— Fires around the world, in Greece, Sweden, the United States; floods followed by heatwave in Japan; record temperatures all over… And this summer’s events are just a taste of what’s coming, as scientists have told us. Everything’s been said on the topic. Yet the disaster is right there, unfolding. Can you explain, rationally, why there isn’t a general mobilization against these phenomena, and for the climate?
— I have a very short answer: No.
It starts heavy. It’s Tuesday, the eight o’clock hour, Nicolas Demorand and Léa Salamé’s flagship news show on public radio. Across France, morning coffees and tartines are going down. Summer is ending, the rentrée looms. Like everyone else, Nicolas Hulot, the environment minister, has been away—Corsica, Brittany. He’s come back glum.
— It’s impossible to explain?
— I don’t understand.
We’re watching later on, and thanks to that weird new practice in radio where the studio conversation is filmed, we can see Hulot and the hosts, watch their expressions. We’re watching because we already know where this is headed: Around the six-minute mark, Hulot is going to resign, on live radio.
From the outset, though, there’s a mood. Hulot is a frank guy—that’s part of his appeal. He’s a celebrity environmentalist who used to have a popular television show, and it was a coup when Emmanuel Macron brought him into the government, a sign of Real Change. They gave the ministry a fat new name, Ministère de la transition écologique et solidaire, and gave Hulot a high rank, ministre d’Etat, number three in the protocol.
Macron has touted his own environmental commitments, making a big deal of France’s leadership after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the global climate change accords; he famously invited American scientists to relocate to France. But policy hasn’t changed much. A promised ban on the pesticide glyphosate has been taken off the table; the dependency on nuclear energy is undiminished; greenhouse gas emissions aren’t down. And so on: Hulot’s had small wins here and there, but it’s piecemeal stuff. His year and a half in government has been frustrating to all.
And so, he always gets the question, it’s almost a ritual.
— Are you going to stay in the government? We’re hearing some sadness, anger…
But when he drops the news, you can tell it’s a real surprise.
— I’m going to take the most difficult decision I’ve taken. I don’t want to lie to myself anymore. I don’t want to give the illusion that my presence in the government means we’re up to par on these issues. And so I’m deciding to leave the government, today.
— You’re… you’re serious?
— Yes. I’m serious.
— Wait… I just want to make clear that you didn’t tell us this at all, before we came into the studio. Quite the opposite.
— It’s a painful decision. And I don’t want anyone to take advantage. Because the responsibility is collegial. It’s collective. It’s societal.
A necessary note: Nothing is by chance. Hulot knows the deal. He’s versed in spectacle. His TV show, Ushuaïa, staged him in daredevil mode all over the world, on motorcycles, and jumping out of airplanes, all to bring viewers into Nature’s wonders and perils. He’s made a bunch of money from licensed merchandise. He’s a young sixty-three, full head of hair, collarless shirts. He also has a notorious côté séducteur, as they say. In fact, this year, it emerged that he faced a rape accusation in 2008, over an incident that occurred in 1997. The statute of limitations meant that no charges were filed. Affaire classée.
But his environmental commitment is acknowledged, along with his grasp of the issues. He’s also very popular, one of the France’s top-polling political figures. So once they get past the surprise, the hosts enter Major News mode, knowing that an amazing exclusive just fell into their lap. The segment runs long, forty minutes. Midway through, three of the station’s political analysts come in. Other politicians are doing live hits elsewhere, like every morning, so there’s already reaction tape coming in. They play the reactions for him, ask political horse-race questions. Will he ally with an opposition party? Will he lead a list in the elections to the European Parliament, where the environment is a big topic?
He won’t take the bait.
— Do not attribute to me the slightest political ambition.
— So it’s finished?
— It’s finished.
— But you say you’ll still try to influence the issue, how will you do that?
— All I know is that after this radio show I’m going to go silent for a while. Because I’m aware that I’m doing something here that isn’t very friendly to a group of people—meaning the government—for whom I have great respect.
The next twenty-four hours will bring the usual dissection. What was the final straw? (Disagreement over a bill to reform the hunting régime; Hulot thinks it gives too much to hunters and gun manufacturers.) What does it mean for the Greens? (Unclear; they’re divided into quarreling factions.) How big a problem is this for Macron? (Very big.) What, in fact, will Hulot do next? (Does it matter?)
And yet: the trigger for the whole thing is still sitting there. Why no mass mobilization against climate catastrophe? Where is the outrage? Where is the action?
It’s a query one might ask in a number of countries.
European social democracy has been decaying for a while. Its renewal hasn’t taken shape, even as reactionary nationalism pollutes the landscape and limits the space for thinking. Yet people are working on it. Maybe not fast enough? Maybe history’s dialectic requires a crisis to birth a new vision of society.
What’s clear is that environmental sustainability will be at its center. And that will mean reorienting money and work toward uses that extend our resources, not deplete them; that will mean shepherding society’s disparate interests in the direction of a clear common goal. Today, there are lots of ideas, from the transition away from hydrocarbons to a guaranteed basic income. But they are still percolating. They don’t hold sway—not yet.
Hulot and his radio hosts don’t know why a mass movement hasn’t formed. Maybe, in the underbrush, it’s forming right now. Maybe there’s more they could do in service of their ideas.
The show takes a couple of listener calls. Marie is on the air.
— I was optimistic when Mr. Hulot joined the government, I hoped the paradigm was finally going to change. I don’t think he’s done a bad job explaining. I see it in my job as a physician: people are in a state of emergency. Inequality is getting worse, so they don’t have the time, the space. The government’s doing nothing on inequality either. People can only deal with surviving in the present when society humiliates them each day.
— Thank you so much for this intervention, Marie. It’s eight forty-five, Nicolas Hulot is with us, now our political team joins us in the studio…