Zaman: Yellow Vests, Not-So-White Lies

Those combating climate change fail to acknowledge the role of class.

by Raniyan Zaman | 1/22/19 2:06am

It was a weekend of protests. While Americans turned out for the third Women’s March in three years, France saw thousands of Yellow Vest protesters rally for the 10th weekend in a row. (Make of that what you will.) The Yellow Vest protests originated in outrage toward a diesel fuel tax that French President Emmanuel Macron — the target of the protesters and, in their eyes, the embodiment of the gap between the wealthy elite and lower class — says is meant to minimize fossil-fuel use.

The American right has jumped on the protests as an excuse to remain apathetic about global warming, weaving an increasingly popular narrative that suggests that policies to remedy climate change will primarily hurt people at the bottom. In December, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted out support for ending the Paris Agreement in the wake of the Yellow Vest protesters’ violence. Conservative outlets and writers have somehow rebranded environmentalism as “eco-elitism,” and a New York Times opinion piece titled “Is Environmentalism Just for Rich People?” questions environmentalism’s compatibility with looking out for low-income demographics.

But environmentalism and policies that lift the working class aren’t mutually exclusive — in fact, if climate change goes unacknowledged and unalleviated, then the world’s poor will be hurt first and hardest. An abundance of research provides insight into this phenomenon, from the findings of a World Bank report that shows how “climate change will be felt earliest and poor severely in the poor nations of the world that contributed the least to the problem” to a federal report released only last November. Even in America, the report states, climate change will exacerbate existing class inequalities and endanger low-income communities who already experience delayed recovery from natural disasters and high disease rates. Hurricane Harvey hit minorities and low-income communities hardest, ThinkProgress illustrated in the disaster’s aftermath, since those are the types of communities most likely to live in flood-prone areas with weak infrastructure. It stands to reason that fighting climate change is not exactly a cause reserved for the elite.

This is not a lesson that Yellow Vest protesters need to learn, though. Official documents released by the movement’s organizers call for ambitious climate action, but in a way that places the financial burden not on France’s working class, but on the major corporations that emit the most carbon and use the most fossil fuels. Less than a week after the first protest, activists urged France to implement “a real ecological policy, and not a few piecemeal fiscal measures.” Raising taxes on major corporations, demonstrators suggest, would be a good place to start. 

Too often, inaction on climate change is framed as a denial of science, but it’s not that simple. A survey conducted by the University of Michigan indicates that even as early as July of last year, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe in man-made climate change. Presumably, a majority of the Yellow Vest protesters do. And if apathy resulted from innocuous ignorance about the issue, that would in turn suggest that educating others on climate change would be the solution. But if that were the case, why haven’t we seen any changes yet? The truth is that like so many things, climate change has an overlooked class struggle embedded into it that complicates efforts to counter it. Environmentally-hostile policies often exist to serve corporate interests — who may, at least in American politics, play a huge role in donations and campaign funding. By allowing them to avoid taxes and not requiring them to adopt environmentally-friendly policies, Congress favors outsized influences in Washington — at the expense of the environment and low-income populations. It’s a similar story in France.

It’s been established by now that the Trump administration (and the wing of the GOP that it overwhelmingly and increasingly encroaches upon) often doesn’t get along with facts, but in the case of climate change, it’s likely that this isn’t out of a lack of knowledge or a misunderstanding. Rather, it’s a specific and well-thought-out plan to appease big money, and its specificity and thought is exactly what makes it a hostile political gesture. And while education on climate change could certainly help the public understand the gravity and impact of the issue, there’s no reason why Republicans in Congress aren’t already convinced. Macron has, in the face of France’s continued protests, suspended the fuel tax increase and raised the minimum wage. But America isn’t seeing the same demands for environmental and economic justice, perhaps because Trump’s working-class rural supporters are more likely to believe the myth that the two conflict with one another. Once again, Trump proves that he doesn’t actually care about the people who voted for him, and once again, the GOP proves that on climate change, it knows; it just doesn’t care.