December 5, 2018; BBC News, “World—Europe”
Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men? Pundits say the recent Paris protests against new taxes by citizens wearing yellow vests were spontaneous. And, some say French President Emmanuel Macron shouldn’t have given into demands to stop a fuel tax after a weekend of violent riots; the New York Times described his decision as a “dangerous gamble.”
But, as the world tries to unravel the reasoning and reach of the grassroots movement, another essential question has come to light: what do the protests mean for the world’s response to climate change?
An insightful article by BBC News elaborates on the future of France’s proposed carbon tax in the context of a country that, overwhelmingly, “believes that climate change is at least partly caused by human activity.”
As the rage over the added expense spilled into the cities and on to front pages, the original reason for the increase became somewhat lost.
It was supposed to help reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuel-guzzling cars, part of a wider attempt to reduce emissions and curb the effects of man-made climate change.…
So why fight against a policy designed to combat carbon emissions?
Many argue the people out on the streets are not protesting against the ecological aim of the tax. It has become much more than that in the weeks since it began.
But whatever the impetus, the outcome—suspending the tax increase on fuel for at least six months—is a loss for the environment, which is an increasingly perilous position.
In assessing the fallout of Macron’s proposal, there a few lessons to be learned about the process of moving toward a greener economy and, in particular, the role that rising inequality will play here and abroad.
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First, be more inclusive: some activists argue that Macron’s government could have enacted the tax through a process similar to the Paris Agreement on climate change, according to the BBC.
“The decision of the French prime minister…shows the government has done things upside down, and put the cart before the horse,” the World Wildlife Fund’s Pierre Cannet told people gathered for the COP 24 talks, as BBC reported.
“The carbon tax must be accompanied by a process, a process that is more consensual and as inclusive as possible.”
Secondly, actions speak louder than words: Slate reporter Henry Grabar argues that the yellow vest protests were more about contempt for Macron and elite institutions than the environment. “There’s a burgeoning sense among political leaders that Macron’s original sin was reducing taxes on France’s richest citizens by some $3 billion. The unemployment rate remains high. There’s a lot to complain about—and a feeling that now is a time to air your grievances, whatever they are.”
Third, it all comes back to inequality. How can we respond to climate change without leaving the most vulnerable behind? According to a recent research-based policy analysis from economists including Thomas Piketty, France has experienced “a sharp rise in inequality” since 1983 with a “declining but still high gender gap.” Is it fair to tax French drivers when just 100 companies have been responsible for 71 percent of global emissions since 1988?
A New York Times editorial calls for Macron to stay on course:
Certainly Mr. Macron and his government have to pay much closer heed to the France outside Paris and other big cities, and they need to make far greater efforts to explain their measures and to lower their burden on the many people struggling at the borderline of poverty. But the power of social media to quickly mobilize mass anger without any mechanism for dialogue or restraint is a danger to which a liberal democracy cannot succumb.
Here in the US, we’ll be watching as the next generation of leaders attempts to reimagine the process of responding to climate change when they head to Capitol Hill next month. The Sunrise Movement has a proposal for a “Green New Deal” that aims to cut US carbon emissions and transform the economy and counts incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a supporter.
Of course, like the French, Americans have been reluctant to tax themselves to fight climate change, including in last month’s elections. Part of the Sunrise Movement strategy, however, as Robinson Meyer writes in the Atlantic, is to include in the proposed Green New Deal not just taxes, but also a government commitment to guarantee a job to every American who wants one, thereby ensuring that the benefits of investment in renewable energy infrastructure are widely shared. The lesson of the French protests is as old as it is clear: “nothing about us without us.”—Anna Berry