The opening of the COP24 UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland. Photo by Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland's photostream. Licensed under Creative Commons.
The "yellow vest" incident, which saw protesters rise up against the French government's planned fuel-tax increase, is a call to action against climate change in a world marked with inequality.
The protests overshadow the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, where global leaders are rubbing shoulders in Katowice, Poland, in an effort to find way to limit global warming. The riots pose a big question: how can we stop climate change while bringing fairness to society?
The fuel tax is President Emmanuel Macron's flagship measure to combat climate change – a crisis that requires all countries to work together to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius to prevent climate change-related disasters, such as extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels.
It's easy to jump to the conclusion that the protesters are "the biggest obstacle" to the promotion of renewable energy, and – as the media have done in the past few weeks – label the "yellow vests" as right-wing, conservative protesters. The majority come from poor, rural areas and were already suffering from a diesel fuel price hike introduced early this year.
But here's the dilemma. A carbon tax – if used to fund the research and development of renewable energy – will, in the long run, ensure a healthy environment and drive down the price of alternative energy sources. In the short run, however, this tax will push up the cost of living and aggravate the hardships facing the lower and middle classes. What's ironic is that they will be among the hardest hit by climate change, due to their low adaptive capacity.
Moved by the yellow vest protests, many French citizens took part in the movement and expanded their demands beyond revoking the fuel tax. They are also calling for the redistribution of wealth, minimum wage increases and limiting the privileges of elites, who swallow a large share of the economic pie.
France is not alone in facing opposition over a carbon tax. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's carbon tax has also provoked fears of increased living costs.
This situation shows equity and fairness isn't getting enough attention in the building of climate change-related policies.
The speeches of many leaders, elites or celebrities highlight the possibility of a future climate apocalypse and address the sense of urgency with big words, but most rarely talk about the just transition to a low-carbon economy. Many own social capital and material wealth, which can offset the rising costs associated with the shift.
Failing to address fairness in climate change policy has allowed climate change deniers – like US President Donald Trump – to take advantage of the public's anxiety by falsely proclaiming that the decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement was taken to better the lives of the working poor. Unfortunately, Mr Trump's decision to withdraw from the accord has actually gained more and more support, despite the world's condemnation.
Ahead of COP24, the Polish government introduced the Silesia Declaration on Solidarity and Just Transition, a document that calls on governments to deliver a just transition to a low-carbon economy by supporting workers in rapidly-changing industries.
While the declaration has been signed by over 30 countries, including France and Thailand, it has also raised fear among climate change campaigners that it may prolong the lives of carbon-intensive industries by allowing countries to claim that workers require more time in the transition.
But at least, the declaration pays attention to people at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. That said, there is still a lot of tough work to be done. Participation is essential. The French protest shows that a sudden, top-down change can bring violence.
We must find effective ways to inform members of every social class of the pros and cons, as well as the possible solutions, of the shift to a low-carbon economy.
The solutions can range from the setting up of a mechanism that incentivises sustainable behaviour to social security schemes that help those who are affected by the transition and skills training for workers.
Beyond the carbon tax, another effective way to address both inequality and climate change is through a progressive tax reform. Revenues generated by wealth and property taxes can be used to help shield vulnerable workers, and at the same time, fund the fight on climate change. However, only a few governments have the courage to do so.
As such, the key to combating climate change is trust among different social classes, which can be fostered by ensuring that everyone benefits from the policies.