Norway’s Green Party has moved off the sidelines of Norwegian politics and firmly into the pre-election fray, with its uncompromising plans “to lift Norway out of the oil age and into the future.” Its success at drawing environmentally minded voters away from other more traditional parties has surprised even itself, but it hasn’t come without stirring up controversy along the way.
For many, the Green Party (formally known as Miljøpartiet De Grønne, MDG) has been a breath of fresh air in a campaign otherwise dominated by the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet, Ap) and the Conservative Party (Høyre) and the coalitions they may lead. That domination is exactly what’s motivating the Greens, because they oppose the left- and right blocs within Norwegian politics and because they really don’t see much real difference between the two.
“Høyre and Arbeiderpartiet want to stand out as opponents,” Rasmus Hansson, a biologist and career environmentalist who’s now a top candidate for the Greens, told foreign correspondents in Oslo on Wednesday. He claims they’re both keen on promoting an image “that there’s a huge difference between Erna (Solberg, Høyre’s leader) and Jens (Stoltenberg, Ap’s leader).”
“Our analysis is that Erna and Jens are the same,” Hansson said, adding that the governments either one of them forms would essentially function alike “because no one discusses the basic issues or challenges” that Norway’s oil industry poses for the country. Hansson likens the election campaign posturing to “a political game” that ignores the fundamental changes his party firmly believes must be made if Norway is to maintain its social welfare state and stay economically strong.
The Greens are committed to nothing less than moving Norway away from its oil-based economy and towards what it calls a truly “sustainable society” with an economy based on other forms of renewable energy, industries that don’t contribute to climate change, research, fishing and small entrepreneurs. “I think it’s dawned on most people that the oil age can’t last forever,” Hansson said. His party’s chief concern is to set the stage for the transition.
“In order to carry out national sustainability, we need to decide that the oil activities of Norway will be phased out over 20 years,” Hansson said. That means no new concession rounds for oil exploration and drilling on the Norwegian continental shelf, and gradual shutdown of operations now in place.
It’s a radical proposal to say the least but it’s fired up voters who feel let down by the weak or inconsistent environmental policies of the other parties, not least Høyre and Ap. “The environment is on everyone’s list,” Hansson said, “but environmental issues are never allowed to compete with the (oil-based) economy.” The current so-called “red-green” government has allowed Statoil, for example, to pursue its controversial tar sands project in Canada despite its emissions, and its carbon capture plan for the Mongstad refinery on Norway’s west coast is long-delayed. Labour (Ap) has often put more priority on the jobs created by the oil industry than on the environmentally ill-effects of it. Høyre puts more priority on the business development created through oil, and the Greens feel the other parties make too many compromises in their own pro-environment programs.
Hansson claims his party believes that environmental and sustainability issues are simply more important than political issues like health or the schools. “Not that health and the schools aren’t important,” he hastens to add, “but they can’t be addressed unless the environment is. This is what we criticize all the other parties for doing. The environment always loses.”
The Greens have been criticized themselves, though, also by other environmental advocates. While Hansson claims to promote solidarity, his critics think he’s divided the environmental movement and that his party has lured voters away from other parties like the Socialist Left (SV), widely credited for preventing oil exploration off Lofoten for now. SV is now in danger of losing representation in Parliament, while other parties that have boosted an environmental profile have felt a drain as well.
Hansson insists he hasn’t fragmented the environmentalists, noting how his party tried to form a “climate alliance” among the small parties last spring but they weren’t interested. “They were more preoccupied by being red or blue instead of being green,” he said. He thinks voters are punishing SV for failing to step out of Labour’s shadow, for paying more attention to traditional social welfare issues than environmental issues, and even for replacing its enthusiastic minister of the environment, SV veteran Erik Solheim. “I think SV has gone down the drain even without us,” he said.
Hansson denies his party wants to return to the consumption patterns and regulation of the 1970s and ’80s, but does admit that sustainability demands lower consumption. The Greens want to see higher air fares to reduce flights and carbon admissions, higher costs for driving cars, and other measures that would prompt Norwegians to hang on to consumer goods longer instead of replacing them quickly. The party wants Norwegians to work less and be paid less, so that they spend more time at home with family and less time on the road.
Parts of their program are likely to be unpopular, but party spokeswoman Hanna Marcussen can still claim that the Greens are the fastest-growing party in the country. While the party claimed on its website Wednesday that it tripled its results in Tuesday’s symbolic school elections, though, Hansson admitted the Greens were disappointed that they only claimed 3.7 percent of the vote. They thought young Norwegians would be more supportive, and give them at least 7 percent.
The Greens remain one of Norway’s many small parties and have complained that they’ve been left out of nationally televised debates. Some polls have ranked them larger than long-established parties like SV, the Center Party and the Christian Democrats and they’re keen to be a force to be reckoned with in the next parliament. They already have forced the environment back onto the political agenda, and Hansson’s proud of that.
“We are the factor that’s pulled away the curtain, shown that the emperor has no clothes,” Hansson said. “I’m proud we’ve brought up the issues around the oil economy. We’re mobilizing the green interest that’s always been there. What’s Jens’ and Erna’s plan, really, to take us into the next phase (without oil)? Someone should ask them that.”