The French do know how to throw a good revolution. They’ve proven that more than once to history, and now, after proposed climate change legislation it looks like something they’re verging on once again.
“The yellow vest movement” has been raging in Paris since November 17th and it illustrates just how hard it’s going to be to craft sustainability laws, and the consequences of doing a shoddy job of it.
Over several weeks, what started as an anti-petrol-tax-protest in Paris spiraled into a national uproar of French social issues, like low-worker wages, government over-spending problems, and even class inequality. Tear gas has been thrown, protestors have been brutally whipped and beaten by French police, cars have been torched and things are starting to look a lot like some kind of prequel to Mad Max.
This is the future that we were warned of, and it’s only a taste. It’s only the beginning.
Because as climate change continues to compound, nations are going to have to change the way they do things. Global warming is an issue of lifestyle and the Western World needs to get straight, kick our addiction to fossil fuels and learn how to live clean. This is already happening with small things in some places; easy things like biodegradable straws and grocery bag taxes.
But soon, we’re going to start to see bigger more dramatic changes, too. And if lawmakers aren’t careful about how they approach the problem, things could become violent.
Which is exactly what happened in France. Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, tried to slap a massive tax hike onto petrol prices (that were already high) in an effort to make driving more expensive. And The People? They rose up in the streets. Paris erupted, riots escalated and as of yet, there has been no real end to the madness — despite Macron having scrapped the proposed taxes weeks ago.
“The events of the last few days in Paris have made me regard the challenges as even greater than I thought earlier,” says Stanford University environmental economist Lawrence Goulder. Which is grim news coming from him. Goulder authored the book “Confronting Climate Change” and if the Paris problem is making him uncomfortable, then it should be making everyone uncomfortable.
Why? What does the social unrest of our baguette-loving, cigarette smoking brethren across the pond have to do with American welfare?
Everything. Because, unless we learn from French mistakes now, the US may well have Yellow Vest Movements of our own very soon.
In a nutshell, here’s what happened: back in November the Macron administration announced new taxes on petrol, particularly diesel, that would go into effect on January 1st of 2019. The taxes would have raised the price of diesel by 14 percent over a one-year period and the price of gasoline by 7.5 percent. Macron is the torchbearer of the Paris Climate Agreement, he has been a proponent for climate action since he ran for office, and these taxes were his way of “saving the world.”
But they were extremely ill-conceived.
Macron’s legislation essentially passed the cost of climate change onto the average French citizen — the middle and lower classes. Yes, originally it was intended to force people to drive less. But it also did nothing to address carbon emissions from other big polluters: never mind that industry and agriculture produce 31 percent of human generated greenhouse gasses, never mind the wasteful, exploitative habits of Big Businesses. Tax the people, make them pay for the damage, so the rich and powerful can continue to run business as usual.
Right. Well, that didn’t sit so well with the French citizenry. Especially coming from a president like Macron, who is already viewed as a “president of the rich,” as an out-of-touch aristocrat who doesn’t understand the plights of his own people.
Macron tried to backpedal when he saw the City of Love erupting in rebellion, scrapping the proposed taxes on December 5th. But the protests weren’t extinguished so easily. The debacle had already ruffled too many feathers. It evolved as the days went by and as conflicts became increasingly violent — unions got involved because workers wanted higher wages, activists joined in the fray to contend with excessive government spending, and people frustrated with the income gap stepped up and dawned their yellow vests.
Macron had unwittingly ignited the first serious climate change riots in human history. Riots that certainly won’t be the last or the worst still to come.
“The mistake of the Macron government was not to marry the increase in fuel taxes with other sufficiently compelling initiatives promising to enhance the welfare and incomes of the ‘yellow vests,’” says Barry Eichengreen, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.
In other words, the problem lies in trying to enforce sustainable living, instead of incentivizing it. The carrot will always be a more effective than the stick when you’re dealing with people — give them tax breaks for using less fuel, instead of taxing the fuel itself. Give car pools free or discounted parking around the city, instead of making it more expensive to park. Offer tax rebates for households that use less electricity on the monthly, instead of jacking up the cost of energy.
Make sustainability worth people’s while.
That’s environmental economist Gary Yohe’s belief, too. The key, Yohe says, is to give a good chunk of the money back to the people so they continue to pursue sustainable lifestyles on their own.
Yohe teaches at Wesleyan University and, despite frustration with Macron’s attempt at carbon taxes, he doesn’t see this as any kind of end for the practice.
“Is it a death knell for the carbon tax or pricing carbon? I don’t think so,” Yohe says. “It is just a call for being a little bit more careful about how you design the damn thing.”
A hopeful person would look at this as a learning experience that society will take to heart and could truly grow from. As a lesson learned and something that we will work to refine.
However, more cynical readers won’t see it that way at all. For those world-weary souls these French riots just look like a mild taste of the stormy future still to come. As lawmakers around the world start to craft legislation to address worsening climate change, events like this Yellow Vest Movement, and the violence that poured out of it, will likely become more and more frequent and more serious. As national borders dissolve beneath the feet of refugees fleeing sinking countries, as legislation burdens the common people with the cost of climate change and as the consequences of industry, agriculture and transportation manifest all around us, riots and civil unrest could consume the civilized world.
And what then? What will be left after all of this comes to its insane and cataclysmic head? How will history (if it’s even known then) remember our reckless dillydallying in the face of such an apocalypse?
Maybe this is a Mad Max prequel after all. Maybe France is where The End begins.
The world will just have to wait and see. All we know for certain now is that Emmanuel Macron opened a can of worms with his proposed petrol taxes that will not be so easily closed.