Instead, the far right is thriving, seeking to turn the greenlash into something darker.
The emergence of the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movement surprised the world as they started occupying roundabouts across France, opening tolls for free, and gathering massively in city centres every weekend to protest a taxation on individual fuel consumption designed to fund environmentally friendly policies five years ago, in November 2018.
While many commentators initially portrayed the mobilisation as a populist uprising against climate change measures, the movement managed to set the public agenda for several months and fostered a crucial conversation in French debates on the essential linkages between economic, social, and environmental issues.
It also set the tone for political measures that aimed to tackle climate emissions across Europe, with politicians fearing to implement measures that would negatively impact consumers or, worse, hit motorists in their wallets.
With politicians using anti-green rhetoric to build support, from decrying the ‘war on motorists’ and low emission zone measures, to promoting conspiracy theories around 15-minute cities or backtracking on promises on insulation and heat pumps, we want to seize this fifth anniversary as an opportunity to ponder the varied expressions of backlash against green policies.
At the time of a growing wave of greenlash—backlash against green policies—across western countries, we would also like to move past the shallow understanding of these wide and complex movements as ‘anti-green,’ to examine their deeper political nature. The yellow vest mobilisation provides substantial food for thought when delving into anti-green protests, inviting us to adopt a nuanced perspective on the potential backlash against environmental policies.
At first glance, the movement indeed crystallised a clear example of a resistance movement to an environmentally friendly policy, with its members opposing an anti-pollution tax announced by the French president Emmanuel Macron.
But upon closer scrutiny, their grievances extended beyond mere resistance to the fuel taxation; they raised many questions relative to dignity to live decently from one’s job and emphasised the connections between fiscal, social, and climate justice. For instance, they called for the reinstatement of the Impôt de Solidarité sur la Fortune, a wealth tax on individuals with substantial assets aiming at addressing economic inequality.
Some protesters also advocated for direct involvement in political decisions, proposing the implementation of referendum initiated by the citizens in the constitution. In fact, many yellow vests resorted to using their cars not out of choice but out of necessity, as they could not afford to live in city centres and had no other option than to move to peri-urban areas.
While participants were quite heterogeneous, research indeed revealed a complete absence of people identifying with the “upper class” in the movement, and highlighted that 50 percent of the yellow vests mentioned living in a household earning €2000 per month (the equivalent of about £1750).
Instead, the far right is thriving, seeking to turn the greenlash into something darker.
Their reliance on cars also resulted from cuts to public transport and decreasing public investment in local public services, compelling them to use their personal vehicles more often. They were thus outraged that the policy was a flat tax, one that means the poorer pay disproportionately more, specifically targeting individual fuel consumption rather than addressing larger corporate polluters.
Put differently, the yellow vests questioned the fairness of the anti-pollution tax and requested to be considered in environmental policies. They raised the central issue of who should bear the financial burden of environmental transition in a world marked by increasing inequalities, and called for the interconnected consideration of social, economic, and environmental factors rather than viewing them in isolation.
The tax was often described as “the straw that broke the camel’s back” by the participants to the mobilisation, in a context of eroding social benefits and increasing constrained expenses, including mortgage, insurance, and housing costs. Their resistance was therefore not against the environmental transition per se; they questioned being made to pay for it while others were clearly making huge profits from the very same system.
By framing the price of fuel as a pivotal cost of living issue rather than an ‘environmental’ one, the demands and actions of the yellow vest movement are crucial for us to understand given the rise of not dissimilar resistance across Europe. We hence should remain vigilant when examining and engaging with anti-green pushbacks, as these may involve not only climate change denial or advocacy for corporate economic interests but also broader considerations relative to socio-environmental justice.
By putting at a distance anti-green protests rather than trying to comprehend their main concerns, we thus may run the risk of neglecting an important political debate on the type of transition we aspire to and the means by which we wish to achieve it.
This debate is particularly pressing, especially as conversations become increasingly polarised, as evidenced by recent anti-green protests against zero emission zones or the rise in votes for far-right political parties that both encourage and capitalise on the greenlash, such as the German AfD.
The message that many politicians and policy architects have heard from the yellow vest movement, one repeated endlessly, is that people are not willing to pay for environmental measures, and that action on climate change will only be acceptable if it comes at low cost.
While this has long been a common place argument, George Monbiot famously declaring people would never “riot for austerity”, reality is far more complex, with most polling suggesting that people are reluctant to take action at a personal cost while those seen as most responsible sacrifice little or do nothing. In this sense, it is the yellow vests’ concern for justice that holds the most important insights for us, not the refusal to pay for climate change personally.
In the UK we have seen several reactions to anti-pollution measures, from the vocal backlash against low emission zones such as ULEZ in cities that extends to attacks on monitoring cameras to public protests that draw in right wing conspiracy thinking on ‘climate lockdowns’ and 15-minute cities to media campaigns against the move to enforce a switch to electric vehicles.
Landlords and homeowners in the UK and Germany have both campaigned against the mandatory installation of heat pumps, with opposition to installation forming a significant part of the surge in support for the far-right Germany political party AfD.
In the Netherlands, consensus politics has been shattered by the reaction to attempts to limit nitrogen pollution. As the Dutch government seeks to buy out and shut down livestock farms, farmers, already working to low margins and high costs, mobilised across the country, with the far right seizing the moment.
In Ireland a similar farmers movement has arisen, while back in the UK opposition to green infrastructure—from wind and solar farms to electricity pillions has produced vocal local protests. While heterogeneous, these movements all share a number of features with the yellow vest movement.
The key concern is how a change in law and regulation regressively impacts marginal incomes, with those living in rural or peri-urban areas often facing the highest costs, and with small businesses being confronted with increased payments and costs that threaten already slim profit margins.
These are the most visible parts of a transition to a net zero economy, one that appears to place the financial burden on consumers and small businesses that are already facing a profound cost of living crisis, while it is ever clearer that large companies are making obscene profits.
Unlike changes to other forms of consumer spending, cars and homes are for many people inescapable costs. As electricity bills, mortgages and rents rise, standards of living decline. As fuel and car tax prices increase, people are left poorer.
At the moment, in most countries, the reaction to this squeeze on living standards in the name of green policies has not been taken up by progressive or left-wing parties, unions or organisations in any sustained way that seeks to build a real movement.
Instead, the far right is thriving, seeking to turn the greenlash into something darker. Yet the cost-of-living crisis and the revolt against being made to pay for what many people instinctively see as a crisis not of their making should be solid grounds for progressive organising.
Last years Don’t Pay campaign in the UK, as well as the resurgent French pension and environmental struggles around water infrastructure, both indicate there is a profound appetite for organising.
Learning the lessons of the yellow vests must include taking up the question of popular organising starting with people’s everyday concerns and the question of who will pay for the green transition.
Dr Elise Lobbedez is assistant professor at the Essex Business School, University of Essex. Dr Nicholas Beuret is a lecturer in management and ecological sustainability at the University of Essex. His research has been published in journals including Antipode, Science and Culture and South Atlantic Quarterly.