The One Planet summit, which took place in Paris Tuesday, happened to fall almost 20 years to the day after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol on Dec. 11, 1997. We have forgotten the importance of this pioneering accord, through which the most industrialized states committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It resonated like a thunderclap until 2001 when the new U.S. president, George W. Bush, withdrew from the deal.
This article originally appeared in Reporterre and has been translated by Ricochet.
Does this remind you of anything? Yes, of course: the retreat of Donald Trump from the Paris Agreement signed in Dec. 2015, which was however much less restrictive than the Kyoto Protocol.
This failure of climate change politics is a sure sign of the United States’ inability to transform their system to adapt to the times, as well as their loss of geopolitical influence. But it’s also testimony to a more profound change: the impotence of states to truly influence the economic machine. The reason is simple: for 20 years, the neoliberal mutation has not ceased to deepen, giving ever more power to finance, to the banks, and to the big multinationals.
That’s what the pragmatic Emmanuel Macron, the former Rothschild banker, registers: politics is in fact subordinated to finance. And from that comes the idea of pushing finance to act to reduce greenhouse gases.
This evolution is coherent with the oligarchic system into which the western ex-democracies have entered: the fusion of the state apparatus and the big economic interests. It implies that we can only move forward if these big interests accept it — because it corresponds with their interest.
The disadvantage of this approach is that finance cannot fix a problem that it extensively contributes to creating. Even if we leave aside the fact that financial deregulation has come back with renewed vigour just a few years after the crash of 2008, that the tax on financial transactions remains wishful thinking, and that the carbon tax is a utopian horizon, we have to note that the development of financial markets is organized on a model of maximum growth. They can only maintain themselves by constantly creating new opportunities for return on capital, from which follows increases in production, the exploitation of new resources, the transformation of activities outside the market into commercial sectors, and so forth.
So, even though it’s well proven that the expansion of global trade in commodities contributes to the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, the World Trade Organization is meeting at this very moment in Buenos Aires to approve new free trade agreements. Finally, the prodigious growth of finance over the past 30 years operated by means of a global redistribution of wealth and revenue resulting in records levels of inequality. Again, it is now well established by economists that inequality is contradictory with the goal of reducing global emissions.
Therefore there’s little chance that Macron’s beautiful communications operation — which aims, incidentally, to take from London part of the financial markets after Brexit — will have a real effect on the climate change situation.
Must we abandon all hope of putting pressure on the quiet cynicism of the financial world? No, not quite. Because, after all, if a marginal but real evolution seems to be taking place by way of divestment from fossil fuel activities, it’s because of pressure from social movements like 350.org.
The big banks and the big multinationals, having become all powerful, nevertheless have a weakness — their public image. That gives climate activists something with which they can take action. But it won’t really be effective unless politics puts its hand back on finance.
To really change the situation, there need to be rules — that is to say there needs to be constraints. It’s called the law. And it’s from politics that the law must be born.
Hervé Kempf is an author and environmental journalist in France. He is the editor-in-chief of Reporterre and the former environment reporter for Le Monde.