NEW GEOGRAPHY--In launching their now successful protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s gas hike, the French gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) have revived their country’s reputation for rebelling against monarchial rule.
It may well foreshadow a bitter, albeit largely avoidable, battle over how to address the issue of climate change.
Macron’s approach may have made him a favorite of editorial writers, who see him as the new “sun king,” but he is far more disliked by his own people than Trump is by Americans. The new French rebellion parallels the revolutionary resentments that ultimately overthrew aristocratic and clerical privilege that allowed them to live in splendor while the Third Estate, the middle class, suffered.
Climate: Beyond hysteria
Macron’s policies rest on the notion of an on-going climate catastrophe embraced by media, the academy and the intelligentsia. Every time weather takes a nasty turn as it often does — heat waves, downpours, forest fires, floods — it’s often attributed to climate change.
This leads to the notion that we need to embrace climate “hysteria,” as one New York Times reporter suggested recently. This does not seem the best basis to create an enduring and workable policy. Like other pressing issues, environmental concerns need to be addressed in a rational and equitable manner. The mainstream media has become the biggest obstacle here, as evidenced by coverage of a recent report suggesting a huge economic hit from climate change. As President Obama’s undersecretary of energy for science, physicist Steven Koonin, suggests, these projections reflected only highly improbable worse case scenarios based on such things as ever growing coal usage and no significant technological improvement.
Who pays for environmental virtue?
The gilets jaune revolt begs the issue: who pays to save the planet? The Paris accords absolved the very countries driving emission increases — China and India — from mandating emissions cuts until 2030, leaving the burden largely on the backs of the West’s own middle and working classes.
Yet many of these people need fossil fuels to get to work or operate their businesses. Tourists may gape at the high-speed trains and the Paris Metro, but the vast majority get to work in cars. More than 80 percent of the Paris metropolitan area population lives in the suburbs and exurbs, in an area nearly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
Like the revolutionaries of 1789, people are enraged by the hypocrisy of their betters. In pre-revolutionary times, French aristocrats and top clerics preached Christian charity while indulging in gluttony, sexual adventurism and lavish spending. Today they see the well-off and well-connected buying their modern version of indulgences through carbon credits and other virtue-signaling devices. Meanwhile, as many as 30 percent of Germans and as many as half of Greeks are spending 10 percent or more of their income on energy, the definition of “energy poverty.” This is occurring while these policies prove sadly ineffective in reducing emissions while the much disdained US leads the large countries in cuts.
Is there a Third Way?
In California the zealous apparatchiks of the Air Resource Board are working overtime to make life worse for most residents — even though the state since 2007 has trailed 35 states in emission declines. California’s gains are further clouded by the fact that the state exports its pollution to other states as well as overseas. And the fires, which produced massive emissions, were made much worse by state’s mismanaged forest policies — and those imposed on federal lands by environmental groups. (Just because Trump says something doesn’t make it de facto untrue).
Ultimately politics may force a shift in these policies. Unlike China, people in democracies sometimes fight back against their governments. Already political leaders in Alberta and Ontario have broken with federal climate policies seen as hurting their provincial economies. In the US many states, including left-leaning Washington and Colorado, rejected such things as carbon taxes and bans on oil drilling, in part due to concerns over energy bills.
Like Macron and leaders elsewhere, the woke folks running California may not escape a citizen rebellion forever. There’s already a major lawsuit against climate policies brought by 200 veteran civil rights leaders on behalf of mostly minority working class voters. In the trial deliberation Attorney General Xavier Becerra has all but admitted that the state does not consider class or race as relevant in climate policies which may not play so well with that part of their own political base.
Hopefully grassroots pressure will shift the policy agenda. Already some environmentalists are approving of trimming the forests. Others are proposing more expenditures on resiliency — coastal walls, dispersed power systems, better storage of water — to meet the challenges presented by climate change.
The world, California included, needs to respond to the climate challenge with a pragmatism based on realism and respect for citizens’ aspirations. No democratic society can be expected to openly impose a radical decline in living standards; that has already been made clear in France, and may be shape politics here in the US, and even here in California, for years to come.
(Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He is an occasional contributor to CityWatch. This piece appeared most recently in New Geography.)