In November of 2018, French citizens first took to streets across the country wearing yellow, high-visibility vests to protest the rising fuel prices intended to achieve France’s climate agenda. Demonstrations rapidly spread and still continue over a year later, with a riot in November triggering the worst violence Paris has seen in many months and leading to 147 citizen arrests.
The Yellow Vests movement is predominantly comprised of working class and rural communities that struggle from precarious work conditions, declining public services, and increasing inequality. Protestors maintain that they are not against the ecological rationale of the fuel tax increase, but rather, against the burden of having to shoulder a green transition.
To add fuel to the fire, in 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron approved a 3 billion euro wealth tax cut and increased carbon tax for the same amount. The move was intended to attract back some of the country’s richest citizens, who had left France in an attempt to evade the tax after it was introduced in the 1980s. But the Yellow Vests view the President’s tax break as an embodiment of the economic inequality largely felt by swaths of the population.
The Green New Deal Comes to Europe
Since the beginning, one of the most popular slogans of the movement has been “fin du monde, fin du mois, même combat”, which translates to “end of the world, end of the month, same struggle”.
The saying is meant to express the essence of the cause, which aims to resolve the fight against climate change with social justice. Reconciliation of these two elements is predicted to be one of the greatest challenges that will be faced by European societies in coming decades.
As social tensions increase across the planet and significant climate change looms in the not-too-distant future, a new idea is gaining increased attention in media and political circles that might provide part of the solution, known as the Green New Deal. The sentiment behind the initiative is simple – it is not only possible, but necessary and desirable, to jointly tackle the climate emergency on one hand and social and economic crises on the other.
The Deal is based on three main tenets: first, perpetual growth on a finite planet is irrational and unsustainable. Therefore, the only sensible way to ensure basic living standards for all is not to increase GDP indefinitely, but to redistribute already existing wealth and resources more equally. Several studies have shown that there is no correlation between wealth and happiness beyond a certain threshold.
Second, the richest sectors of the population have been shown to have a much higher environmental impact than those less affluent, causing disproportionately negative effects. Redressing inequality, then, would not only be morally just, but also a key element to fight climate change.
The third and final tenant notes that an ecological transition would require significant transformation of European economies and societies. For the shift to be both socially acceptable and economically sustainable, the Green New Deal maintains that working class communities cannot be expected to carry the burden of such a transformation and that those with the means to combat climate change should be obliged to do so.
Though the grievances of the Yellow Vests have not fully given shape to a comprehensible political policy, a set of demands published and endorsed by the movement align with the spirit of a Green New Deal.
Can Europe Make It?
The idea of a Green New Deal was first introduced to the mainstream of European politics when newly appointed EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged to make a “European Green Deal” the “hallmark” of the coming decades, with promises of transforming Europe into “the world’s first climate-neutral continent”.
Given the global nature of climate change, effective measures require a high degree of international coordination and political determination. And although the plan looks good on paper, it remains to be seen whether it will be politically possible to implement the Deal effectively.
Many political parties and companies are unconvinced of the financial feasibility of such an ambitious transition, highlighting the risks that it could pose to the economy and national budgets. Other commentators have pointed out that the institutional structure of the European Union coupled with the balance of power in the current EU Commission, would greatly reduce chances of a successful Green Deal. There is concern that diverging national interests could lead to “watered-down” measures far from the ambitious plan outlined by von der Leyen before the European Parliament.
Despite trepidation from political parties, what is certain is that the goals of movements fighting for social justice, such as the Yellow Vests, and marches to save the planet are not incompatible. At a time of social awakening, pressure from citizens – such as the youth climate movement – might just be the answer needed for the approval of laws and policies that will lead to progress for the benefit of all.