Paris climate talks could be a light in the darkness of terror

After the November 13 attacks on Paris, the global community might now be more determined to deliver a successful climate change conference, both for France and as a potent demonstration of the enduring effectiveness of the international diplomatic process.

Paris COP21
The Eiffel Tower in Paris is lit in the tricolours of the French flag as the city remembers the 129 people killed in the November 13 terrorist attacks. Image: Yann Caradec via Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

With a country still in shock and more than 200 innocent people either killed or receiving hospital care in Paris, it seems perverse to even turn one’s mind to the implications this horrific event might have for the international response to climate change.

The French hosts of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference starting in Paris next Monday were quick to confirm that the show will still go ahead. For it to be cancelled or postponed would have handed an apparent success to terror.

Yet the whole tone and context of the lead-up to the meeting has changed. It is likely that fewer people will attend. The security presence, already tight, will now be intense. Leaders of all the major economies are planning to be in Paris for the first half of the meeting. Their minds will be occupied, and the media will be asking them about more than climate change.

Already, with a full agenda coming to Paris after the G20 Antalya summit in Turkey, actually being in the city will pull leaders’ attention towards more immediate international security concerns. Afterall, how can more than 100 heads of state be in Paris and not make reference to the most grotesque terrorist attack in Europe since the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people and injured more than 1,800?

The London bombings and the G8

For me, this is all eerily reminiscent of the tense days at the Gleneagles G8 meeting in 2005. July 7, the day set aside for discussions on climate change, was sent into turmoil by the London bombings.

I was with then-British prime minister Tony Blair that morning as news of the attacks started coming in. First on Sky News, then a call from the Chief Executive of London Transport indicating that these were not crashes or engineering errors: this was a man-made catastrophe. The morning before, London had won the right to hold the 2012 Olympics; the morning after, suicide bombers were wreaking havoc on innocent commuters.

While the G8 meeting continued without disruption, the prime minister flew back to London to help coordinate the response from Downing Street. That evening Blair returned to Gleneagles and continued chairing the meeting. It was a big day. I will never forget it.

Although the prime minister had to be in Whitehall that day, on his return many of the issues still open for what we envisaged would be a hard negotiation (on financing for African development and new low emissions technology development) had disappeared. Blair’s fellow leaders recognised the need for the G8 meeting to be, and be seen to be, a success for the international geopolitical order.

So, on July 8, in front of the world’s media, the Gleneagles communiqué on climate change and Africa was signed, very publicly, by all the G8 leaders coming up to the lectern in turn. It was a piece of high political theatre unprecedented at such meetings. A colleague of mine, having been tasked with finding a suitable fountain pen for eight rather powerful signatures, kept it.

Building momentum

A Conservative British prime minister, Harold Macmillan (who served from January 1957 to October 1963), was once asked what was the most difficult thing about his job. “Events, dear boy, events,” was his alleged response.

No matter how much any leader might prepare and seek to spend time and political capital on his or her priorities, unplanned events cannot be ignored. Such surprises, be they severe climate events such as Typhoon Haiyan and Hurricane Sandy, or policy decisions such as China’s commitment that its emissions will peak in less than 15 years, or the G7 agreeing to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century, have drawn heads of state back to the issue of climate change

Prior to Friday, the momentum behind reaching a more adequate international agreement on climate change was already significant.

States have presented their emissions reduction commitments prior to the meeting (through their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”). The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has also learnt important lessons from previous meetings.

US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are all going to Paris, having committed themselves to significant and ambitious domestic climate policies.

They aren’t going to Paris to negotiate what might be achieved; they are focused on ensuring a supportive international policy environment that will assist the how: namely the effective implementation of what is committed to internationally and a process for supporting further policy ambition.

One perverse consequence of the horror of Friday night might be that it provides further incentive for demonstrated unity and agreement at the Paris climate change conference. With France, President Francois Hollande and his highly able Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius presiding over the conference, the global community might now be more well-disposed to achieve a clear, symbolic and positive success, both for France, and as a potent demonstration of the enduring effectiveness of the international diplomatic process.

Out of the darkness of Friday night in Paris, may an ambitious and meaningful climate agreement - a positive and enduring light - shine forth. 

Now based in Sydney, Nick Rowley is a senior consultant working as part of Robertsbridge. From 2004 to 2006, he was senior advisor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. This article was originally published in The Conversation. 

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