Analysis: Paris unrests – Are the public hostile to climate action?


Gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protest in Paris in December. Photo credit: Olivier Ortelpa via Flickr.

By Anders Lorenzen

For the past months, angry French people have been taking to the streets of Paris to demand the French President Emmanuel Macron resigns. The reason? A fuel tax increase that will affect vehicles with diesel and petrol engines, and thereby deal with the pressing issues of air pollution and climate change.

The gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protesters deem the tax increase a tax on working people, and would rather that corporations bear the cost. As a result of the violent protests which have resulted in several deaths, the French government has said that it would suspend the planned increases in fuel tax for six months.

The rise of populism

The outcry against the policy is focused on energy policy and has attracted the support of up to five million French people. But it might also relate to the rise of populism rather than of opposition to climate and environment policies.

It is in line with the recent protests against the French elite and establishment which has given a lift to the extreme right-wing party, Front National, whose leader Marine Le Pen, Macron defeated in the last presidential elections (she has since resigned).

But nevertheless, it is important to look at whether the public is willing to pay the cost of climate action. Macron’s fuel duty increase was a modest policy, and even that has been deemed too controversial, albeit in a country that loves a good protest.

But these protests are unlike any similar recent actions in terms of their violence and anger, towards people and property, buildings and businesses. It, therefore, might be plausible to ask the question if we were to have the sort of climate policies that the science demands will we, as a result, see these kinds of riots and civil unrest?

Moderate policies have come and gone

The problem the world faces is that inaction has been in place for so long that moderate policies are no longer an option, and radical policies are needed to ensure tough emissions cuts. Within the last three months of 2018, we have seen a series of climate change reports which demonstrate how much work there’s still to do. The latest report warns that in 2018 we have increased rather than decreased the amount of carbon released.

As the climate crisis unfolds and worsens year by year, climate advocates have been discussing what policies are needed to produce results. Increases on things like fuel taxes are something most of these people think is the minimum first step. Petrol and diesel are far too cheap in relation to the damage caused, and yet drivers are not persuaded to move from fossil fuels to cleaner alternatives, like electric vehicles.

Other policies such as an increase in and spreading of carbon taxes and emission trading schemes, and, for example, taxing air travel are other favourites of those who wish to see action on climate change. We should ask how would these policies be received by the public?

But France is just one country. Who is to say it would be the same story in other countries? Well, let’s take the UK for instance and let’s stick with the contentious issue of fuel duty. Every year before the UK government announces its budget, there is speculation as to whether they would increase fuel duty. Each time they freeze it because such a contentious issue would be unpopular and do more damage to their supporters.

Who should pay the cost for climate action?

There’s a general feeling that it is not ordinary working people who should be paying the cost for climate action. There is a popular narrative that it is the big companies that should pay the cost. But at a policy level, it all depends on how you dress that up. If you turn it around and instead put a tax on energy and fossil fuel companies, very likely those companies will pass on the cost to consumers.

The reality is that to act on climate change everyone will have to pay the price, the public, private companies and government. In addition, many climate advocates will argue it is a cost worth paying or, if you like, an insurance policy because the cost of inaction on climate change will be far greater.

Macron punished for taking a long-term view

For now, Macron might be judged and attacked for not pursuing the interest of working people. But in reality, he is only doing what many climate activists have slammed politicians for not doing. He is thinking long-term instead of short-term, and he has always said that action on climate change is his top priority. In the meantime, the world might be worried that the rise of populism will impact the ability to take action on climate change or at least make it even harder, no matter whether populism moves politically left or right.

There has always been a fear of what consequences climate change might have on our society, with riots on the streets and a breakdown of society where people scramble and fight over resources. But on the other hand, similar public unrest and riots might also unfold if radical policies are unveiled to tackle climate change.

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