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Bret Stephens: France’s Combustible Climate Politics

Bret Stephens, The New York Times

Climate policy should be about solving problems, not salving consciences.

A car burning near the Champs-Elysees during a demonstration in Paris on Saturday.CreditCreditKamil Zihnioglu/Associated Press

The recent publication of the Fourth National Climate Assessment is being hailed as a potent rebuke to President Trump for his do-nothing approach to climate change. Meanwhile, another president is learning that perhaps the only thing worse than doing nothing about climate, politically speaking, is doing something about it.

Emmanuel Macron’s government was forced this week to suspend a planned 6.5-cent-per-liter tax increase on diesel and 2.9 cents on gasoline — collected for the purpose of speeding France’s transition to renewables — after weeks of protests and violent rioting throughout the country. French consumers already pay more than $6 for a gallon of gas, compared to a current national average of $2.44 in the U.S.

That’s in a country where unemployment is 9.1 percent, the median monthly disposable income is $1,930, and economic growth has lagged for decades. “To the protesters,” wrote Adam Nossiter, The Times’s correspondent in Paris, “Mr. Macron is concerned about the end of the world, while they are worried about the end of the month.”

So much then for the belief that a cabal of know-nothing pundits and greedy oil barons are the main political obstacle to climate action. President Obama rejected a gas-tax hike in 2009, when Democrats controlled Congress, but not because the Koch brothers were bending his ear. In France, the protesting “Yellow Vests” aren’t particularly right-wing. They’re just rightly fed-up, and 84 percent of the French support them.

So much, also, for the fantasy that our main climate challenge is that nobody in power has the spine to do something about it. The real problem is that so far most of those somethings haven’t worked, or won’t work, or won’t work anytime soon, or come at too exorbitant a price.

Before accusing the so-called do-nothings of being good-for-nothings, shouldn’t the self-declared do-somethings first propose something serious to do? […]

But a long history of climate policy failures might also cause climate activists and the politicians they support to be more humble about their convictions, more sensitive to the human effects of their policy, and more willing to listen to criticism.

To have a diagnosis is not to have a cure, and bad cures can be worse than the disease. Those who think otherwise are also living in denial.

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