Climate dividends and the yellow vests

In the U.S., the news is unundated with scandals, investigations, and Tweets from the White House, so most Americans don’t know that Paris has been under siege for several weeks by rioters wearing yellow vests, or “gilets jaunes” in French.  What media coverage there is of the yellow vests in the U.S. often focuses on the “violence” of the protests, but rarely covers the message of the protesters in much detail.  The media also sometimes conflates “populist” with “ultra right-wing,” even though it does not seem that the protest originated from or is linked to the right-wing.  The right-wing would, however, love to harness the energy of the protesters and co-opt it for their own purposes.

Meanwhile, what about left-wing populism?  In the U.S. this was seen during Senator Bernie Sanders’s (D-VT) 2016 Presidential campaign.  Moderate liberals were often put off by his “angry” tone.  But Sanders’s followers asked why should they project a “happy” tone, when they feel that their country’s major institutions are failing them?  These left-wing populists often expressed frustration with the 2016 neoliberal-moderate candidate, Hillary Clinton, and her Vice Presidential pick, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), who told them to calm down, everything was just fine. At least it was for them and their mostly comfortable upper middle class supporters. That election outcome shocked the establishment, which still struggles to understand the depths of voters’ discontent.  

Similarly, France’s populists see their President Macron as part of a wealthy elite who doesn’t care about their concerns. Although the yellow vest protest has called for a repeal of a vehicle fuel tax, which Macron has proposed as part of his initiatives to address climate change, the context behind the movement is a massive tax giveaway to the 1%, similar to that enacted in the United States last year.  Economic inequality is a major driver of these populists, and provides an opening for left-wing populist leaders to address the concerns of the movement.

There is a great danger that a tone-deaf, overly-elitist response from “centrist” leaders will push some of these voters into the arms of a far-right demagogue who promises simple solutions to complex problems (such as blaming immigrants or minorities).

Climate dividends, which return money from a carbon price back to people, provides a direct solution to the yellow vests concerns, while putting income inequality on equal footing with climate concerns.  Climate dividends would counteract the regressive impacts of diesel fuel charges, and send money to the very people who need it most.  The yellow vests undoubtedly want a livable planet for their children.  Climate dividends can help change the perception that addressing climate change will be costly to working class people.  Canada is starting to look at dividends as part of their carbon pricing strategy.  Perhaps Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could make a call to President Macron and suggest offering climate dividends to the yellow vests.

Climate dividends is a simple solution (based on more complex economics, but let’s leave that for later), and the benefit to the public is that, when paired with an economywide cap, it will reduce emissions, return money to households, and provide a start to a universal basic income.  The main obstacle facing climate dividends is that many politicians are less motivated to give the money back to people, when they could instead spend the money on big projects (such as high-speed rail in California).  Climate dividends could be the solutions the yellow vests are looking for.  Will Macron or others recognize it in time?

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