Hundreds of thousands of French protesters have flooded into the streets and the Right is salivating, broadcasting the “Yellow Vest” (gilets jaunes) riots there — sparked by an environmentally framed fuel tax — as definitive proof that the fight for climate action is a losing battle.
Bowing to pressure, Emmanuel Macron’s government agreed to quash the tax and caved to a slew of other demands just last night, with the first installment earning praise from Donald Trump. The Rupert Murdoch–owned Wall Street Journal cast its lot in with the rabble, lauding what it called a “Global Carbon Tax Revolt” as the death knell of an “ecological transition” — scare quotes and all. The timing on theirs and Trump’s end couldn’t be better, as talks to finalize the Paris Agreement enter their second week in Poland — talks Macron will skip to attend to matters at home.
In trying to stir up a conflict between working people and the planet, though, the WSJ ends up raising an uncomfortable truth in spite of itself: “voters don’t believe that climate change justifies policies that would raise their cost of living and hurt the economy.”
Nor should anyone. The enemy here isn’t climate policy, though. It’s neoliberalism.
The fuel taxes were less the cause of this wave of protests than the straw that broke the camel’s back. Macron has overseen a massive transfer of wealth to the country’s elites. His tax reforms will leave the bottom fifth of French households worse off as the top 1 percent — and corporations like Total, one of the world’s largest oil companies — reap massive gains, all while the cost of living continues to tick upward, public services are consolidated, and the unemployment rate hovers around 9 percent. Proposed fuel taxes were felt most acutely in rural communities that face cuts to both public transportation and speed limits, leaving many with longer and more costly commutes.
“We’ve been in the context of rising inequalities for a few years now,” Lucille Dufour, international policy adviser for Reseau Action Climat-France, told me at COP 24, the climate summit in Poland. “Obviously the protests started with a protest against the carbon tax, but it’s much broader than that. What is really disappointing is that the only response the government is giving at the moment is on the fossil-fuel tax, when the answer should be much broader than that to respond to the social crises.” Many of those demonstrating, she added, support an energy transition; during Saturday’s “Part IV” demonstrations, Yellow Vests joined with climate marchers in Paris.
With just twelve years to curb emissions — per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report — we can’t afford for other policymakers to make the same kind of blunders Macron has, looking to bolster his credentials as an environmental hero (allegedly “Making The Planet Great Again”) while making life harder for ordinary people. The causes of climate change, after all, aren’t French commuters but the one hundred fossil-fuel producers responsible for 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.
As such, there’s no good reason for decarbonization and economic hardship to go together; the only punishments doled out by climate policy should be to corporations at the heart of the problem. For all but the world’s richest and most carbon-hungry inhabitants — the two are one in the same — climate change isn’t an issue of sacrifice so much as investment, and the most realistic solutions to it could dramatically improve the lives of millions of people. Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution to create a Select House Committee on a Green New Deal spells this out, noting that “a national, industrial, economic mobilization of this scope and scale is a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States.” The International Labor Organization (ILO) has estimated that a rapid transition to clean energy could create 18 million more jobs around the world by 2030.
There’s disagreement among those who stake a claim to climate policymaking, though. Neera Tanden — the consummately online president of the Center for American Progress — wondered aloud “why any progressive is cheering French protesters who are amassing against a carbon tax,” echoing concerns heard in the more elite enclaves of COP 24. As WWF France’s Pierre Cannet put it bluntly: “If France is putting a brake on the carbon tax, it puts a brake on energy transition.”
While acknowledging the contradictions and shortcomings of such an organic uprising — particularly around immigration — the Yellow Vests movement is a welcome development for many climate campaigners. Nicolas Haeringer, a global organizer with 350.org based in southeastern France, told me that “this movement is reminding us that the problem is supply, not demand” of fossil fuels. “Whenever you try to act on demand first you put the burden on individuals — not on structures, and not on transnational companies. It’s also a reminder that those transnational companies that are responsible for the destruction of climate, livelihoods, and neighborhoods are not paying at all.”
That the people hardest hit by Macron-style climate plans aren’t the people doing most of the polluting is precisely why taxing carbon is the policy of choice for oil companies ranging from ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell to BP — the fifth, ninth, and eleventh biggest polluters in the world, respectively.
It’s certainly possible to design a carbon tax with an eye toward equity. When Washington voters actually tried to pass one, however, the industry spent over $13 million to defeat it. As those companies know well, any earnest attempt at decarbonization will also have to liquidate their business model by mid-century at the latest, not only through market signals but with direct and stringent regulation.
In such a context, the Left needn’t cede the ground of taxing carbon entirely to the Right in order to recognize what’s so appealing about it for the industries that need to be urgently constrained. What’s certainly clear is that it’s not the silver bullet either liberals or the fossil-fuel industry pretend it is, and could unnecessarily poison the waters of climate policy debates as our time runs out.
The Green New Deal — now supported by thirty-one House Democrats — suggests a more populist and ecologically sound way forward, rightly twinning a plan to rapidly phase out fossil fuels along a science-based timeline with measures that would put millions of people to work, upgrade public transit and housing, and jumpstart the economy from the bottom up.
With a ready alternative to Macron’s failures on the table, the Yellow Vests protests should serve as an eleventh-hour warning to the policymakers now gathering in Poland: not that climate action is politically toxic, but that coupling it with austerity and handouts to the 1 percent — failing to place blame on the corporate executives who deserve it — is a recipe for planetary disaster.