This, in my view, is a distillation of the consensus in the non-denialist mainstream of the climate debate: that large corporations and the politicians in their pockets are clear bad actors who need to be defeated. As a narrative, it’s concise and compelling — but it leaves out the heart of the matter.
In fact, corporations make money selling fossil fuel products because demand for cheap transport fuels just keeps growing. And politicians who try to slow that demand growth do so at their political peril, because people all around the world show an alarming propensity to protest and even riot when their access to cheap fuel is threatened.
Fuel riots are a global phenomenon. They hit rich countries, middle-income countries and poor countries alike. So far this century, they have occurred in France, Iran, Ecuador, Zimbabwe, Spain, Brazil, Jordan, Haiti, Mexico, Nigeria, Sudan, Chile and Egypt.
These are hugely different places with varying problems and inequities, but the protesters all have the same kind of dissatisfaction. They face an uphill struggle to hang on to a rung in the lower middle class. Whether in Khartoum or Paris, these demonstrators are largely folks living month to month on hard-stretched budgets where every last penny is accounted for. Even a small hike in variable costs can mean the difference between a budget that barely takes them through to the end of the month and one that doesn’t. Is it any wonder they reliably respond to rising transport costs with violent fury?
These riots can sometimes spark broader movements as well. In Chile, Iran, Ecuador and France, they galvanized masses of people who took to the streets and threatened to destabilize their governments. In Sudan, fuel price protests resulted in a movement that eventually led to the overthrow of one of Africa’s worst dictatorships.
Environmental campaigners argue — rightly — that fossil fuels only seem cheap because the prices consumers pay don’t reflect all the damage they do to the environment. It’s not just climate change, but also the local air pollution that makes people sick and cuts lives short. As a matter of economic theory, they are correct that taxing the harmful activity is the obvious way to bring the price consumers pay in line with the damage fossil fuels do to others.
But time and again, politicians who try to act on this line of reasoning end up paying an exorbitant price. The force that most often destabilizes governments isn’t the power of greedy oil executives, but the rage of regular people on overstretched budgets. Other politicians quickly spot the dangers and learn to disregard economists’ advice on fuel taxes. Politicians around the world come to see fuel prices as the “third rail” of green politics.
And for good reason. Fuel riots can permanently alter the political dynamics of a country. In my native Venezuela, the violent crackdown unleashed against looters and fuel hike protesters in 1989 is now seen as a seminal event that destroyed the old political system’s legitimacy, setting the stage for Hugo Chávez’s rise to power. The impact on a nation’s political life can be lasting and even decisive.
It’s true that, in theory, politicians could take the extra revenue generated by higher fuel taxes and hand them back to hard-pressed people through tax credits or cash transfers. But with rare exceptions, such as smart energy reform in Indonesia in 2015, it has rarely been done successfully.
It’s remarkable how little acknowledgment this dynamic receives in debates about climate change. Climate activists are perfectly happy to stay in their moral comfort zone, where corporate greed and political timidity explain everything that needs explaining.
But the reality is that oil and gas companies keep investing in oil and gas production because consumers all around the world demand it. To stop them — and we must stop them — we need to look beyond the easy demonization of oil executives and consider the legitimate needs of people struggling to afford their transport needs.
So the question we really need to ask is: How can we make green transport so affordable that politicians around the world stop fearing for their careers if they hike fossil fuel prices? And that isn’t simply a political question.