Yellow Vest Uprising Exposes Urgent Need for Rapid Energy Transition That Stiffs Elites, Lifts the Working Class
"There will be no justice unless those who are responsible for emissions—namely multinationals and the better off in society who consume the most, are those who bear the brunt of the cost of transition."
President Donald Trump looked on approvingly at the chaos that engulfed Paris last weekend as more than 1,000 "Yellow Vest" protesters were arrested in one of their largest demonstrations yet—claiming that 100,000 French people had taken to the streets to protest policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions.
But organizers unequivocally denied that the Yellow Vest movement is anti-climate policy, while analysts have pointed to the demonstrations as an urgent illustration of the fact that world governments, including French President Emmanuel Macron's, must take active steps to transition to a green economy while ensuring that low- and middle-income households don't bear the burden of that transition.
"This is, first and foremost, a class movement," wrote Karl Stomberg at Medium. "The people protesting are predominately working class, and the people that they are protesting are predominately wealthy elites. While there has been a lot of talk in America about how the working class has turned to the conservative Republicans, the working class in France has always been more prone to left-wing economic ideas and forms of protesting. To put this in a clean anti-tax, anti-climate, or anti-government category would be to reduce the scope of what these protests entail."
"The French government did not provide a credible plan for how to compensate particularly poorer households. Poor households are often most affected by higher fuel prices, higher electricity bills, or higher costs for keeping homes warm." —Alexander Reitzenstein, Third Generation Environmentalism
The Yellow Vest demonstrations began in mid-November after anger grew over Macron's fuel tax, raising already-expensive gas prices for French drivers by 25 cents.
After Macron spent his first year in office solidifying a solidly pro-business record—cutting the country's annual tax on the wealthiest families and weakening the power of labor unions—and with the gas tax primarily affecting households in rural areas rather than wealthier cities, the Yellow Vests decried Macron as a "president of the rich."
"The French government did not provide a credible plan for how to compensate particularly poorer households," Alexander Reitzenstein of the European think tank Third Generation Environmentalism told Earther last week. "Poor households are often most affected by higher fuel prices, higher electricity bills, or higher costs for keeping homes warm."
At the People's Policy Project, policy analyst Matt Bruenig wrote on Tuesday about the need for governments to give serious consideration to how they implement the necessary energy and economic policy changes to address the climate crisis "without sinking the poor."
The coherent way forward is not to get worked up about the distributive effects of each and every climate policy instrument. Rather what we need to do is have an overall commitment to maintaining the inflation-adjusted incomes of the lower class throughout the clean energy transition. By far the easiest way to do that, as a technical matter, is to send some extra cash their way in order to make room for price rises and the other regressive elements of an effective climate agenda.
According to Kate Aronoff, writing for Jacobin earlier this week, the Yellow Vests movement in France "is raising up a vital message: blame the fossil-fuel industry and the rich for the ecological crisis, not ordinary people."
The enemy in France, as it is elsewhere, she argued, "isn't climate policy" but "neoliberalism."
In Scotland, the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (TUC) wrote on the organization's blog that the government must look to the Yellow Vests for a clear example of the kind of uprising that it could face if it doesn't keep working families' wellbeing in mind as it transitions to a renewable economy.
Scotland set the United Kingdom's record for using renewable energy in 2017, increasing its use of green sources like wind and solar power by 26 percent over the previous year and winning international praise.
But, wrote Dave Moxham, "the energy transition thus far has seen thousands of high quality jobs destroyed and far too few created. The biggest single contributor to Scotland's most recent emissions reduction was the closure of the coal-fired power station at Longannet. Decently paid, unionized jobs are being lost and not replaced."
"In the light of events in France, it has never been clearer that radical social and economic change, trade union and community organizing, democratic ownership, and massive government intervention are all essential companions in the transition to a low carbon economy," he added. "There will be no justice unless those who are responsible for emissions—namely multinationals and the better off in society who consume the most, are those who bear the brunt of the cost of transition."
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