What happens when a complex and divisive policy issue is reduced to pure symbolism? We're about to find out, for that is where the climate debate appears to have dead-ended this week, as "world leaders" (including Sean Penn, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Elon Musk) fly into Paris for yet another climate conference.
On the side of climate-change activism we have the symbol of the sickly, desperate Baffin Island polar bear, which has this week gone viral and attracted sympathetic coverage from virtually all mainstream media. Critics have tried to ask rational questions—about the health of polar bear populations, the circumstances of this particular bear, the failure of the videographer to intervene on her behalf, the ethics of promulgating fake news in a good cause, etc.—but they're wasting their breaths. What matters is viewers' visceral response. As former E.P.A. head Christine Todd Whitman noted recently, serious discussion of climate science only confuses the public. A second powerful element in this week's propaganda offensive is Emmanuel Macron's "Make Our Planet Great Again" program of research grants, via which he has reportedly "lured" thirteen leading American climate researchers to France. Here, too, the symbolism is obvious: under Donald Trump, American scientists are themselves suffering undernourishment and habitat loss.
France's peculiar politics require that President Macron self-identify as "pro-capitalist" while speaking the language of radical change. "We are very far from the goal of the Paris agreement of limiting the rise in temperatures to below a two-degree threshold," he said yesterday. "Without much stronger mobilization, a jolt to our means of production and development, we will not succeed." The stated objective of Macron's conference is to boost private-sector financing of new global-warming-mitigation technologies, culminating in the creation of a $100-billion fund for projects in the developing world. Needless to say, the protesters rallying in the streets of Paris (shown here) don't buy it. "Despite the hype, the One Planet summit is delivering little for the world's people who are the most vulnerable to climate change," says Brandon Wu of ActionAid USA. "Rich countries continue to pretend that new schemes for businessmen to increase their profits will be the center of the solution for the poor."
Before the polar bear video went viral, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna was the best-known Canadian symbol of climate justice. ("THIS is what climate change looks like," she tweeted. "Climate change is real. As are its impacts. Time to stand up for our polar bears and our planet.") Today, Ms. McKenna is sitting in on the Paris meeting—across the table from M. Macron and cheek-by-jowl with billionaire philanthropists Bill Gates and Richard Branson. Forget about the bears, and the research grants, and the eco-Marxists. This is the symbolism that matters. President Macron has taken charge of the climate file. He and the world's richest capitalists are now on the job.