“Retrait, climat, même combat,” shouted protesters during the demonstrations taking place across France this past weekend against President Emmanuel Macron’s planned, and much opposed, reform of his country’s pension regime. For these protestors, retirement and climate change are all part of the same problem, the same fight. “No retired people on a burnt planet,” they insisted.
The impacts of a warming planet on the world of work are absent from the French government’s plans, yet extreme weather conditions, in particular heatwaves, will have an increasing impact on employment conditions in the years to come.
The opposition to France’s plans to raise the state pension age from 62 to 64 and to increase the number of years of work required to qualify for a full pension is huge, and not entirely surprising. Every French president who has tried to change the pension rules has faced opposition on the streets; previous plans by Macron to remove special regimes for certain workers were shelved in 2020.
Part of the reason for the significant and ongoing opposition, over and beyond the fact that the French believe their pension regime should never, ever be messed with, is that detractors believe too much of the burden falls on blue-collar workers.
In an article published in France’s left-leaning Le Monde newspaper on 11 February, economist Thomas Piketty wrote about the proposed reforms. “If the government presented its figures, we would immediately realise that the richest must contribute at a notably lower rate than the middle classes and the poorest,” he said.
It is also the poorest in society who studies show are already most impacted by extreme weather events caused by climate change, both in Europe and globally.
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“It is often the least well-paid workers in the most physical occupations who are most exposed to climate risks and extreme weather events and therefore to difficult working conditions,” wrote Notre Affaire à Tous, a French NGO, in a submission to the UN Human Rights Council.
Outdoor workers in construction and agriculture, delivery drivers and indoor workers in jobs subject to high heat in foundries or dry cleaners are those at the highest risk of heat strokes or work accidents, comments the NGO, not politicians or white-collar workers in air-conditioned offices.
Asking these people to work for longer in worsening climate conditions should surely be part of any negotiations on the future of work – and this argument does not just apply to France but to countries everywhere.
Last year, people in the West looked on in horror as outdoor workers in India tried to carry on as normal in temperatures of 50°C (122°F) or above. The latest report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this week shows that without urgent and immediate action, the world will burst through the 1.5–2°C warming threshold agreed under the Paris Agreement and countries like France will increasingly experience summers more like Delhi than Dijon.
Even if action is taken, more extreme weather than has been the norm in the previous 50 years will still be a reality, with the poorest everywhere on the frontline.
Whatever happens with the pension reform in France, politicians in the Élysée and elsewhere need to wake up to the fact that pension reform, and every other policy, is part of the same fight as efforts to adapt to and mitigate climate change.