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In France, political climate change

Mass riots against fuel price hikes opened the eyes of leaders that non-climate issues such as poverty and fairness in carbon taxes must come first.

Reuters
French riot police in Paris stand guard at the Arc de Triomphe during Dec. 1 clashes with protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a drivers' protest against higher diesel taxes.

Last Saturday, the streets of Paris were much like today’s global weather: chaotic. Protesters were angry over hikes in fuel prices imposed by a government they deemed out of touch with the high cost of driving and other living expenses. The riots forced President Emmanuel Macron to suspend taxes on diesel and gasoline due to start in January. His plan to turn France into a world leader on climate change is now on hold.

One lesson from the protests is this: Achieving a level of climate harmony through government intervention will require social harmony as well. As much as people accept dire predictions about global warming, they also want equitable allocation of the costs in curbing carbon pollution. Will there be mutual sacrifice in reducing coal and oil usage? Will money from carbon taxes go to help the poor cope with the higher costs? Will the revenue also help develop zero-carbon solutions?

Mr. Macron’s big mistake was designating the new carbon-tax revenue toward relieving the national debt. For people like Jacline Mouraud, the working mother whose four-minute Facebook video about diesel prices helped launch the protests, such a move showed a political insensitivity toward her life in rural France. She earns less than $1,100 a month while paying about $110 just to fill up the tank of her car. Her distrust of France’s political elite crowds out any concern for the world or for future generations.

France is not alone is trying to balance climate activism and political fairness. Last month, voters in Washington State voted down a $15-per-ton carbon “fee.” In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces pushback against a plan to impose a carbon tax next year. Many Canadians doubt whether the government will fulfill a promise to send back the tax revenue as a rebate.

Of all emissions of greenhouse gases, only 12 percent are subject to some sort of punitive pricing, such as a tax or a cap, according to the International Monetary Fund. The slow pace in reducing carbon use was highlighted this week at the latest global climate summit taking place in Poland. Experts conclude governments are not meeting their voluntary commitments to help slow the rise in global temperatures.

One reason may be the need for leaders to deal with the mental atmosphere of average citizens as much as Earth’s atmosphere. Popular support of green taxes requires dealing with non-climate issues, such as economic stagnation or social inequities.

For the French president, that lesson was a hard one. “I hear the people’s discontent,” Macron said this week. “I will not allow our energy transition plan to deepen the inequalities between regions and make the lives of citizens in rural areas and peri-urban areas even more difficult.” Harmony in the sky begins with harmony at home.

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