The State of the European Union, Part 4: The Environment

15 February 2024

This is the fourth part of a series of posts on the state of the European Union.

4. The Environment

Environmental concerns have transformed politics in Europe more profoundly than anywhere else. Climate denialism is far less influential in Europe than in the United States, and most major parties have incorporated green planks into their platforms. There is genuine commitment to the idea that reform is essential, at least in the long run. But there are also signs of resistance owing to the distributive consequences of environmental reform. The Gilets Jaunes uprising in France was precipitated by an increase in the gasoline tax, which disproportionately affected people living in rural areas and faced with long commutes to work. In Germany, a law pushed by the Greens to require the installation of heat pumps in new construction met with fierce opposition over the question of who would bear the cost. In the previous section on the economy we saw how strict environmental regulations imposed by the EU contributed to farmer protests.

Meanwhile, to the extent that environmental issues, once the province of outsiders, have been absorbed into the political mainstream, there has been a concomitant radicalization of the environmental movement. Groups such as Extinction Rebellion have adopted such aggressive tactics as gluing themselves to streets and defacing paintings to underscore their contention that the mainstream reform consensus comes too late and promises too little.

Both the Union and member-state governments therefore find themselves facing conflicting demands. Radicalized environmentalists see environmental issues as existential and, to some extent, generational, since it is the young who will inherit the planet despoiled, as they see it, by their elders, whereas people who in one way or another face the rising costs of compliance with new environmental regulations may feel, even if they agree that climate change is an important challenge, that they are being asked to bear more than their fair share of the cost.

In any event, environmental issues elicit the enthusiasm of younger Europeans in a way that economic matters, including questions of redistribution, no longer do. As the deadlines set by COP21 for achieving various climate goals draw nearer, the costs have also become clearer, making climate issues more contentious than they have been until now. Indeed, the COP28 conference has just ended in bitter acrimony over the elimination from the final accord of a clause, opposed by the petroleum-producing states, calling for fossil fuels to be phased out. Meanwhile, the earth’s mean temperature continues to rise, with 2023 ending as the hottest year ever recorded.

One thing that has become increasingly clear is that the social-democratic left, which for a time hoped that it could seize on environmental issues as a way of rejuvenating itself, has not found the magic elixir. To cite just two examples, recall that the ill-fated Nupes, the now-defunct union of the left that presented itself as the answer to the rise of the far-right in France, had hoped to draw energy from the infusion of ecological issues alongside the left’s traditional preoccupation with the social: the very name of the group–Nouvelle Union Populaire, Écologique, et Sociale–speaks volumes about the desire to yoke the new ecological aspirations to the traditional social concerns of les classes populaires.

In fact, however, there was nothing especially distinctive about the Nupes’s approach to environmental issues. Its professed goals were similar to the environmental goals of its rivals in the center and on the right, with the only difference being the claim that the left would somehow be able to achieve those goals in a more just manner. Similarly, in Germany, when the Greens joined the “traffic light” coalition with the SPD and Free Democrats, it seemed for a brief moment that leadership of the left was shifting from Red to Green: the Green Party’s poll numbers were rising, while those of the Social Democrats were falling. But the shift was largely internal, with younger Social Democrats switching their allegiance to the Greens, leaving the combined total more or less where it was. And once in power, the appeal of the Greens to its new voters diminished, as the party’s supposed purity was compromised by the exigencies of governing.

While the EU’s promulgation of environmental regulations has stirred vocal opposition in some quarters, parties of both the left and right have found it convenient to shunt complaints in the direction of Brussels while taking credit for a responsible approach to environmental challenges. In the meantime, much of the actual work of effecting cultural change has been devolved to cities and regions. Restricting automobile and truck traffic, encouraging bicycle use, insulating older buildings, improving mass transit–these are some of the areas where significant progress has been made at the local level. To be sure, some of this urban environmentalism–Paris Plage or Mayor Hidalgo’s bike routes spring to mind–may have enraged cab drivers and prompted Yellow Vests to complain that they can’t do their 100km commutes to work on rental bicycles or trottinettes. But it would be wrong to dismiss all this as meere yuppie greenwashing. Consciousness of environmental issues has certainly been raised, and support for consequential reform has therefore increased.

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