An unusual if guarded optimism has descended upon Paris, along with hundreds of world leaders, bankers and climate activists. They have come for a two-day conference billed as the new Bretton Woods.
The reference is to the 1944 gathering in New Hampshire where diplomats hammered out the monetary institutions to rebuild countries after World War II — the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Now, the goal is to rebuild those systems to weather a looming crisis: the entwined dangers of poverty and climate change.
“We don’t have to choose between the fight against poverty and the fight for the climate and biodiversity,” the French president, Emmanuel Macron, argued last year.
Many believe a new international monetary system, one that offers developing countries facing climate crises not more crippling debt but financial support, might be in the making.
On Wednesday, on the eve of the conference, 13 world leaders, among them President Biden, published a public letter in some 40 newspapers, including Le Monde, saying that they were determined “to forge a new global consensus” and that the summit would stand out as a “decisive political moment.”
There is also trepidation. Some worry that the conference could prove to be another grand summit held by a leader who loves his self-appointed role as multilateral consensus builder and disrupter — but does not always deliver results.
“The French president has a taste for international initiatives, except it’s been more than six years now that he’s been president, and he’s exhausted energy and trust,” said Cécile Duflot, director general of the poverty-fighting group Oxfam in France. The summit, she said, should result in concrete promises of debt relief and not just “chitchatting.”
“When you have 62 countries today that are paying more on debt payments than on health care, it’s obvious that we are in a dysfunctional system,” Ms. Duflot said.
The conference grew out of the ideas not of Mr. Macron but of the prime minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley.
Last November, Ms. Mottley sketched out a proposal for financial reform from the stage of the United Nations climate change summit, known as COP27, in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. She and her team called it the Bridgetown Initiative.
Ms. Mottley described the financial systems created three-quarters of a century ago as “imperial,” set up as they were before many countries in the world had become independent. She called for a major overhaul so that developing countries most prone to climate change disaster — and already facing debt crises — could access capital to address poverty and damage, and to pay for their transition to a green economy.
“Yes, it is time for us to revisit Bretton Woods,” Ms. Mottley said.
The response was resounding, if unexpected: Kristalina Georgieva, the head of the I.M.F., endorsed the need for reforms. Mr. Biden’s special envoy for climate, John Kerry, announced that he, too, was on board. So did the chief executive of Bank of America.
Mr. Macron, who already hosted international summits on biodiversity, protection of oceans and forests, was also effusive. The project seemed a natural fit for the president of the country that hosted the Paris Climate Agreement, and he soon announced a summit in Paris to make headway on some of the proposals.
On the agenda are many of the things Ms. Mottley has called for: using public money to leverage large-scale private investment for developing countries; increasing the access of those countries to financial support from the I.M.F.; and allowing countries to pause payments on international loans after climate-related disasters.
The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and the Chinese premier, Li Qiang, will be among the attendees. So will Janet Yellen, the U.S. Treasury secretary.
“In the eight years I’ve been campaigning, there has never been anything like this — these kinds of heads of state with the political will to do a deep reform of the architecture of international finance,” said Daniel Boese, a campaigner with the advocacy group Avaaz.
Just five years ago, a discussion on World Bank reform would have been taboo, said Laurence Tubiana, chief executive of the European Climate Foundation and one of the architects of the 2015 Paris agreement. But since then, the economic situation facing many of the world’s developing countries has significantly worsened, she said.
“We need political leadership, and he is positioned to do that because he understands all these issues,” Ms. Tubiana said of Macron. “I hope he really looks for a legacy on that.”
The summit is drawing the heads of state or top ministers from about 80 countries, including leading world economies, and smaller, indebted countries already suffering from climate change-related effects, like Guinea-Bissau, Haiti and Saint-Vincent and the Grenadines.
Last week, Mr. Macron’s team put out reminders that the event is not geared to concrete announcements but to ease the path to agreements at later gatherings, notably the World Bank and I.M.F. annual meetings, the G20 summit, the next United Nations Climate Change Conference and the general meeting for the International Maritime Organization, which is under pressure to tax emissions from the shipping industry.
“If that gets a lot of support here, and then actually gets agreed to at the I.M.O. summit in July, that’s huge,” said Mr. Boese. “Three years ago, we would have celebrated at a climate conference for an outcome like that.”
Many of the activists pouring into the city say they are happy to see more seats at the table for leaders from the global south, and President Macron use his powerful office to amplify the proposal of a woman of color from a small island country — Ms. Mottley. But they are lobbying for more contentious issues to be put onto the agenda, particularly a tax on the fossil fuel industry, as well as on the super-rich who lead jet set lives.
“Climate finance is great, but if we don’t stop the fossil fuel industry, then it’s just a Band-Aid solution,” said Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a climate justice campaigner from the Philippines, a country regularly pounded by typhoons. “I grew up being afraid of drowning in my own bedroom.”
Patience Nabukalu came from Uganda, where the French oil company TotalEnergies is funding oil wells and the 870-mile East African Crude Oil Pipeline. The project has been deemed a “carbon bomb” by its opponents and a potential threat to the drinking water of 40 million people living around the basin of Lake Victoria. The Macron government has quietly supported the project.
“Let him prove us wrong for thinking these are just empty promises, but show they are true by stepping up and calling for this project to be stopped,” said Ms. Nabukalu, 25. “There will be no finance reform when you are still financing fossil fuel projects.”
Aurelien Breeden and Juliette Gueron-Gabrielle contributed reporting from Paris.