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A year ago more than a quarter of a million people took to the streets across France, in what became known as the “gilets jaunes” protests. They began as a reaction to an increase in fuel tax – a tax which was supposed to help the environment, but which the protesters said meant they could no longer afford to drive their cars or get to work.
These were the first high profile demonstrations against policies designed to tackle climate change, but they put a spotlight on a sense of unrest that has spread far beyond France.
So if it is widely accepted that climate change is a real threat, why is there a backlash against climate policies?
Jacline Mouraud – Original member of the “gilets jaunes”
Matias Turkkila – Editor of the Finns Party
Carol Linnitt – Co-founder of The Narwhal
Simone Tagliapietra – Research Fellow at Bruegel think tank
Presenter: Tanya Beckett
Producers: Beth Sagar-Fenton & Josephine Casserly
Welcome to The Inquiry on the BBC World Service I’m Tanya Beckett. Each week one question for expert witnesses and an answer.
It’s been a year since over a quarter of 1 million people took to the streets across France. They turned out en-masse to protest against a hike in the tax on fuel which was aimed at helping the environment, but which they said served chiefly to penalise them.
Dressed in yellow high visibility jackets earning in the name of the “Gilets Jaunes”, they caught the attention of media around the world. They were the first high-profile demonstrations against policies designed to tackle climate change and they put a spotlight on a sense of unrest that has spread far beyond France.
But if it’s widely accepted that climate change is a real threat, why is there a backlash against climate policies?
Part One: Buried in the Countryside
“Hello, I’m Jacline Mouraud and I live in Brittany. I am the first, the original gilet jaune.”
Jacline is a woman in her early 50s living in the countryside in northern France. She’s a hypnotherapist and drives long distances for her work. When a tax on fuel was increased in 2018 it was a financial blow. By the way, while Jacline speaks some English, she was more comfortable doing the interview in French.
“I was driving 2500 km each month, so I couldn’t fill up my car. I asked myself the question should I keep working and paying my bills or will I actually be better off if I stay at home and claim unemployment benefit?”
Jacline felt that the government was expecting people outside the cities to shoulder too much of the burden of its climate policies.
“For Paris it’s not a problem because they have the Metro and lots of alternatives. We only have our cars so it was out of the question that they tax us even more. It made me feel like they just wanted to bury us in the countryside.”
So what did you do?
“So I made a video to say we have had enough and we can no longer afford the basics with our salaries. In the video I’m speaking directly to President Macron, and I’m telling him Have you really thought about the decisions you are making? Because in the countryside, your decisions are killing us. I put it on the Internet and that was all. I didn’t think much about it. The next day it had already had more than 400,000 views. I was so, so surprised. And at the same time I started to receive tonnes of messages from people. It was as if I had become the confidant of the French in all their unhappiness.”
Jacline started to realise that she was by no means alone. She teamed up with others to plan protests at roundabouts across the country and set the date for November 17.
“At the start it was a very beautiful story and it was a story of solidarity, fraternity. There were meeting every evening in every house. Everything was done behind closed doors, a bit hidden. Meetings until midnight, one in the morning. Then came the first day of the protest 17th of November 2018. I was in a van in Brittany. I arrived at 6 AM at the roundabout and there was absolutely nobody there. I was wondering if people would actually come. It got to 7:30, and at that moment on the motorway I saw a convoy arriving. It was doing a go-slow. They came to the roundabout and within two hours the roundabout was totally packed with people.”
Jacline’s call to action had resonated with many others right across the political spectrum. The protests spread across France, getting the attention of the government and eventually leading President Macron to abandon his fuel tax rise. As more people joined in, though, the agenda started to broaden and encompass other issues like the cost of living and inequality. Jacline eventually parted company with the gilets jaunes, feeling that the movement was becoming violent and losing sight of its original purpose.
“You have extremists who have taken the reins of this movement and completely derailed it. That’s why today there’s hardly anyone left in the movement.”
Jacline says the gilets jaunes protesters weren’t against tackling climate change, just angry at the way it was being implemented in France.
“The gilets jaunes are not people who don’t care about their carbon footprint. But before we become environmentalists we need to be given the means to do so. At the moment you can’t be green in the French countryside. It’s impossible. You can only do it in the city. We have to do these things gradually, bit by bit.”
After the gilets jaunes movement, will Macron and other leaders really have to think more carefully about implementing these types of green policies?
“Absolutely! Green policies need to be well thought through in agreement and in cooperation with the people and not against the people. The problem in France is that environmentalism is only punitive. We need to have a transition; if not, it will not work. When you go against the people, the people will revolt.
In the months that followed, objections to climate policies sprung up in other countries, echoing the angry sentiments that were being expressed in France. All this was being watched with interest not just by ordinary people who were struggling to make ends meet but also by political parties eager to broaden their appeal.
Part Two: Or the dog gets it!
“It doesn’t matter who you ask. Everyone says the same. Finland is known as a country of a thousand lakes. We just love the idea of having clean air, clean water, no pollution. This is our, common ground.”
In the spring of 2019, Finland went to the polls. It was an election in which climate policies featured high on the agenda. Many Finns wanted them to go further, but others thought they had already gone too far.
“I’m Matias Turkkila. I’m Editor-in-Chief for the Finns Party.”
Right-wing populists the Finns party, previously called the True Finns, had long been known for strongly opposing immigration. But in the run-up to the election they saw an opportunity to win over more voters by taking a firm stance against what they described as climate hysteria.
“I think the other parties saw an opportunity of pushing this environmental issue very strongly and they thought that this would be sort of very bad every year for us. But it actually happened, I think, quite the opposite of how they thought it would go.”
For the Finns party, it was less about thinking up their own ideas than dismissing those of their opponents who they call “The Green Left”. They painted environmental policies as an overreaction that interfered too much with the daily lives of ordinary people.
“We are constantly having a debate on whether kids in schools should eat meat or just the vegetarian and whether working people should be allowed to drive their old cars or whether they should buy new electric cars. But they are actually quite costly. So introducing expensive measures really stings the small man, to speak.”
It’s quite emotionally charged, isn’t it, the debate?
“This is exceptionally charged. I think this has gone much beyond the normal political debate. Now it seems that discussion involves everyone and the daily decisions they make in their lives. So when I start my car and come hearing to the interview, is this an environmental issue? When I buy food, when I decide on where to go on vacation, all of these are directly connected to the warming of the Earth and it’s really quite much for many people. We do speak of the issue but we also try to say: Don’t be that hasty. Let’s take it easy.”
But the party’s messaging was clearly designed to stir up emotion. Party grandee [not sure of name] said in a TV election debate that climate policies would “take the sausage from the mouths of labourers” and, even worse, raise the price of dog food by up to 40%. “What are you going to say to the little girl or boy who cries when mum and dad sake they can’t afford it any longer,” he said, “and take the lovable pet to be put down.” Heartrending stuff!
So did campaigning against climate policies pay off?
Matias Turkkila: “The Finns Party definitely has gained quite a lot of support over the environmental questions. I think it went through even better than we ever thought that it would go. In the parliamentary elections we came in second place.”
They are now established as the main opposition party in Finland and since the elections in spring , their popularity has continued to grow.
It’s been a very quick rise for us. We were and 8% one year ago or so; now we are by far the biggest party according to polls. We are 23%.”
Despite this success in the polls, many people in Finland and elsewhere think that climate change is a problem that urgently needs addressing. So why are environmentalists and their ideas often met with such hostility?
Part Three: Two Tribes
“There is some really interesting research that came out of Queens University in Canada. They found that environmentalists and feminists were the most hated people in the country! And it’s, like, why are they so hated, you know, because if you look at the polling, Canadians have high environmental values.”
Carol Linnitt is one of those environmentalists. An investigative journalist and co-founder of website The Narwhal, she is based in Vancouver Island in Canada. Canada’s economy is extremely dependent on mining and oil, two sectors that have been the object of visceral criticism from environmental campaigners.
“The issue is really divisive and we see the division being stoked on both sides. And we see a lot of stereotypes and caricatures of the Birkenstock-wearing, urban-centred environmentalist who doesn’t have to think too much about where their energy comes from city but they’re really judgemental of other ways of life. And on the other side you have a lot of environmentalists, you know, speaking in really degrading ways about oil and gas workers.”
The mutual hostility between campaign groups on both sides goes beyond dislike into festering distrust and even conspiracy theories about just who might be paying for their activism. There are widespread accusations of “Astroturfing” on both sides.
“Astroturf is fake grass essentially and when we’re talking about Astroturfing it [means] sort of creating a fake grassroots movement. And so you see these kind of supposedly grassroots groups who are you know fighting for the oil industry and if you are seeing a grassroots campaign that is defending the interests of the most profitable multinational corporations in the world I think there’s reason immediately to be suspicious. You don’t have to be an investigative journalist to have alarm-bells go off in your head there.”
On the other hand, there also been talk that lobbyists for the green agenda are being propped up by support from foreign competitors in the mining industry, talk that some politicians are clearly taking very seriously, especially in Alberta, the oil and coal capital of Canada.
“They have a conservative government that was elected in the province of Alberta in the spring of 2019 and one of their first orders of business was to actually launch something called “The Energy War Room”. And there are some millions of dollars are going to be invested into this War Room to basically attack environmental advocates and environmental organisations, doing audits and looking at their sources are funding, to drum up conspiracy about what their motivations are.”
All of this intense mutual suspicion means that real dialogue is rendered pretty much impossible.
“The research shows that when individuals of opposing perspectives and opinions get together, when they feel attacked and not heard, they go into an attack position themselves, and people’s open-mindedness and curiosity really shuts down in response to feeling attacked. On the flip-side, when people feel listened to, heard and validated, they certainly become a lot more open-minded and curious about other perspectives.”
How in your work are you trying to bridge this divide?
“Well at The Narwhal we really want to move from journalism that stokes outreach to a form of journalism that actually prompts inquiry and curiosity.”
And this means reporting on how environmental policies affect communities, people’s jobs and their way of life. For example, the energy transition: how we switch from using coal, oil and gas to renewable alternatives.
“In our reporting we’re looking at some of these towns are basically built on oil and gas, and because of that these companies pay a lot in taxes to these local municipalities and that actually adds up to the bulk of the money that these places have to build schools and roads and hospitals. When you look at the community like that, when you are talking about an energy transition and a need to move away from fossil fuels, the stakes are really high.”
Understanding how high those stakes are means of fundamental change of approach for an environmental publication like The Narwhal. In this case, instead of reporting on the closure of the coal mine is a victory, their focus is on listening to the concerns of the workers. It’s on sensitive subjects like this that Carol says supporters of the green agenda often do more harm than good.
“I have family members who work in the oil and gas industry and friends and their relationship to their jobs is complicated and they feel so misunderstood by the environmental movement. There is a real lack of caring sympathy about these people and it’s dehumanising. And I think that furthers that divide.”
For those in industries like coal and gas, that means ensuring that there is enough support to help workers move into new jobs. But when it comes to wider environmental policies, do they need a fundamental rethink?
Part Four: The Rebalance
“I come from the region of Venice and Venice is visited every year by million people that want to understand its history and its heritage. But today, Venice is really turn into a monument to our future.”
Simone Tagliapietra is an expert on international energy and climate issues at Brussels think tank Bruegel.
“Because should climate change progress at the speed it is currently progressing, the United Nations estimated that by 2050 there might be the equivalent of 3500 Venices around the world, in the sense that coastal cities are going to be massively affected by the current trend of sea level.”
Floods, fires, droughts: recent extreme weather has added a real urgency to tackling the crisis. But when it comes to taking action, Simone says there has been one key problem.
“These policies look like policies done by the rich for the rich.”
Simona’s research suggests that gilets jaunes founder, Jacline, had hit on something important when she complained that climate policies were punishing those who could least afford it.
“For example, the case of subsidies to electric cars which are typically cars more expensive than traditional cars and certainly the richest [people] are going to buy them first. So the people looking at the subsidies might say: Well, why are we subsidising the rich buying an electric vehicle while we will just end up being a higher price for the fuel at the pump? That’s basically the problem. And this problem is actually real because fundamental policies might affect the poor rather than the rich. And this is called economics Regressive Effect.”
Channelling money from the poor to the rich clearly is not ideal. So is there a better, fairer way to tackle the problem?
“I would say that policymakers need to be smart. Climate policy is something that can be done in a way that favours the poor as much as the rich, and even more than the rich. Think about social housing. One of the key issues while dealing with the energy transition is how to get our homes more energy efficient. If the state is to start by investing massively into energy efficiency in social housing, for example subsidising insulation, this would prove to be a popular[?] climate policy and at the same time it would lower the energy bill of the poorer households. The same can be applied to compensation for the higher cost of the gasoline at the pump.”
He says this idea has already been tried in Switzerland and British Columbia in Canada.
“What you can do is to put in place targeted compensatory measures, lump sums that you give every month will the low-income households that are living in the rural areas in order to compensate for the negative effect of the higher cost at the pump. You don’t need to do this in the city centres, for instance, because at the city level you’ve got alternatives.”
And this isn’t just about fairness for its own sake. It’s crucial to ensure that the public supports climate policies because, without their backing, they just won’t work. In fact, Simone Tagliapietra says there might be a reason to thank those who drew attention to this backlash by taking to the streets of France.
“I think that the gilets jaunes could actually be seen as a positive stimulus to policy-makers to come up with better policies for the future. This has really been one case which I think the lessons were actually learned by policymakers and we will, from now on, be far more attentive to these issues. So I would really try to take an optimistic view on these and say that what we learned in France could really be helpful to enhance our climate and environmental policies in the future.”
Why is there a backlash against climate policies? Many people feel they’re being forced to pick up the bill for something over which they have no control, needing for example to use their car because there is no local public transport to get them to work. They feel a sense of unfairness. Besides, the benefits of their sacrifices often seemed elusive, hard to identify. And finally, amid these resentments and uncertainties, the dialogue gets swallowed. Often we revert to tribal tendencies.
How can environmental policies be shaped so as not to deepen divides within our society?
The answer lies perhaps in recognising that while we try to solve one problem we must avoid creating several more.