Is populism bad for climate change?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Yellow Vests (Gilets jaunes) protesters set barricades on fire in the street during clashes with French police forces as part of a demonstration near the Champs Elysees in Paris, France, 08 December 2018. [EPA-EFE/IAN LANGSDON]

The violent response to the French carbon tax in Paris demonstrates good climate policy is dependent on a fair, just and managed transition writes Sanjeev Kumar. Far from stalling, climate change action is becoming a major issue in elections globally, he argues.

Sanjeev Kumar is the founder of Change Partnership, a think-tank focused on solving the politics of climate change. 

It’s tempting to conclude that the “gilets jaunes” protest is part of a global, bottom-up, backlash against climate action. After all, the trigger point was a tax on harmful diesel fuel, a cause of respiratory, heart and blood illness as well as premature death.

But what started off as peaceful protests against the cost of living standards in rural parts of France was captured by sinister forces and morphed into a violent orgy of vandalism, anarchy and a vain attempt at overthrowing Emmanuel Macron, a prominent symbol of modern, supranational and progressive politics.

Some commentators claimed this carbon tax debacle will impede future action on climate change. This tax was not about solving the climate change impacts from mobility. A tax that raises revenues but does not reinvest them into clean alternatives and infrastructure, especially in areas with limited alternatives and readily available substitutes such as rural areas and for the less well off, is not climate change legislation. It is the worst kind of money grab – one that steals from the least able to pay.

It’s baffling that the country which celebrates the sans culottes and studies the impact of gabelle, the salt tax that triggered the 1789 French Revolution, could have got this so wrong. This debacle demonstrates the need for effective climate policy based on a fair, just and managed transition to sustainability.

Macron makes U-turn on fuel-tax increases in face of ‘yellow vest’ protests

France’s prime minister on Tuesday (4 December) suspended planned increases to fuel taxes for at least six months in response to weeks of sometimes violent protests, the first major U-turn by President Emmanuel Macron’s administration in 18 months in office.

This has been done before. The Spanish region of Bilbao transformed from a polluted, dirty industrial heartland into one of the most attractive tourist destinations with a vibrant population because their political leaders knew that their economic model was unsustainable. They outlined a vision of what the city and its iconic river should be like in the year 2000, built political and popular support for this vision and effectively managed the transition. The irony for Emmanuel Macron is politicians from Bilbao emulated practices that were undertaken by nearby French regions.

Many countries have introduced climate, environmental, health and safety and social taxes without witnessing the Parisian response. The 15 eurocent levy on plastic bags in grocery and supermarket stores, applied in Ireland in 2002, resulted in a 90% reduction in their use and generated €200 million revenues which supported an Environmental Fund to invest in awareness raising, environmental cleanup and other projects. Even the EU’s flagship climate policy, the Emissions Trading System, introduced revenue recycling in the form of a fund for technological innovation and requirements for Member States to report on where they are spending the revenue raised from auctioning allowances.

Given the decades of false framing and undermining of its science, action on climate change is popular. Whilst media attention focused on Paris burning on Saturday 8th December, around 25,000 climate activists from all sections of society were undeterred by the violence and bravely marched down Parisian streets in favour of urgent and robust action to address climate change. The weekend before, a monumental 75,000 people resolutely marched through the rain and windswept streets of Brussels to protest against in action on climate change. Before that, campaigners blocked some of the most iconic London bridges demanding urgent climate action. Contrary to the noise, US opinion polls show that 67% of the American electorate are concerned by the economic impacts of climate change on the US economy. The problem is these voices don’t receive the media attention a burnt car or Donald Trump tweet gets.

But the tides are turning. Climate change is maturing from on-street protest to action at the ballot box and courts of law. Donald Trump’s greatest achievement is that he has revitalised once apathetic and disorganised progressives to vote and to do so en masse. The US Midterm elections saw swathes of young, progressive, pro-climate change and social improvement focused people elected to congress and regional governments, washing away climate-sceptic reactionary voices. Many of this new cohort are seeking more radical action on climate change than before as witnessed by the debate around the New Green Deal.

In France, support for the pro-climate action French Green Party has risen by 40% in recent weeks. In Brussels a ‘green wave’ swept across its regional elections in October, whilst the Greens were the largest party to win seats in Luxembourg’s national election. The ALDE group’s manifesto for the 2019 European Parliamentary elections commits the group to steeper emission reductions by 2030 than those put forward by governments at present. Early drafts of the S&D Group’s manifesto place a fair and just transition alongside robust climate change targets for the EU.

The trend is clear. Climate change is on the ballot in every election. Governments may seek to hide behind the excuse of the Parisian catastrophe. They may find themselves on the wrong end of another popular action – pursing government in action through law courts. Thousands of Dutch citizens filed a suit against their government for not acting on climate change. The government lost the case and the subsequent appeal. It must act now and, to its credit, is already closing down fossil fuel assets and rebuilding its economic model. In basing their decision as a human right enshrined  in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), it has provided legal precedent for similar action in every other signatory to the ECHR. There are few places for governments to hide.

Successful governments will be those that translate Emmanuel Macron’s “Making our planet great again” slogan into effective climate action based on a managed transition to sustainability. Those that won’t are less likely to be successful.

‘Yellow vests’ spark EU debate about just transition to clean energy

Protests against high fuel prices in France have propelled climate policy to the forefront of the political debate, just days before Poland hosts the UN’s annual conference on climate change, with a focus on the “just transition” to low-carbon energy.

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