Can the climate movement survive populism? Lessons from 'yellow vest' protests

 France faces a widespread protest against President Macron’s new climate proposal. The so-called "yellow vest" protests were prompted by the proposal for “green” levies on transportation fuel.

By most accounts, the demonstrations were organized over social media by an informal network. These violent protests have a deeper meaning: they are really about high taxes and declining incomes. Protest slogans translate to: “We cut off heads for less than this,” and “May 1968, December 2018.”

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Populism reflects citizen distrust of institutions which they believe serve elite interests. Climate policy is at risk of becoming the target of populist anger. Public opinion surveys in France suggest that 70 to 80 percent of respondents support the protest. In the words of the “yellow vest” protestors: “President Macron has not listened to the ordinary French and doesn’t understand the concerns of their daily lives”; “We feel we are being targeted instead of the airlines, the shipping lines, those companies who pollute more but pay no tax.”  

Populist movements are often precipitated by major policy failures that reveal institutional corrosion. Climate change is a major policy failure and it will disproportionately affect the poorer sections of society. Yet, instead of riding on popular support, climate action is now faced with a populist backlash.

This is not to say citizens do not care about climate change. In September, tens of thousands took to the streets in San Francisco, New York, and other U.S. cities calling for climate change action. The landmark children's climate case Juliana v. U.S. reflects the frustration of some citizens with slow governmental action on climate change. Opinion polls also suggest that a majority of Americans are concerned about climate change and express strong support for regulating CO2 as a pollutant.

However, when it comes to prioritizing climate change over other issues, opinion polls tell a different story. According to Gallup poll, when Americans surveyed in November 2018 (after the hurricane season in the Atlantic Seaboard and California fires) to identify the most important problem facing the country today, only 2 percent of respondents listed environmental issues, while over 20 percent noted immigration and 18 percent identified dissatisfaction with government.

2018 midterm election outcomes show that electoral support for climate action is thin. Take the case of Florida, the state that faces massive hurricanes every year. Voters are sending Rick Scott to the U.S. Senate even though, as governor, he banned the mention of global warming and climate change in state government policies. Similarly, Floridians elected Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisLewandowski, Florida state senators tussle over Trump's influence on midterms: report Can the climate movement survive populism? Lessons from 'yellow vest' protests Andrew Gillum met with Obama during DC visit: report MORE as the governor although he questions whether climate change is caused by humans.

Take the case of a carbon tax. The carbon tax referendum (I-1631) in the pro-environmental state of Washington secured only 43 percent vote in the November elections in spite of a blue wave that saw Democratic Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellCan the climate movement survive populism? Lessons from 'yellow vest' protests Manchin’s likely senior role on key energy panel rankles progressives Senate advances Trump energy pick after Manchin flips MORE getting reelected with 59 percent of the vote.

Why are citizens not supporting, if not turning against, climate policy? The extreme polarization and the rise of right-wing think tanks that systematically misinterpret climate issues surely shoulder some of the blame. But as protests in France reveal, a large number of citizens see climate action as an elite priority.

Climate talk seems to suffer from “IPCC fatigue” because it has become excessively technical, and the regular doomsday predictions might be turning people off. Environmentalists are slow to appreciate that climate protection imposes costs. For the blue-collar worker and coal miner, the climate movement has declared war on them. The farmers in France are saying this as well in the “yellow vest” protests.

The climate movement needs to reconnect with ordinary people. The publication of yet another IPCC report probably does not help in this regard. One way is to frame climate issues, not in terms of different temperature increase scenarios playing out in 2040 but rather in terms of how climate action will solve problems today. As the French protestors note, Macron’s government “talks about the end of the world while we are talking about the end of the month.”

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Second, environmental groups must fight the perception that the underprivileged will bear the costs of climate action. Whenever climate activists demand climate action, they must outline how those hurt by these policies will be compensated. We call this “embedded environmentalism”: embedding climate protection in a system of social protection. The blue-green alliance between labor and environmental groups is an important step in this direction.

The “yellow vests” protests should be a wake-up call for the climate movement of the possibility that populist anger might get directed at them. More global summits or UN reports will only enhance the perceptions of elitism. What is needed is a new strategy — acknowledging stagnant wages and declining living standard — that shows how climate action solves the problems of common people.

Nives Dolsak is a professor and the associate director of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at University of Washington, Seattle

Aseem Prakash is the director of the Center for Environmental Politics, and the Walker Family professor for the College of Arts and Sciences at University of Washington, Seattle.