France’s ecology minister quit on live radio due to society’s “complete indifference” to climate change

Et tu, Brute?
Et tu, Brute?
Image: REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/File Photo
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Nicolas Hulot, France’s now ex-environment minister, made the decision to resign from government yesterday after taking part in a meeting, convened by French president Emmanuel Macron, to discuss relaxing hunting restrictions.

Macron had previously announced he was considering lowering the price of hunting permits and reviewing hunting quotas. According to accounts of people who attended the Aug. 27 meeting, Hulot had prepared for a heated, but fair, battle over the negative ecological impact of the sport.

When he arrived, Hulot found a group heavily skewed towards Macron’s pro-hunting policies, including a notorious hunting lobbyist, a pro-hunting MP, and two members of the national hunting federation. The meeting didn’t go as Hulot had planned. Later that day, he canceled a scheduled interview with right-wing magazine Le Figaro (link in French), and yesterday morning (Aug. 28), he appeared on live radio, and announced he was resigning from Macron’s cabinet, effective immediately.

Why France’s ecology minister quit

In his radio interview, Hulot made a plea to Macron’s government and to the world not to idly stand by while the planet is degraded: “I do not understand how we can stand to witness the gestation of a well-known tragedy in complete indifference. The planet is becoming an oven, our natural resources are running out, biodiversity is melting like snow in the sun,” he said. “And we strive to revive an economic model that is the cause of all these disorders. I do not understand how, after the Paris conference, after an unstoppable diagnosis, this subject is always relegated to the status of last priorities.”

Hulot noted that, relative to other countries, France does have a progressive environmental record (link in French). And after he announced his resignation, members of the French government were quick to point out that, under Hulot’s leadership, they had made gains on some of Macron’s biggest campaign promises, including abandoning the controversial Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport project and signing into law the end of hydrocarbon production in France (link in French).

Nevertheless, Hulot expressed frustration with the systemic issues keeping him from moving environmental policy forward in a meaningful way, explaining that he had not received the support from government or civil society necessary to make the environment a political priority:

During these past 14 months, the prime minister and the president have treated me with absolute affection, loyalty, and fidelity. But day to day, who defends me? Do I have a structured society that goes out on the streets to defend biodiversity? Do I have a political movement? Are major political parties and the opposition able to rise above the fray and agree on the fundamentals? So, we take small steps. Have we started to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions? No. Have we started to reduce the use of pesticides? No. Or to stop the erosion of biodiversity? No.

Hulot said his time in office had been “an accumulation of disappointments,” stressing the fact that the transition to a carbon-free world was a “collective responsibility” and that the economic model of capitalism has to be challenged if the world is to move to a green economy.

Macron’s bid to make France a global environmental leader

Hulot’s resignation puts Macron in a tough spot. The former ecology minister is currently a popular figure in France (link in French), and Macron is not. This very public resignation of a longtime green activist can be seen as a condemnation of Macron’s lack of progress on environmental issues, though Hulot said (link in French) that he had nothing but “affection” and “loyalty” for the president and for Edouard Philippe, the prime minister.

Macron’s political movement, La République en Marche, was infused with a unique, pro-environmental energy–evidenced by the fact that Hulot, who had refused to be part of three successive governments before Macron’s, agreed to join his.  While campaigning, Macron wrote that the transition to green energy would “not take small steps, but big changes.” Once he was elected, he made a public show of inviting US environmental researchers to come to France under his “make our planet great again” initiative. He publicly castigated US president Donald Trump for withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, and signed onto an ambitious climate plan, drafted by Hulot, with a commitment to help tenants and homeowners struggling to pay their energy bills, achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and make France a leader in the green economy, among other things.

Critics say that Macron has not kept his environmental promises. For example, after a controversial European Union vote re-authorizing glyphosate, a herbicide that the World Health Organization has said can cause cancer, Macron promised to lead the way in banning the chemical compound in France by 2020. But, when the proposal came up for a vote, MPs from across the political spectrum, including Macron’s own party, voted not to inscribe that into law (link in French). Macron also hasn’t announced how he plans to reduce pesticide use in France, which climbed 12% between 2014 and 2016.

Macron also has delayed the transition away from nuclear energy, initially set for 2025, a controversial topic in France. Critics of nuclear power—Hulot chief among them—say that the country’s over-reliance on the energy source creates an unacceptable risk of a major accident, like Chernobyl or Fukushima; that investments made in the nuclear industry, like the expensive bailout of French nuclear company Areva, prevent money from going towards green policies and slow down the development of a renewable energy sector; that radioactive waste is toxic and dangerous; and that it creates an unacceptable dependence on imports of uranium, particularly from politically unstable countries where the uranium exploitation industry is detrimental to the environment.

On the other hand, many experts say that in order to get to zero emissions the world needs nuclear power, because it’s a carbon-free source of energy. As energy reporter David Roberts writes in Vox, “You do not have to like nuclear power, or ever want to build another nuclear power plant, to believe that existing sources of carbon-free power should be kept running as long as practicably possible. You only have to like carbon-free power or dislike climate change.”

In any case, Hulot’s resignation is sure to feed into the criticism of France’s policy choices. But it also raises the question: What can a relatively small country like France do about this incredibly complex, global issue, when giant economic powers like the US do not stick to their own environmental commitments? Macron’s pledge of “ensuring the Paris Agreement cannot be reversed” sounds great on paper; but, since he has evidently been unable to change Donald Trump’s mind about the deal, it’s difficult to see what he can actually do about it.

As climate change worsens, even countries who claim to be willing to commit resources to reversing its effects are falling short. If even Macron, the self-styled “green” president, who has positioned his country as a leader in the field, cannot move the needle, then who can?