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After pioneering the green revolution, Europe now lives under its shadow: the counter-revolution.
I have spent most of the last year reporting across northern Europe, where the pace of transition to a clean economy is greatest, talking to people who would be losers in a world that needs a lot of effort to adapt to. our environmental economies. .
What they told me was that they would not accept their fates quietly.
I report on Dutch farmers changing their country’s politics and Polish coal miners shaping the European Union’s climate policies. I spoke to London drivers who are concerned about the mayor’s efforts to curb cars, and to reindeer herders who risk their lives in search of the metals and minerals needed for the green technologies. In Germany I met the leaders and supporters of the far right, who were happy with the rise of anger.
For some the sanctions are minor, but for others they are life-changing. What everyone has is anger and a burning feeling that they are not being heard.
I found nothing in my reporting to indicate that the changes requested of them were unnecessary. Nitrogen pollution is drowning the Dutch countryside, while car exhaust is wreaking silent havoc on city dwellers. Changing the energy foundations of society is a must if we want a sustainable climate.
However, it is good to think that the green change is different from the histories of other climate changes. Like every previous industrial revolution, it also created losers. No matter how many clean energy jobs will be created in the future, hundreds of thousands are being destroyed today. The freedoms to drive, to consume without care are restricted. Society is changed, and the pain is real. Especially the ones that hit the hardest.
There is something unique about this revolution, however. More than any other predecessor, it is driven by political choices rather than technology or capital. So, when the Luddites came, it was inevitable that they came not only for the machines but also for the policymakers and politicians.
In short, it becomes clear that the success of the green revolution will depend on whether policymakers and climate campaigners begin to consider those who bear the greatest costs.
As climate policies move from position papers to laws and regulations, right-wing politicians and industry lobbyists have found a new link to mine anger. In elections around the world in 2024, the right has signaled that it wants to champion those at risk of being left behind. Its strongest message frames climate efforts as elite diktat just another way to pay the workers more than the rich.
Much of far-right politics is focused on immigration, but climate antipathy often marches in lockstep. Both issues evoke the same sedimentary unease: the fear of a lost status in a world where national interests are secondary to serving global or globalist priorities. If migration pushes these parties into power or even gives them more political prominence, opposition to climate policy will gain ground.
Climate campaigners look ill-prepared for this moment. Until recently, the green movement was unwilling or unable to engage with the concerns of those who felt threatened by the transition to a clean economy. Worn by decades of attritionary warfare against the fossil fuel industry, these concerns are dismissed as scaremongering by lobbyists, or the overblown clamor of a noisy minority.
That leaves the movement with a potentially damaging blind spot. Activists may be right that support for the EU’s legal goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 has always been around 90 percent. But when people are asked to accept personal sacrifices or behavioral changes, that support disappears like a mirage that flickers in the distance but flickers when approached.
The myth of a seamless transition proves persistent. I recently remembered a morning in Marrakech in November 2016, where I listened to an official from the Sierra Club describe an effective campaign by American NGOs to close coal power plants throughout the country. . The good news, he said, is that there are more jobs to be done in the clean energy industry, such as the boom sector in fitting rooftop solar. But when asked to name a city, in coal-bound Appalachia or elsewhere, where fossil-fuel-based jobs could be replaced by clean-tech jobs, he couldn’t.
The next day, Donald Trump was elected president.
That lesson is learned, only through painful osmosis. When Poland hosted the 2018 UN climate talks in the heart of its coal industry, climate activists derided Warsaw’s calls for a fair transition as a stalling tactic. In these years the negotiations in Dubai, the phrase has become a buzzword for activists who realize that they need to bring workers with them. But a gap remains between the lived realities of the climate movement, and the people most affected by climate policy.
If there’s one place where teachable moments seem to be absorbed, it’s the White House. President Joe Bidens Inflation Reduction Act is a green spending bill that the White House said today could end up $700 billion over 10 years clearly targeting blowback politics.
Biden’s green subsidies boosted unions, funded most Republican-voting states, reduced consumer spending in the hip pocket, and so strongly promoted the American-made industry that the law almost exploded. in trade relations with the EU. It is a policy that appeals to the same patriotic and security-based values deployed against Europe’s climate efforts. The message to voters: Uncle Sam has your back.
It’s a big bet. Spending the money may stem the tide from the fight against climate change, but it also leaves governments vulnerable to accusations of extravagance.
But it will all be put to the test soon, with 2024 likely to be the biggest election year in human history with votes in the US, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and possibly the United Kingdom , as well as the European Parliament elections in June.
Unless the advocates of the green revolution can embrace and nurture the millions of people who see themselves called to sacrifice, there is a real danger that this and future elections could raise the temperature to an unbearable level. that level.
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