Julien Dossier

The Allegory of Good and Bad Government is a series of three fresco panels painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti between February 1338 and May 1339.

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What happens if, say the president of France is elected and has a mandate to cut carbon emissions by twenty percent in five years, and if emissions are cut by nineteen percent?

Has the person failed, or not? Given the amount of the challenge, 19 out of 20 could be seen, Wow, that’s good enough, that works! But what about 18? What about 17?

What about 15? What about 10? What about 5? And then what threshold do we consider it a failure given the objective?

We have no way of setting that, in advance. And then if there is failure, what are the consequences?

Eli Gitter-Dentz  00:48

I’m Eli Gitter-Dentz. Julien Dossier is a climate activist and expert in carbon neutrality. He co-authored Paris’s carbon neutrality plan, and he founded Quattrolibre, a consulting firm that designs low carbon transition strategies for clients. In one of his latest projects Dossier created a modern version of a 14th century Italian fresco to give us a view of what an ecological Renaissance might look like. Nicholas Wu, Daniel Shneider and Ajani Stella spoke to Julien on May 4 2022, just a few weeks after the French presidential election. In re-presenting this interview, I’ve placed his answers into five short chapters.

Chapter One: Climate assemblies. In a climate assembly a sample of the public is chosen by lottery and meets to learn about climate change and recommend solutions. France called a climate assembly in 2019.

Nicholas Wu  01:52

Yes, so especially as high schoolers, we are all pretty much fed up with all this inaction especially because there have been so many conferences, and yet we’re still emitting at this high level and one suggestion that a lot of people, including Dr. Rebecca Willis, who we had on a couple episodes ago, have suggested is climate assemblies. Emmanuel Macron created one after the Yellow Vest protests, as you know, in response to the fuel tax so I’m curious, what did you think about you know, three years after those protests and the assembly, what do you think about the efficacy of that assembly? And how successful do you think that could be in the future? This whole idea of democracy in the form of climate assemblies?

Julien Dossier  02:44

The climate assembly in France was a big failure. It did nothing substantial because it was badly used, not because it was badly performing, but because it’s been badly used. Badly used because the onus has been put on 150 lay men and women to write articles of law that were supposed to be rock solid in relation to arcane rules, regulations and style of essentially the writing of the law, and it’s not their job. They’re not trained for that, they’re not capable of doing this.

What we should have been doing, or valuing the climate citizen assembly for, would have been to see that the briefing that these guys have received led them to be receptive to a significant change and ready to embrace significant measures and change, to points that were considered untenable by the lawmakers, which had restricted the ambition of lawmakers so far.

And seeing how convinced how ambitious, how willing, these 150 citizens had become, cohesively, and with extremely strong majority, I mean, they weren’t a razor thin majority of 51 to 49. They were at 85, 90, 95, 99% majority! So very clear signals.

We should have been using these climate citizens’ assemblies as measures to make sure that we see the population can embrace that type of action.

And rather than debate on the legitimacy of 150 drafted citizens versus 400 elected officials, which was a nonsense, I mean, we shouldn’t wait a minute on defining who’s more legitimate. We should be thinking, Oh, we can see the scope of measures proposed by the citizens. And these were people like you and me, they’ve been really drafted. So it means that the amount of information and the type of information that were provided within a short period of time has been hugely efficient. So what we should have been doing, should have been to deploy and replicate on the national scale. The briefings that were conceived for these 150 citizens, we should have made sure that every single living citizen in France would have had 2, 3, 4, 5 days of the time set aside for such trainings.

And in that situation, the entire population would have been put in in the position of welcoming ambitious measures drafted by the lawmakers in their position as lawmakers without having to reconcile the legitimacy of the of the citizens with the legitimacy of the elected officials. We could have played with the elected officials using an entirely mobilized population based on their level of training and understanding of the issues.

Once you see that you take somebody who’s never heard of climate change, or considers himself or herself climate denialist or skeptic, when she sees how vastly changed these people are after 2, 3, 4, 5 days of briefings and what type of focus they can give to then the analysis of the proposals, but you see, well, that’s a full house. I mean, we won the game.

The question is how much time can we put into people’s diaries to really concentrate on this and how much effort can we put into bringing these people up to speed? And we have to tailor the briefing so that people without the science degree, people without a politics degree, would still feel empowered, concerned and willing to take part. 

Eli Gitter-Dentz  07:46

Chapter Two: The Paris 2050 report. Julien and his colleagues drafted the 2017 sustainability plan for Paris called the Paris 2050 report. Among the unique things about this plan is the inclusion of daily life in the portraits of future Parisians.

Nicholas Wu  08:06

So just generally, Julien, could you tell us a bit or our listeners about your Paris 2050 report, how that came to be? The resources that went into it and the general takeaways from the report? 

Julien Dossier  08:23

Right. So the Paris report was commissioned by the City of Paris, the part that was charged with the climate policy of Paris. What we came up with was an innovative way of combining a mobilization toolkit with 1000 empowered variables, which we assembled from scratch to combine the various dimensions of the carbon emissions, to identify the primary sources of carbon and then measure the starting point and identify the quantities of carbon that had to be avoided or sequestered to reach targets of carbon neutrality. So one main deliverable was this calculation model.

Another big deliverable was the analysis which we did. Because we identified a need to separate the carbon sources based on lifestyles. So the sociological model was essential in defining the segmentation of the carbon sources.

We were adamant that we wouldn’t deliver just an average model for carbon emissions saying, Well, this is a 10 tonne per head issue. We were sure that this would be a failure because we would found our hypothesis on a non existent behavior or entity and with the risk of devising policies that would be missing the target constantly. And that is what we have been through before. We have missed our targets because we haven’t really segmented what needs to work for whom. So that was the second big milestone we delivered.

The third one was probably a time based approach to remind our client that there is a tight timeframe here so that we can’t allow to miss our targets yet another time.

Daniel Shneider  10:48

Something that we really liked from your report was the humanism that you brought to it. So I wanted to introduce the portraits you included in your report where you include the real faces of the future Paris citizens who are going to be impacted by climate change. So I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about why you thought including sort of profiles of future presidents was important and maybe why that was an important step in your process towards this report. And why do you think that’s so effective?

Julien Dossier  11:22

The bottom line really is to convince, to hit the target. And we had to learn from the marketing guys, and they’re, they’re spectacularly good at it — what they do best today, which is sell additional carbon intensive junk, pieces of junk. We have to praise them for that skill and use that skill for other purposes. So that was the original idea was to say we need to be as efficient as the guys who are creating such big problems.

And then the other point was that we quickly found out that we were both demanding too much from people who had too little and demanding too little from people who have too much. We really have to speak to the various audiences with the words, with the issues, with the world representations and the issues at stake that matter to them.

Ajani Stella  12:20

In your quest for this relevancy, you’re talking a lot how you created these groups almost try to best represent and relate to every individual that can read or learn about this report. I was wondering if you could share with us a bit more on how you created those groups, so that you could really find a way to represent every Parisian in this report, which obviously is impossible, but can you just tell us a bit more about that process?

Julien Dossier  12:49

Well, we first decided of a set of variables that were important to our and had to be visible in our result. So we wanted an age representation. We wanted a wealth representation. We wanted family size and status representation. And we wanted, roughly, and that came second in terms of hypothesis, a job type and activity, or lifestyle, ways of usages. So we were able to quantify combinations of values and practices.

Within these combinations, we then decided that we could shift personas based on time. Somebody could start as an ostrich, so essentially denialist somebody for whom there’s just no problem because there’s no occurrence of things, this type of problems in their lifestyle, they’re shielded from it, probably very wealthy people. But they can start in this category and then evolve over time. So we came up with a series of drivers, which we tried to assemble from a very wide variety of sources, saying, people can be sensitive to nudges. They can be sensitive to peer pressure, sensitive to a range of emotions from fear to pleasure, or health drivers. So, many factors that you could think of as ways which will influence your ways of life or decisions in life. We opted from the start that it should not be logic or rationality.

Eli Gitter-Dentz

Chapter Three: The French general election of 2022. Julien describes the missed opportunity to focus on climate change.

Nicholas Wu  14:42

I’m particularly curious about your thoughts on a big event in France that happened about a week and a half ago, the French general election. Macron won his second term, but I read that support between the 2017 and 2022 presidential elections in France, which is what your report focused on, dropped by about five percentage points in favor of Marine LePen who’s generally you know, anti-climate action. So have any of the points that you laid out in this Paris 2050 report, have your thoughts on those changed since the most recent election cycle and the trends that we saw after the results came out?

Julien Dossier  15:28

Thing is, we can say this election didn’t happen. It is shocking, to the point that the most important electoral democratic exercise in French politics, which is the presidential election, which is really is the yardstick that measures political opinion, and is the real driver for for policymaking in France.

That democratic exercise was stolen. It didn’t happen.

The President refused to declare himself candidate up until the day last minute. And the media was obsessed by the Trump-like candidate who maddeningly instilled hate, the fear of immigrants, as the prime talking point. The talk shows that the media and the print media and magazines, they were all engulfed in this because it was a major page turner. It was an attention grabber for their shows, and it became the defining point for the election.

Which was folly given the climate emergency we’re in. And the climate issue again got lost in the process. As in the previous elections, the amount of airtime given to the climate story was ridiculous, was no more than 5% of the total airtime on the election. And within those 5% the amount of time dedicated on the energy question, particularly the nuclear question was dominant. So, nothing on biodiversity, nothing on resources, nothing on the articulation between climate and biodiversity, nothing on consumption or ways of life, urban planning, and demand side management. Nothing of that was brought to the attention of the public. So garbage in garbage out. The two frontrunners would be known as they had been known for the last five years. So that’s why I’m saying the election didn’t happen. It’s just a confirmation of a foregone conclusion.

And that is a real nightmare really for policymaking because it shows that through democracy, we can’t win a climate story. And certainly not in the timeframe we are now facing with the objective of limiting climate change to one and a half degrees or sticking to as close to one and a half as possible.

What happens if, say the president of France is elected and has a mandate to cut carbon emissions by twenty percent in five years, and if emissions are cut by nineteen percent? Has the person failed, or not? Given the amount of the challenge, 19 out of 20 could be seen, Wow, that’s good enough, that works. But what about 18? What about 17? What about 15? What about 10? What about 5? And then what threshold do we consider a failure given the objective? We have no way of setting that, in advance. And then if there is failure, what are the consequences?

Or shall we say oh, that person has missed the climate target? Therefore, we will have more drama and more kind of strictures and then more dead people. And therefore, should we prosecute the person in charge for killing more people under their guidance, and they should go to jail, climate criminals, or should we consider that oh, that person has learned through difficult times and now fully understands the challenges and difficulty hitting these targets? So we better keep working with that person now that she or he understands the scope of the challenge, and we better keep that person in place because otherwise starting from scratch with rookie, which wouldn’t be any better equipped to meet the target and we would be increasing our chances that the rookie would be missing the same targets and not correcting and improving the result. So we know we don’t know how to handle that. That is an unsolvable problem.

That is raising other difficult questions which we already had raised in the report and for which we have no more responses than in 2017. If that doesn’t work? What should work? What should we be building as a replacement or risk mitigation strategy? If that approach is bound to fail can we accept that we have no better option than failure? No! But what will work?

That has been my my personal driver for — I keep thinking of what alternative do we have and how can we stop losing in this process? And where should we be pressing the button to start winning now? We can’t afford to stay in that course.

Daniel Shneider  20:18

So I think that’s a great analysis. And I think we’re all really interested in your statement of like, climate criminals. I feel, especially from the high school world, we’re all really frustrated with politicians who speak and speak about all the lofty goals they’re going to reach and then never really make an effort to actually deliver on them. So something I was curious about is you take such a, like a human-centered approach in your report, and you really focus on politics and opinions of the people of France. And some countries are starting to take a more radical approach. I’d point to Ecuador, which starts to enshrine the rights of nature within the Constitution and starts giving more harsh penalties or more hard work arounds to try and prevent politicians from being able to really harm the land. Do you think an approach like that could work in France? What do you think might be some steps forward that would work for the people of France to keeping politicians responsible?

Julien Dossier  21:23

Well, we have processes in place that are meant to register the official validity of a candidacy. In France, it’s based on the number of signatures you can gain from the range of elected officials across a number of 42,000 possible voters of which you need to gain 500 signatures. And that process is just a matter of how many of these guys can you convince to sign up for your candidacy. There is no ways in which you can set minimal performance or competence requirements. These guys just have to say, Well, look, sign up for me. But I see no real reason why we should have qualifications settings and vettings for sports people. You don’t send to some Tom, Dick and Harry to the Olympics. You have to perform to certain standards in order to be eligible for the Olympics.

Eli Gitter-Dentz  22:26

Chapter Four: How can we make government start considering climate change in regulatory action? Or do we depend on the world of finance to act?

Ajani Stella  22:37

I really appreciate the growing body of movement, especially around the growing movement, especially among scientists, for this, I think the term is ecocide. Right, so I wanted to take it a step further, though, with probably the hardest follow up question, unfortunately. We want this to happen. How do we do it? How can we make this in the United Nations? How can we ensure that governments start considering climate change in regulatory decisions in legal action? How can we start this maybe in France or even on a global scale?

Julien Dossier  23:16

My hunch is that it’s not going to start with nations. It’s not going to start with elected officials. Because we are dealing with interwoven issues at a global scale, I think we have to start where we have behaviors and actors and powers in place that operate on a global scale.

My hunch is to start with the finance world because A that’s where money and B that’s an interconnected world on a global scale. Three, starting from the long term investors who are in turn the investors into near term businesses, banks, which in turn are investors into our near term economy, ie corporate finance or project finance or loans for for students, or for home buyers. So there’s a trickle down process from the very long term investors to the short term coverage of payments needs to debt capital.

Those long term investors have a fiduciary duty to measure the exposure against climate risk, because the sheer timeframe of the investment means that the exit of their investment will be in a future that is distant enough to be changed by climate change.

It’s still slow, meaning that in this current cycle, BlackRock and other big investors were lame in their decisions. In their votes. They’ve failed to use that voting power to exert greater pressure, notably on big oil. But we’ve seen victories we’ve seen already, especially in the last year around this season. I think it was around the end of May 2021, on the same day, we had Shell condemned by a court in the Netherlands, Exxon, which was rebuked by its investors in a general meeting. And buyer Monsanto which was fined for under estimating the scope on the litigations that were induced by their glyphosate business, let’s say end date, I think it was May 25 2021. So these are threshold moments, I think. We should praise them, we should give them visibility, we should give understanding that this is just the start, and also work on alternatives from a financial point of view, if we are to divest if we are to stop certain investments, then what are our alternatives? What will we be investing into?

Where are these new asset classes that are big enough to absorb the trillions of dollars that have to be exiting from fossil fuel investments?

So that is another type of question is how do we quickly size up these low carbon assets at a size that will be significant enough to be able to absorb the outgoing funds. And that’s another process which requires design, creativity and risk taking which is not in the cards at the moment, but can be started upon. So I think these roots anyway, are much more likely to succeed than betting on the action of governments at nations scale.


Eli Gitter-Dentz  26:49

Chapter Five. Dossier’s fresco, titled Renaissance ecologic depicts a world that has managed to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The fresco from Renaissance Ecologique, at the Institute for Sustainable Cities in NYC. (From left: Isadora Nogueira, Sasha Weber, Archie Kinnane)

Nicholas Wu  27:04

So we were reading about your most recent project, the whole fresco concept and distributing that around so could you just briefly explain the background of this project and why you think this Fresco is so important? It action

Julien Dossier  27:21

A sustainable city can’t look like what is being usually represented, a set of concrete towers with a bit of solar panels and a few wind turbines, possibly a subway or green lawn. That is not a sustainable city. And for as long as we keep having poor representations, we will take poor decisions and poor programs. We will miss the target.

And I came upon by chance this Allegory of the Effect of the Good Government which is part of a cycle of frescoes the effect of the good and bad government painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Siena, in Italy, in 1338. I focused on one of the three parts of the cycle of frescoes, the allegory of the effects of the good government, I initially considered was useful because it was part city and part country, and one needs the other one to function. The same boat the symbiosis between both needs to work and clearly that is what is shown on this image.

But then I spent more and more time on it. And I found that the details behind the big picture were equally important. That they were illustrative of the challenges or the functions or the recipes that we knew we had to focus on, like circular economy, like public transportation, like biodiversity, regeneration, etcetera, etcetera. This is all depicted in the details of the fresco. I found out that as an allegory, it was essentially a recipe of the things we had to do.

I decided to make a modern version of that because I believed we had to make it plain simple to anyone looking at this image, that it was their world that was depicted in this image and it was relevant to consider this image as a template. If we are to show the original picture from 1338, people will say Well, that’s from the old age. People don’t dress like this anymore. People don’t use horses, people use cars, come on, grow up. And where is technology?

So if we show the original picture, people won’t understand that it’s a vision of the future because they will only see the rendition and not the function. By keeping the function identical but rendering them in a modern world then we are creating an immediate relevancy for the viewer. One understands that it’s the world we live in. We understand that this is modern now. We recognize our world. And that’s how I came upon with this black and white picture. I designed it in a way that would be both accessible to three year olds, but also that could be used for me as a summary for these big reports I had been working on as a professional, as an expert, and for which I had grown quite a deep frustration because I felt that this deep level of expertise was not useful in the end because it was confined to a readership of experts. And you don’t have enough experts to turn the dial. I mean, we have too few. We have to think of the masses. And clearly, expert reports aren’t bedtime readings for people who otherwise consume the news from TikTok. Clearly we have to adapt to what people consume and what they are willing to buy on.

The other dimension is that art is an important lever which is often left out. Aesthetics, art, beauty ought to be at the center of our climate policies. We ought to be attracting people because it’s just damn beautiful. And if people find things beautiful, they will enjoy spending time with things. They will praise or value things they see because it is beautiful as once something is beautiful, you you want to preserve it, you might want to earn it or own it. And beauty nature as well is that so that is also one of the incentive is to make people feel empathy and feel desire and hopefully fuel the energy and the drive for action that what might feel by saying, Oh, this is so beautiful. I really want that to become reality or to be preserved. I’m part of the story becomes my own cause, my own motive in life.

And it has been really effective from the inception of the fresco once it’s been out and tested with people. Since I first showed it in 2015 I’ve had countless opportunities to use it in different circles, for different purposes with different audiences in different languages from different geographies, and each time the fresco was resilient or malleable enough to be relevant to these different contexts. We’ve been using the fresco with elected officials in rural areas or in metropolises in big or small towns from east, west, north or south of France, in Italy, in Spain, in Latvia, in Estonia, in Germany, in Croatia, pretty much in any part of Europe. And it’s really efficient also in bringing people together from different languages. You don’t need to speak the same language in order to understand the same image.

Daniel Shneider  32:48

So in researching your report for Paris and hearing more about how we can prepare for climate resilience, I want to take a second and ask how we as New Yorkers should look at it. What are some strategies for a city to be climate resilient, that would work globally and what might we need to do uniquely for New York?

Julien Dossier  33:12

If the decisions made in New York can spread their wings much further than Manhattan as an island or the big boroughs that is working with banks based in New York? How can we turn the big banks the JPMorgan Chase the Citigroup, the Blackrock of this world? How can we work with these guys to become the funders of the biodiversity regeneration as a way of hitting the climate goals? If not through finance, then through power influence, like the Met Gala we need another Met Gala. We need another big heavy hitting type of event with A listers which are also associated with New York. So the A listers, and the cultural icons associated with New York have a big role to play three research on higher education NYU, Columbia, there are beacons these need to be standard setters. What kind of careers are praised when you are an alumni of these most prestigious schools. If people exiting those schools are seen as successful because they are say taking jobs at Greenpeace, or because they are launching a big campaign to overhaul the food system or because they create companies that manage to retrofit the number of cars in circulation in the US I mean, these are the leaders of tomorrow that need to emerge from New York.

Daniel Shneider  34:52

Thanks so much. That’s incredible analysis. It’s galvanizing right like to feel like there is a way forward for New York. Thank you so much for being here. I think we all really appreciate your analysis and insight.

Julien Dossier  35:10

Oh, that’s a pleasure.

Eli Gitter-Dentz  35:12

Julian also wrote an article for city Atlas to outline his Climate Action Plan. In the opening blurb for this article, Richard Reiss connects the United States government’s reaction to the Coronavirus pandemic with the world’s reaction to the climate crisis. He writes, shutting down the US two weeks earlier, would have been a 90% cut in deaths according to an estimate in the New York Times. Shutting down NYC just one week earlier on Sunday, March 15, instead of March 22, could have been almost a two thirds cut in total casualties in NYC. That would mean more than 12,000 of the 19,000 people currently counted among fatalities would be alive. The energy transition needs to begin in earnest today. New norms that enable individual behavior need to begin today. Public education on climate at the scale of the Paris report needs to roll out today and mechanisms that could fund that education need to be instituted today. Thank you for listening to Bridging the Carbon Gap.