If there is one thing the recent Paris riots teach us, it is the cliché ‘easier said than done‘. President Emmanuel Macron has been the torch-bearer of advocating climate change buffering by cutting the use of fossil fuels right from the moment he set foot in Elysee Palace. The 2015 UN climate conference held in Paris negotiated the Paris Agreement setting the goal for limiting the global warming to well below 2-degree Celsius compared to the pre-industrial levels. Out of the 196 countries who had signed the agreement, 176 has ratified it.
The US, under Obama, used to be a tireless exponent of limiting global warming until Trump came over and repudiated the science of climate change as hoax in 2016, elucidating the purported ‘ very big political agenda of scientists’ ( though in two years time he replaced the definitive tone of it being a hoax to his acknowledgment that he was not sure if it was manmade or not). He pulled back the US from the Paris Agreement recently, making it clear that he ‘does not want to give trillions and trillions of dollars or lose millions and millions of jobs and put the US at a disadvantage’. Skepticism to climate science is rife among most of the far-right and even far left ( like the new Mexican President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador). The 2015 per capita carbon dioxide emission share of countries show the US as the second largest greenhouse gas emitter after China. India closely trails in the third place.
While climate change is pure and simple science and the occurrence of frequent extreme weather events like the California wildfire, droughts, floods and hurricanes in many other parts of the world are forewarnings of many more in future, for an average person to absorb this abstract, unseen global phenomenon is not that easy and it might seem unreasonable for many. It is hard for one to relate driving a diesel truck for a living to a flood or drought in another continent ( predominantly so in a scenario where global leaders themselves talk dismissively of global warming, questioning how on earth could snowfall occur if the global temperature was shooting up). Even for the educated and informed ones, there is an element of cognitive bias at work while encountering abstract phenomena like global warming for which no cognizable evidence could be provided in terms of an immediate cause-effect relationship.
Macron seemed expeditious in tackling the problem by imposing a carbon tax that would have seen the price of diesel, petrol, and coal soar upwards, curbing old diesel vehicles from plying the roads and a host of other measures. The fact that these measures would exclusively batter the poor hard-working majority of rural France was passed over, deliberately. A blue-collar worker, who had already been struggling to put a square meal a day on his plate, who has paid the highest tax from his meager income while Macron lavished tax cuts to the elites, could be forgiven for not imbibing the cause-effect relationship theory of climate science. Macron’s grandstanding attempts at the cost of the poor and favor for elitism is all too patent for one to ignore. Discontent and disillusion have been smoldering among the French right from the time he acceded to the throne, only that it reached a boiling point now.
The social media, particularly FB, has played a huge role in simmering the discontent and helping organize this unorganized revolt with its platform for venting emotions and feeding rage. France, the wellspring of many illustrious revolutions that toppled dynasties and even world order, is on fire once again. Though vandalism of historic monuments like the Arc De Triomphe and the public property is untenable, the fire on the streets is too intense and burning for Macron to ignore. He has since then taken a sharp U-turn from his proposed tax measures after an affected intransigence initially, but the point at issue has already reached a new high and protestors are coming up with new demands for a pay hike, pension revision, educational reforms and so on. The picture is an atavistic reversal to the pattern of all the French revolutions to date except that it lacks a definite leader, party patronage or manifesto exactly like the student protests of 1968 and the banlieue riots of 2005. There seems to be no other way for Macron but to yield to their demands or else quit his throne. He could even be forced to negate the tax cuts previously bestowed on the elites.
Such is the power of democracy that the other leaders who are watching the events with trepidation will no doubt be more expedient in proposing environmental laws from now on and many could even join the league of climate change deniers and skeptics or be more in cahoots with the fossil fuel lobby citing the French example. And the common man is not to be blamed if he gives preference to his short-term existential goals to long-term climate change statistical extrapolations. Unless some improvement in his circumstance or lot happens, whether it be living a decent life or moving up the social ladder, he is justified in opposing what to him seems like draconian measures to tamp him further down the socioeconomic strata while the rich and powerful clamber up the ladder by stepping on his back. Macron has finally begun to take stock of this but learned that the hard way.
The formidable French general Charles de Gaulle who became president in 1959 was one who was not afraid to make controversial decisions. Despite his inflexibility and intractability, he was nearly toppled by student and worker protests of 1968 and resigned from power the following year. Science akin to religion is an archetypal iceberg with a small superficial floating part that is visible and comprehensible to most and a huge deep submerged part perceivable to an esoteric minority. Metaphysical and religious preaching about the ways to envision the God to a hungry man is useless when the only thing in which he sees his God is a loaf of bread or a person providing it to him. Likewise, Macron would do well to appease the common French citizen giving his ear to their needs first before lofty goals.
As de Gaulle quoted, “A true leader always keeps an element of surprise up his sleeve, which others cannot grasp but which keeps his public excited and breathless.”