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France’s Yellow Vests Attract Attention of Climate Change Conference


Environmental activist protests against fossil fuel in front of the the venue of the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland, Dec. 10, 2018. (Agencja Gazeta/Grzegorz Celejewski via Reuters)

Environment ministers from nearly 200 countries are arriving in the Polish city of Katowice to join haggling over ways to advance the 2015 Paris accord to curb climate change. National leaders have stayed away from this year’s climate change conference largely because it is devoted to agreeing the details of the implementation of the Paris agreement.

But as ever, the devil is in the details.

Climate activists attend the March for Climate in a protest against global warming in Katowice, Poland, Dec. 8, 2018, as the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference takes place in the city.
Climate activists attend the March for Climate in a protest against global warming in Katowice, Poland, Dec. 8, 2018, as the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference takes place in the city.

Ahead of the ministerial arrivals, climate activists from around the world marched Saturday in the Polish city to vent their frustration and to urge governments to “wake up” and “make the planet green again.”

“It’s time to save our home,” they chanted near the hall hosting the two-week U.N. Climate Change Conference.

Protesters wearing yellow vests stand next to a burning tree as they demonstrate against the rising costs of living that they blame on high taxes near the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris, Dec. 8, 2018.
Protesters wearing yellow vests stand next to a burning tree as they demonstrate against the rising costs of living that they blame on high taxes near the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris, Dec. 8, 2018.

Meanwhile, 1,500 kilometers away police in Paris battled Yellow Vest protesters mounting their fourth Saturday of action against the government of French President Emmanuel Macron, a revolt triggered initially by the imposition of higher taxes on fuel.

For Western governments, even environmentally-friendly ones, climate change poses a massive political dilemma the protests in France are bringing home.

Impose the tax hikes and costly regulations scientists say are needed to lower emissions and move economies away from dependency on fossil fuels and governments risk prompting a backlash, largely from lower-income workers and pensioners who can ill-afford to bear the expense. Or move slowly and risk blow back from climate activists and their supporters among largely middle-class and higher-income groups able to adapt with less hardship.

Squaring the circle between those who demand fast-track climate-friendly measures and those who want to slow down and mitigate the impact of moving towards a low-carbon future isn’t going to be easy, as the Paris protests demonstrate, say analysts.

Poland, which is hosting this year’s conference, used the opening last Monday of the 24th U.N. climate change conference to emphasize the dilemma and to try to temper ambitions when delegates come to finalize the rule book for the Paris agreement to make the accord operational.

U.N. Climate chief Patricia Espinosa (C) is flanked by officials during a press conference at the COP24 climate change summit in Katowice, Poland, Dec. 2, 2018.
U.N. Climate chief Patricia Espinosa (C) is flanked by officials during a press conference at the COP24 climate change summit in Katowice, Poland, Dec. 2, 2018.

Among other things Polish leaders called for a “just transition” for fossil fuel industries that face cuts and closures amid efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, warning a badly managed transition to a low-carbon, renewable-energy future will cause major disruption to industry, hardship for ordinary people and could trigger social unrest not just in France, but in other industrialized nations.

Many climate activists attending the conference dismiss warnings about social and political repercussions, seeing them as merely efforts to impede progress, apply the brakes and of providing specious justification for propping up fossil-fuel industries.

Natural historian Sir David Attenborough, second right, listens to speeches during the opening of COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland, Dec. 3, 2018.
Natural historian Sir David Attenborough, second right, listens to speeches during the opening of COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland, Dec. 3, 2018.

British naturalist and documentary-maker David Attenborough gave voice to their frustration last week at the conference, warning time is running out to avert irreversible disaster.

“If we don't take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon. The world's people have spoken, their message is clear, time is running out, they want you, the decision-makers, to act now. They're supporting you in making tough decisions, but they're also willing to make sacrifices in their daily lives,” he said.

Climate activists remain furious that attempts to incorporate a key scientific study into the talks failed last week. U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, published in October, said the world is completely off track from curbing global warming and is heading towards a catastrophic three-centigrade jump in temperatures this century.

Four oil-producing countries, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia, opposed the inclusion of the IPCC report into the conference’s key negotiating text. The report is likely to resurface in the final week of bargaining.

The issue of a “just transition” is fast developing into one of the core climate-related issues governments are debating, and it is prompting the attention of investor organizations as well as organized labor.

“As the world begins its much-needed transition from high-carbon to low-carbon economies, investors will have to look beyond physical environmental issues and consider the social aspects of workers and their communities who will be impacted by the move away from carbon-intensive industries,” says Fiona Reynolds, chief executive of the Principles for Responsible Investment, an international network of major institutional investors.

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