The ‘gilets jaunes’: why is climate policy such a hard sell?

16 Dec 2018


Earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron caved in to the demands of the ‘gilets jaunes’ protesters and agreed to postpone the latest round of fuel tax rises. His concession epitomises the uphill task faced by world leaders in persuading their citizens to accept the necessary sacrifices to slow the rate of global warming.


Since the unrest began in November, four people have been killed and scores injured whilst millions of euros of damage has been caused. Protesters with other grievances from the cost of living to school examinations have joined the movement.


The success of the ‘gilets jaunes’ is a major set-back for President Macron who has championed the fight against climate change. In 2017 he took aim at President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate deal, launching his ‘make our planet green again’ campaign. Just over a year later Macron’s campaign is facing significant resistance, and he must now have a greater appreciation of why Trump has opted to wash his hands of the climate change issue altogether, by denying its very existence.


The US president’s attitude towards climate change is a product of his own self-interest. As far as Trump is concerned, he will only be president for a maximum of 8 years – so why should the long-term effects of climate change be of any concern to him? It is perhaps unsurprising that the president has been quick to cite the Paris climate deal as the cause of the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests.


Trump’s core support base remains indifferent when it comes to climate change, and the president is well aware of this. For many Americans, more immediate like taxation and immigration will always take precedence over issues of the distant future like global warming.

The problem for Macron and proponents of similar policy is that climate change has only a limited impact on people’s everyday lives in the short-term, and thus is far too easy to ignore. In fact, the short-term impact of a tax increase is more significant than that of global warming to the average person. The worst effects of climate change will be long-term, jeopardizing future generations rather than the current.


Whilst different strategies of taxation towards discouraging the use of fossil fuels may act to lessen the burden on the poorest in society, it is clear that we must all make sacrifices if we are to confront humanity’s “greatest threat.”


In order to appreciate the need for tax increases and the reduction of fossil fuel use, the current generation must have the foresight to consider the interests of future generations.


The issue of climate change ultimately comes down to a question of ethics: whether or not we consider the wellbeing of future generations to be our responsibility? Do we really care about what kind of planet our descendants will inherit? If the answer to these questions is yes, then we must act now.


Future generations do not currently have a voice in our political systems, but if they did, then they would surely be pleading with us to tackle climate change while there is still time.

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