Let them eat carbon


I’m glad that I got the chance to walk down Avenue des Champs-Elysees from Arc de Triomphe towards Louvre when doing so did not mean getting gassed by the police and dodging burning cars. That September evening in 2016 was warm and Parisians and tourists were out in force in the shops and outdoor restaurants lining up this beautiful thoroughfare. Just to think that two years ago the locals and the visitors to the French capital were largely concerned about the Islamist terrorism (days before I arrived, the police uncovered a terror plot against the Notra Dame cathedral), with foot patrols consisting of five or more heavily armed French soldiers crisscrossing the city to reassure and deter. Over the past week, the French government was considering sending in the troops to pacify their own people who have made the City of Light burn brighter than it did at any time since the spring of 1968.

This time, the Frenchmen are raging about the increase in the rate of a climate change-fighting carbon tax:

The taxes the protesters are angry about are part of President Emmanuel Macron’s strategy to move France away from fossil fuels.

But many say they simply increase the burden on France’s poorer people.

One protester, Esteban, told Sky News the cost of fuel was so high that he was considering a second job to help pay for his transport to school and work.

He said: “I think [the taxes] are not about the environment – it’s for the money.

What’s bizarre is that France is one of the cleanest energy producers in the world (if you consider fossil fuels to be dirty): over 72 per cent of electricity comes from nuclear energy (the largest percentage in the world) and a further 18 per cent from renewables. Only just under 9 per cent derives from burning dinosaurs. Needless to say, France emits significantly less CO2 than the much smaller (in terms of population and output) Australia. In this context, for the government to target the transport sector as just about the only section of the French economy and society still reliant on fossil fuels smacks of fetishism. As the article points out, the tax disproportionately affects average car users, all for a minimal difference in French CO2 emissions and for no discernible impact on global temperatures.

As I write this blog post, President Macron (another sharp dresser former banker with an obsession about climate change) has temporarily surrendered to the hundreds of thousands of his rioting countrymen and postponed the fuel tax increase.  This is not good news for the world leaders meeting at a climate change summit in Katowice, Poland (ironically, Poland’s coal mining capital); the events of the past few weeks in France show that average men and women, most of them blue collar and middle class, resent being punished by their moral betters for trying to live and work in a modern economy so that their government can feel it’s “doing something” in a fight against the nefarious carbon and carbon dioxide. They show that environmental policies are not necessarily popular – and, what’s more, that they can be stopped if the populace is angry and motivated enough.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg knows who the real villain here is:

Whether the anger unleashed by France’s tiny tax hike is real or at least partially induced by Facebook echo chambers is by now difficult to figure out without exact scientific methods. Nevertheless, it’s time to cast away any remaining illusions that social networks can play a positive role in promoting democracy and freedom.

A free society can’t ban Facebook, or even completely regulate away its hate-enhancing function; but it should be aware of the risk Facebook and similar platforms pose to democratic institutions. Ironically, the threat to authoritarian regimes is less: they have learned to manipulate opinion on the platforms with propaganda, trolling, bullying and real-life scare tactics against activists.

Remember: those people would gladly ban Facebook and other social media if they only could, because people can use them to organise themselves and agitate. To be sure, violent protests and destruction of property should be a no-no in any democratic society (even though they are as French as whatever the French equivalent of an apple pie is), but even if France’s protesting “yellow vests” were guided by the spirit and principles of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Bloomberg would still disapprove. Apparently people expressing their views about government policies that affect their livelihoods is now considered a threat to freedom and democracy.  The increasingly unpopular President Macron would probably heartily agree. After all, the planet needs saving and sacrifices have to be made, as it’s usually the case, by somebody else. Let them eat carbon.