The Phenomenon of Eco-Political Risk Exemplified by Yellow Vests Movement in France

DOI: 10.20542/0131-2227-2020-64-3-36-46
A. Bordovskikh (,
Lomonosov Moscow State University, 27/4, Lomonosovskii Prosp., GSP‑1, Moscow, 119991, Russian Federation

Abstract. Ecological crisis represents the major challenge for democracies in the era of globalization. Researchers and experts agree that the climate change, regardless its “slow-burning” nature, constitutes the risk of dramatic economic and social transformations causing mass impoverishment, conflicts, wars and dislocation of people. Under such conditions, the democratic governments will be forced to conduct unprecedented reforms in order to resist the threat. Postponing the energy transition will only cause more drastic and extensive measures in the future. Despite general awareness of the problem, ecology remains the claimed priority which is poorly reflected in real actions of the authorities. The present article explains this obvious lack of governments’ action by the social resistance to the energy transition. This resistance remains implicit but reveals itself when the energy transition amplifies a short-term financial vulnerability of individuals. The Yellow Vests movement represents an illustration of this conflict of values. Mostly interpreted as a manifestation of a profound social crisis of liberal democracies, it originates in the ecological dilemma: people’s support of the energy transition contradicts their willingness to participate in it financially. This dilemma results in significant growth of a new type of eco-political risk having ecological origins, but taking a classical form of civil unrest and, generally, leading to political instability. In accordance with this theory, Yellow Vests movement started as a protest in response to higher ecological component of the fuel tax (especially the diesel), which was thought as a stimulus for the energy transition but became an accelerator of social tension. French polls show that people acknowledge the ecological crisis and the threat it represents. Furthermore, they await and approve the energy transition as a main condition for solving the climate change problem. Nevertheless, the same polls disclose people’s unwillingness to take their financial part of responsibility in this transition and unpreparedness for any decrease of their purchasing power. This dilemma becomes a source of political instability and social unrest especially in democratic countries, where the welfare state model is particularly well-rooted and comprises a fundamental value for people. Nonetheless, in a shortterm perspective, the energy transition has a tangible cost which public finances have no possibility to bear without raising the financial pressure on business and individuals. The public debt burden, continually increasing explicit social expenditures, off-balance-sheet liabilities including implicit pensions, and, on the other hand, extremely low economic growth do not allow any additional public spending. Thus, should the energy transition be undertaken (and there are no doubts it is the only possibility for democracies to survive), it will be financed by the business and individuals. With this perspective, researchers tend to develop a new framework for political risk analysis, where the ecological factors are significantly reinforced. While there are some studies on the expropriation risk caused by ecological transition, the civil unrest remains poorly investigated. The present article aims at investigating this new eco-political peril. The author believes, the individuals’ rejection of environmental solidarity constitutes a major factor of political instability in the liberal democracies, and it will amplify in proportion to the intensity of governments’ actions for the energy transition. The longer the democratic governments postpone the necessary climate decisions, the harder these measures will be for the people, and the stronger the consequences of the inevitable political risk.

Keywords: political risk, global ecological crisis, climate change, yellow vests movement, civil unrest, energy transition, Welfare state


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For citation:
Bordovskikh A. The Phenomenon of Eco-Political Risk Exemplified by Yellow Vests Movement in France. World Eonomy and International Relations, 2020, vol. 64, no. 3, pp. 36-46.

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