A funny thing happened on the way to the UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland. They started rioting in Paris. At first the two events seemed unrelated. The Yellow Vest protests (Mouvement des Gilets Jaunes) were started by a change.org petition and a Facebook event posting calling to protest a new fuel tax in Paris because, the protesters claimed, it was really just paying for tax cuts for the 1%. The protests snowballed into riots when President Emmanuel Macron said the goal of the administration’s economic reform program is to increase France’s competitiveness in the global economy, and that the fuel tax is intended to discourage fossil-fuel use. He later agreed to roll back the tax, but it was too late. The vests were out of the trunks.
Katowice is host, in the heart of Polish coal country, to the UN’s annual effort to fly 20,000 people to some city to make it look like something is being done about climate change. Eighty percent of the heat and power for the Polish conference was supplied by coal.
As the Yellow Vest riots grew larger and pulled in more of the French and Belgian population, delegates in Katowice started wondering if maybe events happening in the two places were connected. What if this is what it looks like when a government tries to curb greenhouse emissions by raising the price of fossil fuels?
15-year-old savant and minor star of this year’s COP Greta Thunberg explained in a press conference that raising fuel prices is a dumb move, if fighting climate change is what French President Macron was doing it for, because it hurts those on the bottom rungs of the ladder more, and people with money would be able to buy what they needed at any price.
Gilets Jaunes is organized in a leaderless, horizontal, Occupy fashion. Informal leaders can emerge but only in the moment. The movement is not associated with a specific political party or trade union and is spread almost entirely by social media. Three weeks ago, President Macron did not give the protest much credence and dispatched riot police who were no match for 300,000 citizens in yellow vests. Protesters have now gone beyond the retraction of fuel taxes and demanded the reintroduction of the solidarity tax on wealth, a raise in the minimum wage, and the resignation of Macron. At this writing it looks like he could actually be forced to resign. Other world leaders are watching closely.
In a televised address Monday, Macron said he bore partial responsibility for what he said was an insufficient response to souring public sentiment.
“At first it was anger against tax and the prime minister responded by cancelling and removing all rises planned for the start of the new year. But this anger is deeper. I feel it is fair in many ways,” he said. “I may have given you the impression that I didn’t care, that I had other priorities. I know I may have upset some of you with my words.”
“Macron’s sweeteners are coming at a cost,” Berenberg Economists Kallum Pickering and Florian Hense said in a research note Tuesday. France’s debt-to-GDP will likely rise beyond 100 percent as a result of the concessions. EU rules limit spending deficits of member countries to 2% of GDP in any single year.
“They add up to 10 billion euros or slightly more, equivalent to 0.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). On top of the already announced 4 billion to cancel the fuel tax hike, this could push the 2019 deficit from 2.8 percent to 3.4 percent of GDP unless offset by savings, which will be difficult to find.”
At a press conference called by COP24 President Micha Kurtkya on December 10, Laurent Fabius, the president of the COP21 three years earlier in Paris (the one that delivered the landmark Paris Agreement), added fuel to the speculation that Parisians are rioting in response to “drastic measures” to keep to 2-degrees global warming rather than the 5 degrees now anticipated this century, as Macron had said.
“Now on the events that are taking place in France we have seen the comments of some people saying ‘Well you know there is a difficulty in France and it means that all that stuff about carbon pricing and more generally about fighting climate change is a figment of the imagination and is not necessary.’ No, I do not share at all this viewpoint.
“French events do not mean that the necessity of ecological and just transition must be abandoned. Not at all. I was a few minutes ago in a meeting about just transition with Nicolas Stern, a certain number of friends and specialists and we discussed just transition, and I reminded them that in the preamble of the Paris Agreement we have put a paragraph about just transition….
“At that time it was more in line with the shift in employment because obviously you come from a fossil fuel economy to a low carbon economy and new green growth, this new paradigm has a series of consequences on employment and you have both to prepare new jobs and to [compensate for] jobs which are destroyed. And unions in particular have insisted to us on this idea, which is a very fundamental idea, and it happens in all the countries and it happens in Poland too.
“But there is another element in the just transition, which is that the means you choose to fight against climate change must not bring unfairness, and unjust situations. It doesn’t mean that the transition is not necessary. It is necessary….
“Look what has been done in Denmark, Sweden and the UK. They have taken decisions about carbon pricing and it was worthwhile and it is going in the right direction. Obviously in France there are special characteristics due to the high level of taxes, due to this and that.”
The “this and that” was dissected by Democracy at Work professor Richard Wolff who, in a December 7 vlog chat, supplied a more nuanced take on the Yellow Vest movement. Wolff said it could be traced back to the stock market/real estate crisis of 2008, and the billion-dollar gifts government made to companies like Wells Fargo, Citibank and General Motors, most of it going into the pockets of senior management, who spent public tax money buying more mansions and yachts.
“The capitalist system hasn’t learned in its entire 300 year history how to prevent this kind of instability, how to prevent these crashes. Downturns of capitalism happen every 4 to 7 years. The only difference is that some of them are short and shallow and some of them are long and deep. But everything has been tried to prevent them and everything has failed, and that’s a condemnation of this system’s intrinsic instability.
“You know in my classes I reach across the podium when I teach this and I look at my students and I say to them, ‘If you lived with a roommate as unstable as capitalism, you would have moved out long ago….
“The governments who had spent a fortune to bailing out these companies announced to the mass of people in their society, we now have to have austerity. … Whoa! The richest people got the bailout and all the rest of us got austerity. And I think the mass of people in the world they understand they’ve been taken for a real big ride. They suffered a system that whacked them with a crash, then they watched the people who brought the crash get the big bailouts from the government and then they were told the same government that just delivered bailouts to the rich now have to deliver austerity to you. It is too much. They have been kicked one time too many.
“And I think what you are seeing is, first, people began to vote for socialists because the socialists said, we’ll fight against it. The socialists got elected, they didn’t do crap. They didn’t fight the austerity they administered it. You saw this in Greece with Syriza, you saw this in France with Hollande, so then they went the other way. So you on the left didn’t deliver, we are going to vote for the right. And they did that with Trump. And they did that with Brexit and Macron and the Italian government a few months ago. But guess what? The right wing is no better able to deal with this problem than the left wing….
“And so this is the anger of the mass of people, saying we’re not going to be put off, we’re not going to play parliamentary games, we’re not even going to work with the regular parties. We’re going to go into the street and we’re going to tell the people who run this society, ‘You either change or nothing is going to happen here — there is not going to be any truck in the road, there is not going to be any gas in your tank, it’s over Jackson,’ because in the end the people have the power. They always did, but they weren’t ready to make the fight. And as has happened now several times: the country that leads the way is the French…. The polling indicates that between 70 and 80 percent of the French people support these street actions.”
Seventy or more percent of the population of France may have favored cutting off the heads of the aristocracy at the end of the 18th Century, too, but that didn’t really solve the cyclical problem Wolff is referring to, and nor will it solve the climate problem.
The flaw in the capitalist ointment is its sine-qua-non need for growth. Most economists haven’t seemed to think through what a degrowth future will look like, as the reversal of climate change requires. As I wrote 15 years ago in The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook, some things can continue to grow exponentially, such as quality of life, music, literature, surfing and healthy food. Anything that eats up non-renewable resources, puts carbon into the atmosphere, or sets up class divisions, financial depressions and war is dead. If the only way to capitalize an enterprise is to insist on some higher than invested rate of return that has to come from money conjured into existence, that system is going to kill us all and needs to be put out to pasture.
When the Paris Agreement speaks of just transition, let us hope a degrowth decapitalism is what those words will come to mean, even if the framers didn’t intend for it to mean that at the time. The real change, as Greta Thunberg told the first plenary session, comes from the bottom.
Some people say that I should be in school instead. Some people say that I should study to become a climate scientist so that I can ”solve the climate crisis”. But the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions.
And why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?
Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground.
So we can’t save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed.
So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again.
We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge. And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.