By Joakim Ydebäck

In the autumn of 2018, the Champs-Élysées was turned into a battlefield. Protesters wearing yellow vests had taken to the streets in objection to some of the French government’s new political reforms. Cars were burning, shops were vandalized and the whole city was paralyzed by riots. As the protestors conquered the prestigious and, for the French Republic, symbolically important Arc de Triomphe, calls for President Emmanuel Macron’s resignation were made. This movement is said to have gathered all those who are dissatisfied with the government’s politics or simply feel forgotten and ignored by the political elite. However, the matter that started it all was a very different one: higher taxes on petrol and diesel.

President Emmanuel Macron and the government of Prime Minister Édouard Philippe proposed to raise the tax on fuel. The reason was the effort to make France a leading environmental nation and to make sure that the Paris Agreement would be fulfilled. It was seemingly a rather harmless reform proposal and many states undergo large reforms to meet the goals to stop climate change. However, this proposal was heavily criticized, not least by the working and middle classes. Higher taxes would make it difficult for less fortunate people to work, it was said, and as an extension make it more difficult to live. Although the protests later came to question the legitimacy of President Macron and the French government as a whole, the fact remains that the Yellow Vests Movement was sparked by the dissatisfaction of environmental reforms.

Although the states of the world have managed to accomplish international collaborations and have established several goals to hinder climate change, there are, undoubtedly, many obstacles to overcome before we can reach them. In the first half of December 2018, there was an international summit at Katowice in Poland where the environment was to be discussed. Incidentally, it was held at the same time that people protested the reforms in France. Many of these obstacles became evident during the summit. Several rich and oil-dependent nations, such as Saudi Arabia or the United States, were very vocal about their disapproval of some of the guidelines. Climate change is more of a threat to some countries than to others. Several Pacific Island nations may vanish completely if the sea levels continue to rise. In this case, the interest of wealthy states seems to be deemed more important than the wellbeing of poorer countries.

What the protests in France clarifiy is that environmental reforms only work if people are able to follow them. Such examples exist in other countries as well. In Sweden there has been a long debate whether or not there should be heavy taxation on air travel. The idea is advocated by the current center-left government. The argument is that airplanes should, just like other forms of transport, compensate for the pollution they cause. Critics argue that less air travel would be bad for business and hurt rural parts of the country that are dependent on this kind of transport. Perhaps this would be less of a controversial issue if there were alternative forms of travel. The Swedish railroad service has been thoroughly criticized for years. If people cannot rely on other options when commuting or traveling to the rest of the continent, how can those environmental reforms be justified?

Central to these three examples of efforts made in environmental politics is that a lot of the reforms are established on a national and international level. However, those who are most affected by these reforms are the people who are far from the decision-making. It is the people’s representatives, politicians and experts in a certain field, who construct reforms and policies to improve our society and its well-being. The danger is that those reforms might not be thoroughly aligned with what non-politicians are able to accomplish. If there is a lack of good and sustainable alternatives, people will not be able to fulfill what is expected of them. In such a scenario people might become apathetic to environmentalism as a movement, or start to distrust the political establishment that has made these reforms, as is the case in France. The Yellow Vests claim that they are not against environmentalism, but rather against how it is conducted. That is, they feel their representatives are not able to substantiate proposals and reforms that are possible to accomplish.

Accordingly, environmental reforms and the question regarding climate change has generated support from citizens across the globe. A very relevant example is sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg who, through her school strikes, has gained international attention and generated similar activism in many cities all over the world. She also attended the conference in Polish Katowice, and in a speech her message was clear: “We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.” But when the people are deprived of their power several negative and counterproductive things may happen. And while most people do not object to that deprivation by besieging their capital, the Yellow Vests Movement is a contemporary example of how environmentalism may, sadly, fail. President Emmanuel Macron has previously likened the French presidency to the role of Jupiter, the Roman God. But perhaps it is time for Jupiter to come back to Earth.

Joakim Ydebäck is studying at the Peace and Development Program at Uppsala University. After that, his goal is to somehow make the world just a little bit better. If he were to be offered the position of foreign minister, he would not say no. His four main interests include talk radio, international opinion polls, political crises and somber jazz music.

Illustration: Karin Kristensson

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