French Official’s Resignation Should Inspire Greens

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The abrupt resignation of Nicolas Hulot, the popular French minister of environmental transition, should be a signal to “green” politicians everywhere to set more ambitious goals. Hulot’s experience under President Emmanuel Macron refutes the argument that the environmental cause is less relevant because it has been adopted by the political mainstream.

Several French presidents have attempted to draft Hulot, a popular TV host and environmental activist, into government. Macron, who appeared to set ambitious climate and sustainability goals, succeeded. Soon after his appointment to the cabinet last year, Hulot announced a plan to end the sales of new gas- and diesel-powered cars by 2040 and make France carbon-neutral by 2050. He went on to promise to start closing nuclear reactors, the sacred cow of France’s energy balance. He also had a role in passing a law banning new fossil-fuel exploration. Yet despite those successes, Hulot was increasingly frustrated with how little he could achieve.

“I am surprised every day that I have to resign myself to small steps while the big picture at a moment when the planet is turning into a stove calls for a change of paradigm,” he told France Inter as he announced his resignation. He said the government’s priorities were dictated by short-term problems. He added  that ministers had to act within an “economic and financial orthodoxy,” dictated in part by the European Union, that didn’t allow the massive investment necessary for a transition to environmental sustainability.

This criticism echoes a recent paper a Finnish team of experts, led by economist Paavo Jarvensivu, have contributed to the United Nations-commissioned Global Sustainable Development Report, to be published by a star-studded team of scientists next year. Jarvensivu’s team argue that climate change and the imperatives of making economies sustainable required a break with traditional economic thinking, including the focus on growth. They wrote:

The direction would be toward “a Keynesian world with planetary boundaries”: unique, autonomous economies and societies engaging in regulated international trade for specific reasons, such as food security, rather than for the sake of free trade as a principle. Individuals, organizations, and nations would approach the economy as a tool to enable a good life rather than as an end in itself. Economic activity will gain meaning not by achieving economic growth but by rebuilding infrastructure and practices toward a post-fossil fuel world with a radically smaller burden on natural ecosystems. In rich countries, citizens would have less purchasing power than now, but it would be distributed more equally. Citizens in all countries would have access to meaningful jobs and they could trust that a desirable future is being constructed on the collective level.

This is an unabashedly socialist vision that celebrates government interference and collectivism. But it’s also the only kind of vision that, if adopted, could put someone like Hulot in command of a government’s priorities. In this paradigm, a government doesn’t care about budget deficits or pro-business policies but focuses instead on issues like food security or shifting the construction industry toward the use of more wood in place of steel and concrete.

The green movement in politics started with early versions of such ideas; the Greens of the 1970s were anti-establishment, even radical. Then, establishment parties borrowed their environmental agenda, and European Greens merged with the mainstream for the sake of political success. Research shows that voters’ support for environmental causes depends on economic conditions: If the economy is booming, these issues generate interest. The environment is treated like a luxury good. So, in Germany, for example, there’s a natural symbiosis between centrist parties and the Greens: The former are responsible for steering the economic ship right and the latter provide the lure for voters who believe prosperity should bring greater environmental consciousness. 

This relationship, however, relegates the Greens to a “nice to have” role, makes voters drift away and produces dismal electoral results. The German Greens, for example, peaked at 10.7 percent electoral support in 2009, even though they’ve taken part in governing coalitions and run state governments. Other agendas dictate nations’ voting choices. A YouGov poll earlier this year showed that, in most European countries, between 0 percent and 8 percent of people said the environment was one of the two biggest issues for national politics (Denmark is the exception: 18 percent of Danes are concerned enough about it). In the U.S., too, it’s far from a priority. 

In France, according to YouGov, 7 percent name the environment among the two most important domestic issues. But Hulot’s popularity and the widespread regret at his departure (55 percent of the French believe it’s a bad thing for the country, according to one poll) show that there may be more support to be tapped. In that poll, 88 percent of the French say they don’t believe the environment is a priority for the government — but 33 percent say it should be.

Although Hulot says he’s done with politics, his resignation, public reactions to it and the widespread perception that it shows up Macron as a demagogue who’s made too many promises, indicate a path out of irrelevance for green politicians. They could gain ground in an increasingly radicalized, polarized world by taking up Hulot’s apocalyptic vision of “the world turning into a stove” and demanding a paradigm shift of the the kind Jarvensivu has described.

I don’t fully share the ecological alarmism of Hulot and Jarvensivu or their the desire for more government intervention. But strong parties able to present this type of vision convincingly would be good for many countries’ political health: They could help voters put issues like immigration and the economic growth rate in perspective and shift the political debate to a different level.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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