In January this year, the UN security council recognised climate change as a “threat multiplier” for social and political stability around the world as it deliberated conflicts that had erupted in Africa and the Middle East since the turn of the decade. The link is straightforward enough. Climate change places stress on natural resources which when compounded by unequal distribution sees higher probabilities of violence. However, there was some solace in the widely-held belief that this was likely only among vulnerable and poor societies in the world, while more developed nations would be able to balance their adaptation and mitigation requirements without too much disruption. This year, dubbed the year of protests, has shattered this perception.
Mass mobilisations in rich and poor countries alike have targeted new policies which have sought to reign in emissions. The global north, which has been facing record-breaking heat spells year after year (….), saw its first big wave of protests in France by the Gilet Jaunes or Yellow Vest protestors who have been organising country-wide protests, and clashing with police, for nearly a year now over fuel surcharges introduced by the Emmanuel Macron government as an environmental measure. The protest, over months, has found solidarity from working classes across Europe, North America and even the Middle East.
Earlier this month in the Netherlands, thousands of farmers blockaded highways to protest government proposals to shut some cattle farms due to their high carbon footprints. In Russian capital Moscow too, protests demanding election reforms have emerged in the backdrop of the Putin government’s perceived bias towards industrialists while setting the country’s climate agenda.
The situation isn’t very different in developing nations of the global south. This month’s protests in Chile’s capital Santiago (host of this year’s COP), which turned violent and resulted in 18 deaths, was triggered by a hike in metro prices. Somewhat ironically, the hike came about a result of the Chile government’s decisions to tax conventional energy sources and switch the Santiago Metro system to renewable power. Just a few weeks earlier, Ecuador declared a state of emergency after protests against the government’s decision to end fuel subsidies shook the country. Protestors, fearing steep increases in prices of common goods and food, took to the streets and clashed violently with police. Volatility in the oil industry and unpopular austerity measures have sparked wide protests, reminiscent of the Arab Spring, across the Middle East and North African region as well.
In India too, recent months have seen backlash against climate-aligned moves by the government. While the push for electric vehicles has been implicated in the slowdown and job losses that has afflicted the auto sector in the country, a widely-mooted plastic ban across the country was abandoned allegedly due to the huge impact on employment in the country and the potential backlash that would follow. Interestingly, though, the country has continued to extend deadlines to meet new emission standards for thermal power plants.
The readiness of modern democracy to meet the challenge of climate change has been a subject of intense speculation in recent years. Data shows that while public protests increased dramatically, success rate of protests witnessed a staggering decline since mid-2000s, which is as low as 30% today.
Mass protests across the world have had separate triggers, but they’re united by distrust of the ruling elite and the policies they perceive as proof of a double standard that favours the rich. While protests against austerity measures have rocked climate policy, anti-immigration laws being put in place by several governments are also being interpreted as a response to climate change and its impending impacts. The Paris Agreement lays out the objective of climate action and although the debate rages on whether climate action under the agreement will be adequate to avert crisis, the disruption caused by green transition under the current economic and political systems is laying bare the tough road that lies ahead.