The climate crisis is hitting unevenly: those who are least responsible for causing it and who are already affected by other forms of injustice, suffer the most.
The Gilets Jaunes movement sprung up in France, responding to a decision by the French government to increase taxes on fuel starting in 2019, officially to finance incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles. In reality, only a fraction of the money collected from the tax would have gone to finance green programs: most of this tax would’ve been used to bridge the gap in the budget that the cancellation of the tax on the highest incomes has created. Rather than holding accountable those most responsible for causing the climate crisis – for instance, French fossil fuel giant Total – the French government seemed to want to force the less privileged to pay for the consequences of climate change.
While the situation in France is still very volatile, the Gilets Jaunes movement carries the potential for much deeper learning and change, a change that truly addresses the roots of many intertwined problems. There is an urgent need to bring about a rapid transition away from the fossil fuel economy and to address the disempowerment and disenfranchisement of vast parts of the population in many democracies, as well as an economic paradigm that governments have so far been unable or unwilling to challenge. The first lesson to learn from the Gilets Jaunes is that tackling climate change cannot be a matter of simply taxing fossil fuels.
At times it is very unclear what the Gilets Jaunes movement stands for. Day after day, the demands shift, as does the composition of the movement and its relationship with established political forces. Some of the first local protests were led or facilitated by right wing extremists inciting racist and homophobic acts. Sectors of the Gilets Jaunes are still turning this into an excuse to scapegoat migrants and other minorities – this needs to be forcefully rejected and denounced. There can be no place in any truly popular movement for acts and words that exclude, marginalize or discriminate people based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation.
At the same time, while the ultimate shape that the Gilets Jaunes are going to take is still unclear, and a risk of it being hijacked by racists and far-right narratives is very present, we still need to investigate and understand the ultimate causes of this uprising.
And one fact is incontrovertible: the same governments that fueled the climate crisis and didn’t stand up to the fossil fuel industry, also ignored or actively increased inequality through economic policies that benefited the few, to the detriment of the many.
Now apparently bound on ousting the unpopular French President Emmanuel Macron, the Gilets Jaunes movement seems to have sharpened its focus into a critique of the status quo. Ten years after the worst economic crisis to hit France as well as most of Western Europe, many feel they have been left behind.
We can create a million secure Government jobs in renewable energy, in increasing energy efficiency by insulating homes and public buildings free of charge, in hugely expanding cheap public transport to get people and freight onto cleaner forms of transit, and in developing the “green skills” that we need through education and training.
There is currently little overlap between the yellow vests and the French climate movement. This highlights a huge issue affecting the climate movement across Europe: while much emphasis has been put on the need for strong climate policies to kickstart a global transition to renewable energy, moving forward we need to be proactively discussing and clarifying the ways in which a just transition away from fossil fuels needs to happen.
The second important lesson to learn from this spontaneous uprising is that the climate movement needs to reground itself in the need not only for climate action, but for climate justice.
Climate justice means tax justice. By supporting climate policies that make the poor foot the bill once more, while the rich can keep on wrecking the climate and make a profit out of it, we will only replicate the inequality already felt by millions.
The solution is not to act on the demand but on the supply: fossil fuel companies, which are making millions in profit and receive millions of public subsidies, should be the one paying, not the people. These companies are the real polluters.
Taxes are an important tool of government to orient the allocation of value within a given market. But not all taxes are equal. It is possible to reconcile ecological taxation and social justice and ensure that the battle for climate does not lead to further exclusion and precariousness, but on the contrary should pave the way for the creation of quality jobs, the relocation of our economies and building resilient and adaptive communities.
Experts keep revising upwards their estimates of just how many jobs can be created by a decarbonized economy and how fast. The one million jobs campaign in the UK supported by eight trade unions show how we can transition to renewable energy, in increasing energy efficiency by insulating homes and public buildings free of charge, in hugely expanding cheap public transport to get people and freight onto cleaner forms of transit, and in developing the “green skills” that we need through education and training. Already over 10 million people work just in the renewable energy sector worldwide. According to Ernst and Young, decarbonization policies in line with the targets of the Paris Agreement could generate 1.25 million net jobs in 2030. The Gilet Jaunes protests are spreading beyond France and into other parts of Europe, pointing to many things in our societies that are broken. The climate movement would do well in taking to heart the lessons this moment offers us, and so would governments in Europe and beyond. We’re at the crux of dramatic changes to our ways of life, and we must seize this opportunity to ensure that they change for the better, and for all.