Billionaires Can Rebuild the Past, but Their Wealth Can’t Fix the Future

Billionaires Can Rebuild the Past, but Their Wealth Can’t Fix the Future

Billionaires Can Rebuild the Past, but Their Wealth Can’t Fix the Future

To save the environment and curb climate change, we need to transform the economy that allows for billionaires to exist in the first place.


When it comes to climate activism, the last month was one for the ages.

Greta Thunberg, the young climate activist, scolded EU policy-makers and met the pope. Prominent lawyer Farhana Yamin was arrested after gluing herself to Shell’s headquarters in London, while Extinction Rebellion started their campaign to shut down the whole city. New York City adopted its own Green New Deal; 23 finance ministers pledged to act on climate; and the ravages of climate change were brought to the attention of millions in an Attenborough-narrated documentary. We even got a brilliantly crafted animation giving us a glimpse of the low-carbon future by three of the most progressive voices on climate.

As a climate practitioner and activist for the best part of the last decade, I found these actions impressive. And yet they left us not an inch closer to the deep systemic transformation of the economy that we need to create in a climate-compatible world. While the public has never been as outspoken in its support of urgent and ambitious climate action, money talks, too—and that sound you’re hearing is the crushing din of an economy designed to further the interests of a capital-owning ruling class.

The week of unprecedented climate action also happened to coincide with the burning of the cathedral of Notre Dame. This, for me, put the whole climate picture into perspective. I live in Paris, and nothing before has felt so historic: I went, I watched, and I lived a brand-new experience of powerlessness and fatalism.

The day after the fire, a rush of philanthropic giving made global headlines, with France’s three richest people engaged in a kind of arms race to fund the reconstruction of one of the most visited sites in the world. Their involvement precipitated a flurry of donations, including a 50 million grant from the city of Paris.

This is the same city that for months has been angered, traumatized, and moved by the Yellow Vest’s demands for social and economic justice and investments in the public sector. Approval of this movement has hovered consistently above 50 percent, according to polls, but public opinion is characterized by a dual chorus of support for drawing attention to the everyday inequalities affecting the majority of French people, and condemnation of the violent protests we have come to expect every Saturday.

We know whose side the French president is on. While Emmanuel Macron thanked the cathedral donors profusely, he delayed the speech to the Yellow Vests he had scheduled for the day after the fire by a week. While the wealthy criticized the leaderless movement for wanting a better standard of living, they shelled out billions to invest in another kind of public good.

And that’s when I saw my own feeling of powerlessness reflected in the voices of the protesting crowds. The anger I saw directed at what, on the face of it, was simple altruism, is the same anger I have felt as a climate practitioner for close to ten years. I am angry that well-intentioned albeit ad-hoc generosity won’t help us crop global warming, and may even hurt us on the path to solutions. I am angry that many excellent climate organizations struggle to raise funds merely to operate, while the opportunity for a billionaire to cement his legacy in a millennial monument to a hegemonic institution generates sums the scale of which we cannot even fathom.

By displaying their support for the monument, donors were exposing the workings of a system designed to maintain a status quo of an economically lopsided society that benefits the very rich—and goes out of its way to withhold aid from the needy. Because the fortunes that allow for multimillion-dollar donations on a whim rest on an economic system that exploits natural resources and labor for profit. They rely on the efficient—and polluting—operations of multinational corporations to produce and sell goods and services.

Just consider where the wealth funding the cathedral renovation comes from. Bernard Arnault’s Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) is the largest luxury company in the world; François-Henri Pinault’s Kering, the fourth wealthiest; and the Bettencourt family’s L’Oréal, seventh for its luxury segment, with combined sales amounting to about $50 billion in 2017. The bulk of their goods, many of them sourced in Asia, are transported to Europe for manufacture, then shipped all over the world for sale. And the luxury sector is but one among many: It’s estimated that 100 companies have been responsible for about 71 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

With one hand, companies are draining our shared planet of the resources that allow us to survive and thrive; with the other, they rebuild monuments to themselves.

It’s true that many companies are taking measures to mitigate their impact on climate and to reduce their carbon footprints, some with unprecedented ambition. Norway’s $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund is to invest billions of dollars into wind- and solar-power projects; Daimler’s incoming CEO Ola Källenius has committed to make the luxury German automaker carbon-neutral by 2040; UK power utility National Grid says it will be capable of operating a zero-carbon grid by 2025. Business leaders themselves have voiced support for the climate activists and the head of one of Europe’s biggest ethical-investment funds, Nordea, said the protests are “just the beginning.”

Those are all important signals of change. But the kind of transformation we need to tackle climate change will require the overhaul of the entire economic system, not the incremental adjustments made by individual companies or countries. Shifting toward a net-zero carbon economy requires innovation in products and processes, the development of new business models, and new forms of cooperation across industries. It will unleash large amounts of investments into new, low-carbon plants and infrastructures. It will call for radically new legal, fiscal, and policy frameworks. It is highly unlikely to sustain the kinds of inequalities we witness today, nor support the existence of philanthropic billionaires.

Some billionaires are making large donations to the fight against climate change. The Swiss medical-device billionaire Hansjoerg Wyss will donate $ 1 billion over a decade for land and ocean conservation. Financier Jeremy Grantham will hand over the same sum—about 98 percent of his net worth—for the development of climate solutions. This is no bad thing. But to put these figures in context, economic losses due to extreme-weather events in 2016 nearly reached $130 billion, and the cost of Germany’s energy-transition program, which aims at the shutdown of nuclear-power production by 2022 and 100 percent renewable electricity by 2050, represents €25 billion per year.

The climate is the rare problem billionaires can’t throw their money at. We don’t need donations. We need a fundamentally different kind of economy, and radical action to profoundly transform the capitalist system that allows for billionaires to exist in the first place.

The anger people around the world feel right now is anger at the structural factors that make us feel helpless to redress inequalities. It often yields to frustration, and sometimes violence. But as the flames engulfing the cathedral faded and the smoke billowed out onto the city, my own sense of helplessness made place for renewed resolve. Seeing the ease with which our collective struggles are ignored and the interests the reconstruction ultimately serves make me optimistic that, with these realizations, we might start fighting with the right weapons.

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