When French President Emmanuel Macron announced the first round of fellows selected to serve on his “Make Our Planet Great Again” initiative, Ashley Ballantyne wasn’t on the list, though it did include many of his scientific heroes.
No worries, he’s on the list now.
Ballantyne, an associate professor of bioclimatology in the University of Montana’s School of Forestry in Missoula, will serve as one of 14 climate researchers chosen for Macron’s groundbreaking research initiative.
“I applied to work with this group south of Paris – a government lab that focuses on climate and carbon cycle research,” Ballantyne said Friday. “It’s one of the best labs in the world for the research that I do, and it was a pretty compelling opportunity for me.”
As the U.S. looks to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, President Macron has doubled down by launching an aggressive climate action plan to project France into the post-carbon world with a goal of going carbon neutral by 2050.
Along the way, Macron has assembled researchers from around the world, including those from six U.S. universities: Yale, Duke, MIT, Florida State, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Montana.
“Any investment they’re willing to make in science, in particular climate science, is admirable,” Ballantyne said. “The French have a bit more invested interest in this. They’re pretty proud of this global agreement that happened in Paris, and they genuinely want to see it be successful. This is a clear indication they want that to be successful, and they’re recruiting a lot of great scientists to make it happen.”
Macron introduced “Make Our Planet Great Again” last year after President Donald Trump indicated his intention to remove the U.S. from the global climate agreement – one signed by 195 member nations. Macron called Trump’s decision “unfortunate” but pledged to pick up the banner and lead the way.
The research team chosen for the initiative includes a wide range of experts, from air quality to climate change in the Arctic, which threatens to shift ocean currents and alter the planet’s traditional weather patterns.
Ballantyne said his research will look at different tracers of carbon in the atmosphere by using C14, a radioactive element. He called it an excellent tracer of the global carbon cycle.
“During above ground nuclear testing, there was this big pulse of C14 released into the atmosphere,” he said. “Since this global experiment, we’ve been able to measure where this C14 has gone, and we know the decay rate of that C14. What we’re hoping to do is use these climate models to simulate C14 and compare it with observations to see how well these climate models are doing at simulating the carbon cycle.”
For the first three years, Ballantyne will travel frequently to the government research lab south of Paris where he’ll spend several months of the year. A year-long sabbatical is also likely, and he’s not sure how it will impact his career at the University of Montana.
But there’s a chance, he said, that funding in Congress and at the university will have changed in three years, and his connection with his peers in Paris could open doors for Montana’s leading research institution.
There’s also a chance that the U.S. will begin taking climate change more seriously.
“There’s ways to work and we can facilitate collaboration between labs in France and at UM,” Ballantyne said. “In today’s age, you can work remotely and collaborate remotely. There are ways to make this work, and at the conclusion of this three-year project, if it’s fruitful and productive, who knows.”
To that, he added, “it’ a great opportunity and will probably make my life a little more complicated in the near term, but it’s a great opportunity to work with great scientists. It’s maybe a good junction to decide where I want my career to go, for a number of reasons.”