French President Emmanuel Macron has worked hard to establish himself as the world’s liberal foil to Donald Trump — and Tuesday’s One Planet Summit in the French capital gives him the chance to stress the gulf between the two on climate change.
When Trump announced in June that he would yank the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, Macron spied an opportunity: Within hours, his office took a poke at Trump, unveiling a social media campaign around the tongue-in-cheek slogan “Make Our Planet Great Again,” complete with a website where U.S. climate researchers could apply for residency and work in France.
Behind the viral tweet, retweeted 235,896 times, Macron’s political message was clear: France would lead the world on climate change research and technology, leaving the United States to choke on coal fumes.
Six months later, the test for the 39-year-old president is whether his Twitter-savvy communications strategy is backed by actions and money. The One Planet Summit marks the second anniversary of the Paris accord. It’s expected to draw some 50 world leaders, plus moguls, philanthropists, celebrities, governors, mayors and many more from around the world — minus Trump.
“‘Make Our Planet Great Again’ was the best teaser we’ve ever had … but we have to go further than a Twitter hashtag,” said Célia Blauel, Paris’ deputy mayor for environment and sustainable development. “He has to get to the level of expectation he has created.”
Counting on Macron
Macron has to figure out how to fill the gap left by Trump’s decision to reject what the U.S. president called payments of “billions and billions and billions of dollars” in climate finance.
In Europe, the EU needs Macron to help strengthen the bloc’s position both internationally, filling the leadership void left by former U.S. President Barack Obama, and in Brussels, where fossil fuel-reliant countries like Poland and Romania are resisting tough policies.
Macron’s actions on climate change leave him under fire from green activists and local scientists.
European politics is also thrusting Macron into a leadership position. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is sidelined thanks to Brexit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s long-time climate leader, is distracted by negotiations over cobbling together a coalition government.
The distinction between Macron and Merkel, nicknamed the “climate chancellor,” was clear in speeches they gave at the United Nations’ COP23 climate summit in Bonn, Germany, last month.
Both talked about the intensifying pressure to stem climate change to “determine the well-being of all of us,” in Merkel’s words, and stop “the disappearance of many of the populations represented in this assembly,” in Macron’s.
But it was the Frenchman who spoke more boldly about Europe’s duty to step up financial aid for poor countries and fill the American gap in funding for the U.N.’s panel of climate scientists. He also called for measures to boost renewable energy, to more than triple the bloc-wide CO2 price from its current level and to impose a border tax on carbon emissions, as a way to force other countries to lower their own pollution.
“In no European country will it be easy, in all European countries industrialists will ask for more time, they will not agree with these objectives,” Macron said. “But if we don’t do this, we will not change our collective behavior.”
Merkel also argued the industrialized world has a bigger role to play, both because it has the technology to “establish the yardstick,” and the “historical responsibility” for spewing greenhouse gases. But, in a show of the political pressures she’s under from industries at home, she stressed that “even in a rich country,” the green transition raises “social issues” and “conflicts.”
Macron has already followed up on his Make Our Planet Great Again vows to facilitate climate research on French soil, unblocking €30 million for grants and approving applications for 90 candidates to work at France’s elite National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) out of some 250 climatologists who applied online. The government chose 18 scientists for €20 million in grants last month, around half of them from the U.S., and will announce their names at the One Planet Summit.
However, Macron’s actions on climate change leave him under fire from green activists and local scientists.
French scientists have criticized the Make Our Planet Great Again program as a PR stunt that redirects the country’s shrinking research budget into a narrow area.
European politics is also thrusting Macron into a leadership position | Philippe Huguen/AFP via Getty Images
Environmentalists argue that while the president sends the right signals — and claims green credentials thanks to his hugely popular environment minister, former TV nature show host Nicolas Hulot — he often sides with industrial interests over ecological ones. For example, he announced that France will not phase out pollution-spewing diesel engines by 2025. Instead, he’s set a fairly distant date of 2040 for banning all fossil fuel-burning combustion engines — the same distant date by which he promises to end permits for oil and gas exploration and production.
Macron said his decision to backpedal on an earlier promise to reduce nuclear power to 50 percent of French power consumption by 2025, from around 75 percent now, was rooted in the need to keep emissions-free power online while the country shuts dirtier coal-fired stations.
For environmentalists, however, that just stalls the push for renewable energy.
“In France we are waiting for something really strong to be implemented,” Blauel said. “It would be horrible if we were stuck just on communication.”