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What Swiss CO2 law rejection tells us about climate action in the era of post-pandemic inequality

The end of the world vs. the end of the month: What Swiss CO2 law rejection tells us about climate action in the era of post-pandemic inequality - by Vladislav Kaim



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Dismay and disappointment - these are the words my colleagues from Switzerland are using to describe their reaction after the voters rejected on June 13 in a referendum the new CO2 law. By European standards, it had nothing spectacular enshrined in it – thankfully, in 2021 a rich country halving its emissions by 2030 and pledging net-zero by 2050 is considered a rite of passage. However, by a ratio of 48:52, which has already been dubbed on social media “the devil’s ratio” for its near-exact coincidence with the Brexit referendum, Swiss voters said “no”.


Analysis of the arguments from both parts shows that those emerging as winners have particularly strongly opposed the tax increases embedded in the plan and unclear payoff considering the alpine country’s minuscule share in global emissions. The “no” campaign has capitalized on anxieties of the population scarred by the inequality-related consequences of the pandemic very well. Thus, majoritarian reaction on social media (which, time and again, turns out being not representative of the whole population) was focused on the flawed nature of direct democracy.


While of course, it is not perfect, I strongly believe that this train of thought leads European youth involved in climate action into the wrong direction. I found myself reflecting the most on two points. First, it is this map of the vote, which indicates an extraordinarily strong urban-rural divide. Second, a comment online quoting a voter who said that while it is important to prevent the ‘end of the world’, he has to make it through the ‘end of the month’.


And this is precisely the uber-challenge for the climate activists in the 2020s that they need to prepare themselves for. Climate change is a problem so existential that has indeed a great likelihood to seal the fate of humanity. However, thinking that from there it results that it is everyone’s number one concern turns out to be wrong. People in Europe who already felt left behind economically and politically often saw new climate legislation as another channel through which farming and commuting hinterland will pay for the measures proposed by and ultimately convenient for the urban elites. The fuel tax turns out to be the most inflammatory (pun not intended) issue, and it is surprising how we again do not get the brief on this considering that the “Yellow Vests” protests in France started exactly after this topic was raised.


It is high time we went to the drawing board and put the redistribution lens of climate action front and center. If a sizeable part of the population believes that the proposed measures do not work, it should not be assumed that they are thinking so out of spite or because they are climate change deniers (of which in Europe, including Switzerland, there are few) – it means that more immediate, socio-economic concerns clash with the longer-term, environmental ones. They, however, are not irreconcilable but may as well become so if constantly pitted against each other. If we really try to make sure that those who bear the biggest relative economic brunt of necessary climate action measures are heard, understood, and included, then finally ‘just transition’ will become a living idea, something more than just a buzzword popular in policy circles.


The lesson we should all get from the Swiss referendum in terms of how to pursue climate action in the 2020s is the following: we cannot mobilize populations efficiently to prevent the end of the world when a substantial part of them, even in the richest countries on this globe, have an existential fear of the end of the month. Climate work in 2020s will be akin to that of a sapper – one mistake in one place might blow the entire effort up. And yet, the bomb of inequality has already exploded in the context of climate action in Europe for the second time in three years. It is our duty as climate advocates and activists who work to back up climate justice claims by popular legitimacy to be humbler and more inclusive, less urban-biased and more inequality-focused in our thinking and actions. And that should inevitably include aligning the objectives of those concerned primarily by the end of the world and the end of the month, because ultimately all of us want the same – a decent life on a healthy planet.


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About the Author

Vladislav Kaim (@VladislavKaim) is a young economist committed to ensuring green and decent jobs for youth. Vladislav is a member of the Secretary-General's Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change where he brings deep expertise in international trade and migration.




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Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth supports all young people and their diversity in exercising their right to freedom of expression. Reach Not Preach platform serves as a safe space for all young people to share their take on the topic of climate change. The views expressed in the Reach Not Preach platform are those of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the view or policies of the United Nations Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth and the United Nations.