how much to the Earth’s [natural] climate change.”

Fratin on Wednesday addressed accusations of climate denial against the government, explaining Italy was “in favor of achieving environmental objectives” but opposes “bombastic and inapplicable rules” handed down from Brussels to “penalize Italy.” The country has the right to “defend its national interests,” he said.

Meloni herself has walked a delicate tightrope. Among her international peers, she is at pains to avoid the impression her far-right government is out of step with the scientific and political mainstream on climate change. 

In the United States last week, Meloni and U.S. President Joe Biden released a joint statement affirming “their commitment to taking decisive actions this decade” to fight the “existential threat posed by climate change.”

But when speaking to her political allies, she swaps wokeness for wariness.

In July, Meloni told a rally of Spain’s far-right Vox party via a video clip that “ultra-ecological fanaticism” was a threat to the economy.

Her colleagues have been making similar statements, with Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, national secretary of Forza Italia, saying he opposed the “ideological vision of a fight against climate change.” Meanwhile, Meloni’s partner, the journalist Andrea Giambruno, has downplayed climate change on his television show.

This ambivalence is having an impact. After nine months in power, Meloni’s approach to meeting Italy’s goals to cut greenhouse gas pollution is “confusing and still unclear,” said Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank and a professor at the Catholic University of Milan. 

The government has leaned more heavily on developing supplies of natural gas to meet energy supply needs, as opposed to mounting a drive for new renewable energy, said Tagliapietra. Meloni’s government also picked a fight with Brussels over EU efforts to ban the production of cars with internal combustion engines by 2035.

While Meloni has said she wants to make climate change a right-wing issue, these policies show that it won’t be easy for her government to embrace “an agenda that they traditionally promoted as elitist and against the people,” Tagliapietra said.

Giovanni Isolino/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, the country is being battered by extreme weather. Last week, the island of Sicily suffered huge wildfires. Floods have submerged parts of the north of the country, while extreme heat in the south in recent weeks would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change, according to scientists.

Luca Bergamaschi, the founder of the ECCO think tank, said Meloni’s ministers are trying to cater to an electoral base perceived as skeptical about climate change ahead of next year’s European election.

But this is the second summer of intense heat in a row, and worsening impacts could raise concern about climate change across the country. A study published last month estimated that 18,010 Italians died as a result of extreme heat during the summer of 2022 — the most in Europe.

While some of their political representatives say they are relaxed in the face of this climate-driven chaos, Italians are among the most alarmed of all Europeans about climate change, according to a new study released Tuesday by Yale University.

“That could massively backfire as various polls show Italians are very much concerned about climate change and are ready for more action,” Bergamaschi said.

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