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Moral resistance to green transitions focuses on unfairness, inefficiency and ineffectiveness

Illustration and text. Illustration: Saskia Gullstrand.
The illustration highlighs potential reactions to increased fuel prices. Illustration: Saskia Gullstrand.

Unfair, ineffective, and inefficient. These are some of the moral objections to increasing fuel prices in Sweden. A new study from Lund University identifies how social movements are resisting green transition policies through moral reasoning and argues that their concerns must be both recognised and responded to, in order to achieve a low-carbon future.

– If politicians want different climate policies to succeed, they have to engage with the moral arguments of those who are resisting these policies. If politicians ignore them, the transition will be slow, and they also run the risk of big and disruptive protests from different groups, such as the yellow vests in France, says Henner Busch, researcher at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies.

Together with his colleagues, Jens Portinson Hylander, Ellen Lycke, Eric Brandstedt, and Vasna Ramasar, he has identified a number of moral claims used by social movements to delegitimise green transition policies such as carbon taxes that lead to higher fuel prices. Their study is motivated by the question of how national states and municipalities should work to implement green transition policies in a way that is perceived as fair and just by the majority of people.

Through interviews and text analysis, performed during 2022, they identified the following objections which are engaged to delegitimise climate policies in the transport sector.

  • Unfairness: The fuel policies are economically unfair and affect mainly poor people in the countryside who depend on their car for a living. The transition is going too fast, which is unfair for those who have built their life in the countryside, and there is an investment loss for those who have bought a combustion car which can be used for 10-15 years. 
  • Ineffectiveness and inefficiency: The fuel policies are not effective, Sweden is so small that our emissions don’t make a difference. Why not focus efforts on lowering global emissions, or on other sectors such as food or flying? Policies are also inefficient, people who live in the countryside will have to use a car even if it costs money: this will not change anything.
  • Trust: The politicians are not working in people’s interests, and many people don’t trust them to make the right decisions.
  • Identity: Having a car is part of many people’s identity, by making it harder to own a car, this way of life is threatened.

– These objections range from questions of fairness to other things like identity and trust. What is most striking is that technical or economic objections also become morally charged, for example when what is considered inefficient or ineffective is translated to being unfair. By loading arguments with moral content, they become much harder to counter for policymakers, says Jens Hylander, researcher at The Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute who lead-authored the recent study.

It is important to delve deeper into what these groups are saying, who they claim to speak for, and respond to their objections. If decision-makers do not do this, this discontent will continue to simmer, making it very hard to gain acceptance for new policies, continues Jens Hylander.

Meet but also challenge arguments 

For example, one way to meet the argument of unfairness could be policies that compensate people in the countryside for increased costs, or tailored investment programmes to make it easier to access services in the countryside, decreasing the need for a car, say the researchers.

It is crucial to speak openly of trade-offs with the green transition and what it can mean for different groups, even if it can be hard to win over certain people. The longer we postpone the necessary transition, the more radical changes we will have to introduce in the future, which require broad social acceptance, says Jens Hylander.

Dealing with lack of trust and issues of identity among these groups will be much harder, note the researchers, putting a just transition at risk.  

Jens continues:

– A key insight from our research is that policy makers need to acknowledge and oftentimes challenge moral concerns. Successful transition policies rely on understanding and working with these concerns from sceptical groups. At the same time, it is important to recognise that not all concerns can define policies too much, if we want to ensure a transition that is both just and fast.

Download the article: Fuel for revolt – moral arguments as delegitimation practices in Swedish fuel protests. It is written by Jens Hylander, Eric Brandstedt, Ellen Lycke, Vasna Ramasar and Henner Busch, and published in Environmental Politics. 

About Henner Bush

Henner Busch. Photo.

Henner Bush is a researcher at LUCSUS. His work mainly focuses on energy and climate governance.

Email: henner [dot] busch [at] LUCSUS [dot] lu [dot] se (henner[dot]busch[at]LUCSUS[dot]lu[dot]se)

Henner Buschs profile in Lund University research portal