Why Climate Activists Should Care About Greece
After months of conflict and a marathon 16 hours of negotiations on Sunday, Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the Troika reached an agreement on the country’s future: a third bailout and a distant promise of debt restructuring in exchange for draconian austerity measures, deregulation and creditors’ strict control over nearly ever aspect of the Greek economy. Now, tail between his legs, Tsipras is returning to Athens in attempt to pass the deal through a hostile parliament.
The situation is a far cry from the triumph of Tsipras and Syriza’s historic victory in late January on the promise of ending austerity. It also stands in stark contrast to the mood in Greece the weekend before last, when — defying even Syriza’s own predictions — a remarkable 61 percent of the country rejected creditors’ terms in a popular referendum.
The Financial Times has called the deal now on the table the “most intrusive economic supervision program ever mounted by the E.U.,” the result of — as one senior E.U. official said — the “mental waterboarding” of Tsipras and the Greek negotiating team. Against two separate mandates of the Greek people, the first in Syriza’s election and the second in the oxi (“no”) vote last weekend, Tsipras, backed into a corner, brought a capitulation to the negotiating table that would see Greece remain in the Eurozone and accept another round of deep cuts to pensions and public services, further privatization, and even a scale-back of the modest reforms Syriza’s government has been able to implement thus far. What the Troika eventually accepted was harsher still, involving scrupulous control over Greek finances and an effective ceding of the country’s sovereignty.
As many have commented, the creditors might be cutting off their nose to spite the European project’s face. Some of the world’s leading economists have issued indictments of austerity and the creditors’ bravado: “Capital in the 21st Century” author Thomas Piketty wrote an open letter to German chancellor Angela Merkel urging a “humane rethink of the punitive and failed program of austerity.” Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz each voiced their support for a “no” vote in the referendum, and even the International Monetary Fund has been quietly prodding Merkel’s camp to back down on purely pragmatic grounds. “There are some divisions amongst the creditors that are well known,” wrote economist James Galbraith, “But they’re all variations on the theme of insular, sheltered, cloistered people who do not understand what is happening in Greece and do not know the economics.”
In a showdown as political as it is economic, the experts and the people alike are lining up against the interests of capital — a situation that should sound familiar to those also following the climate movement.
Climate activists are plenty used to decision-makers flouting established fact — prioritizing short-term political and financial gain over long-term sustainability. Austerity has failed Greece and, ultimately, will fail Europe. Climate change will fail us all. Still, the connections between the climate fight and the one waged in Brussels these past several months might not seem obvious. Grasping the web of relationships between the European Central Bank, IMF, European Commission and Greece, the necessary historical context of the last several years, and the divisions within Syriza in Greece requires a serious investment of time for those not already well-versed in Eurozone politics. Even without a nuanced understanding of these relationships, however, there are important lessons for climate activists to draw from recent events in Europe.
Around the time of the referendum, Daniel Aldana Cohen did an excellent job mapping out the climate politics of what’s happening in Greece and providing some cogent take-aways for climate activists. Pointing out Germany’s pioneering role in prioritizing publicly-funded clean energy production and enforcing austerity in southern Europe, he writes, “The European Union, with Germany its most powerful member, sends a similar message: pro carbon reductions, friendly to austerity, prepared to enforce intense internal stratification, and suffering, to keep the current elites in power.” Last month, it was Merkel who announced the G-7 nations’ commitment to phase out fossil fuels by the almost laughably far-off date of 2100. But at what cost? It’s possible to celebrate the movement-triggered sea change this announcement represents and denounce austerity, while supporting a democratic end to the fossil fuel economy.
The climate movement itself is premised on the idea that there is — contra Margaret Thatcher — an alternative to the impending, catastrophic doom of runaway global warming. Earlier this year, Syriza offered a popular alternative to the crippling austerity wrecking Greece and the corrupt New Democracy government failing to meet its people’s basic needs. Syriza was attacked so viciously by creditors precisely because of the challenge that it posed for imagining a new and more democratic Europe free of austerity — especially against the backdrop of rising, egalitarian populist parties like Spain’s Podemos.
Using Angela Merkel and this week’s events as crude metrics, it might actually be more feasible to imagine multilateral action on climate change than an end to austerity. The trouble will be getting what’s needed: both. With everyone from Mitt Romney to the World Bank to Goldman Sachs aligning around the need for some loosely defined “climate action,” an easy way out on climate that keeps control of the economy firmly in the hands of a 1 percent might well present itself in the next few years. Building and, notably, defending a popular alternative to that — one bolstered by an inclusive, populist movement — will be a battle no less uphill than the one Greece faces now.