President Emanuel Macron’s agreement to scrap the gas tax due to take effect in January marks the first round in the populist revolt against European elites on the issue of climate change. It is all but certain to be followed by more such confrontations in the years ahead, not just in France but throughout the EU.
While the broad populist revolt on immigration has been widely reported, if usually in a tone of moral disapproval, the emergence in France of a new front directed against the obsession with climate change by the political class is in danger of being missed altogether by many in the mainstream media. The New York Times described the movement as “among the most serious challenges yet to President Emanuel Macron’s pro-business government.” Even the news pages of The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 4) depict an “essentially leaderless movement, which has voiced opposition to Mr. Macron’s pro-business agenda.” To describe Macron’s war on fossil fuels as a “pro-business agenda” is Orwellian.
Yes, in the way typical of social movements, this one has widened its scope, embracing other discontents, but there is no doubt about its origins. The protests began on November 17 explicitly to demand the roll back of an additional 30 cents a gallon tax on diesel fuel (less for regular gas) scheduled to go into effect in January. A gallon of gas already costs over $7, over 60% in green taxes. Initially doubling down, Macron called the taxes essential to fighting climate change. Adopting the high-flying rhetoric of global warming zealots, he promised to create a “high council for the climate” with the aim of saving the planet and avoiding “the end of the world.” When the Yellow Jackets (named after the neon vests French drivers must wear in roadside emergencies) were undeterred and public support for them remained stubbornly strong, Macron first agreed to postpone implementing the taxes for six months, then to abandon them when one of the movement’s emerging leaders insisted “The French do not want crumbs. They want the entire baguette.” In his December 10 speech seeking to defuse the movement the climate all but disappeared. Macron promised minimum wage hikes and lower taxes on pensions. There was no mention of a “high council for the climate.” He devoted a mere eleven words to the subject: dealing with climate change was a question of the day.
There are significant differences between the anti-immigration movement and the populist uprising against the elite’s remedies for climate change, differences which explain why the second has been so much slower to develop. Those who oppose opening Europe’s borders to vast numbers of largely Muslim immigrants deny the premises of the dominant elites: that Europeans are morally obligated to take them in, that the newcomers can be successfully integrated despite differences in religion and culture, and that there will be a net benefit from their addition to the work force. The Yellow Vest protesters are not challenging the apocalyptic premise of the elites that global warming spells the end of days: their implicit position is that you can’t save the planet on our lower middle class rural and small-town backs and you have to find another way.
The problem is that the elites see no other way. Saving the planet, EU/UN style, is enormously expensive. After the Paris Agreement on climate was ratified on October 5, 2016 (an aspirational document that left actual emissions reductions up to each signatory) the EU undertook to set an example by creating binding targets for itself. Greenhouse gas emissions in the EU as a whole were to be cut 20% by 2020 (compared to a 1990 benchmark) and 40% by 2030, with at least 27% of energy to come from renewable sources.
It is ironic that France should experience the first protests, since it is positioned better than other European countries to meet low carbon emissions standards. That’s because of France’s historic heavy investment in nuclear power—which produces no emissions at all. The trouble is that all that nuclear power stood in the way of France meeting the EU targets of producing 20% of its energy from renewables by 2020. (France only produces 10% from renewables, most of it from biofuels and hydropower). In part propelled by a previous agreement with the anti-nuclear Greens, in June 2017 France announced it was cutting the proportion of electricity it obtained from nuclear energy from 75% to 50%. It would be shutting down 58 nuclear reactors by 2025.
Never mind that France’s per capita emissions are half those of Germany despite the latter’s huge investment in renewables. Never mind that substituting wind and solar power (the EU approved renewables) would actually increase carbon emissions given that unlike nuclear plants, these renewables need back up plants using gas or coal for the times when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. Never mind that France will forfeit a good part of the roughly three and a half billion euros it currently gets annually from selling nuclear power to its neighbors. Never mind that those EU member recipients, including Germany, Italy, Belgium and Spain, will lose this emissions-free source of electricity, making it even more difficult for them to meet ever more severe EU standards. If none of this makes sense, welcome to the world of climate virtue.
No one has been as ostentatious as Macron in virtue signaling on climate. He has announced a ban on all extraction of fossil fuels by 2040, a shutdown of all coal power plants by 2023, a ban on all gas and diesel cars by 2040, and, in a gratuitous poke in the eye to President Trump, a grant of $70 million to U.S. climate scientists (vetted, one assumes, for conformity to global warming orthodoxy).
Although so far passively, the citizens of other EU countries have suffered more severely as a result of the battle their elites are waging against climate change. A European Commission study found that nearly 11% of the EU population (54 million people) could not heat their homes at an affordable cost. In England, where Parliament in 2008 passed a law mandating that the country reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, a study found over 25% of United Kingdom households in a state of so-called “energy poverty” (defined as having to balance between heating and eating). In Germany, thanks to its much vaunted Energiewende (the total restructuring of energy policy), according to the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel “electricity is becoming a luxury good.” German consumers are forced to pay five times as much for energy (from solar, wind and biogas) as they would for equivalent energy from fossil fuels. The costs are buried in a confusing host of taxes, surcharges and fees, which Der Spiegel writes “would make any consumer’s head spin.” Most of this is on the backs of the poorest segment of society which can’t afford houses that benefit from German solar subsidies for roof installations to provide their heat and electricity.
And the main impact of the climate policies European elites have already committed to implementing hasn’t hit yet. Up until 2020 was the relatively easy part. In the subsequent five years the EU has committed to doubling the emissions cut to 40%. Yet a 2018 study by the NGO CAN Europe found that not a single EU state was meeting its 2020 UN climate targets and 23 out of 28 scored “poor” or “very poor.” Germany’s performance was the most embarrassing of all. Despite assuming the mantle of leadership in renewable energy, and its huge investments in wind and solar, Germany had not reduced its emissions in nine years.
Also the bill is coming due for the $100 billion a year promised developing countries by 2020 under terms of the 2009 Copenhagen climate agreement. That was the price these countries extracted to make it a world-wide agreement. The money supposedly allows them, as victims of the West (which must expiate its sin in endangering the earth through carbon emissions), to “adapt” to climate change and compensates them for bypassing development of fossil fuels. The EU, no doubt, was confident at the time that the U.S. would pick up most of the tab, but with the U.S, thanks to President Trump, deciding to be odd man out, the EU will be left to foot the bill. The developing countries are not going to be fobbed off easily. If you want us to forfeit development of fossil fuels, hand over the money. That’s each year if you want to keep us on board.
Thus far European elites show no sign of giving up their infatuation with climate change. They careen in their thousands from conference to conference reassuring each other that Armageddon is indeed on the way, comforted by the most recent study purporting to prove that the climate cataclysm is closer and more destructive than even the previous study forecast. The Polish hosts threw a spanner in the huge conference currently underway in Katowice by defending coal, Poland’s chief source of energy and the most villainous of all the fossil fuels in the activist report card. Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke to the relish of the audience when he called President Trump “meshugge” for leaving the Paris climate accords and wished, in his role as “the Terminator,” he could go back in time and prevent the use of any fossil fuels. (Retroactively abolishing the Industrial Revolution would strike many as far better deserving the epithet “meshugge.”)
If the elites stand their ground, the living standard of the average EU citizen, forced to forfeit fossil fuels and massively subsidize renewables both in his own country and in the developing world, must fall significantly. Given the stakes, populist protests against the costs of fighting climate change are almost certain to move beyond France. Politicians have been reluctant to take on the issue, fearful of being jeered at in the media as “science-deniers.” Groupthink on climate change in Europe is much stronger than it is here—where it is strong enough. But the French example may pave the way for a workable initial strategy: not confronting the belief system head on but refusing to pay the bill. If the parties across Europe that oppose mass immigration would also seek to protect the public against the zealots who would end the use of fossil fuels regardless of costs, they might significantly broaden their base.
Battling the impact of climate policies sooner or later is likely to require challenging the validity of the entire quixotic project of forcing world temperature into an arbitrary straitjacket. Protesters could then carry on their banners the words of Weather Channel founder John Coleman: “Our luck is to be living in an interglacial period when the Earth is warm and life thrives. If we must worry about the future, it seems concern about the onset of nature’s next ice age would be a better concern than any about uncontrolled heat.”
Rael Jean Isaac’s most recent book is "Roosters of the Apocalypse: How the Junk Science of Global Warming is Bankrupting the Western World."