Listen to this article
The UN climate-change conferences that are held in a different city each year have a habit of being overshadowed by troubles elsewhere — from Afghan wars to EU financial crises.
But the meeting that starts on November 30 in Paris will be the first in a city that has itself just been thrown into a state of emergency.
In the wake of the November 13 terrorist attacks that killed 130 people, the French hosts of the climate conference have already tightened security, cancelling public rallies that are a staple of such meetings.
One march in Paris that had been planned for next weekend had been expected to attract especially large numbers because this summit is meant to produce the first new global climate accord for 18 years.
This raises a larger question: could the terrorist attacks have any effect on the outcome of such a consequential climate meeting?
Some environmental experts think it is possible. “I think, if anything, it stiffens the spine in terms of determination to really solve what is the greatest collective action problem in history,” said Andrew Steer, president of the US-based World Resources Institute.
Some 137 heads of state have confirmed their attendance for the first day of the two-week conference, and they are likely to echo the outpouring of solidarity with France since the attacks. It is not going to be easy for them then to say, “We are simply not in the mood to do a global deal now,” Mr Steer told journalists last week.
Alden Meyer, a climate negotiations expert at the US Union of Concerned Scientists group who has attended all but one of the 20 previous UN climate conferences, agrees that the attacks may encourage more unity at the Paris talks.
But Mr Meyer, a former adviser to the Danish government — which hosted the last failed effort to strike a new climate accord, in Copenhagen, in 2009 — adds a note of caution, too.
“There remain several very tough issues to be resolved in order to reach a good agreement at the end of the last day — or night — in Paris,” he told the Financial Times.
Others doubt the attacks will make much difference at all to negotiations as complex as the UN climate talks, riven by years of deadlock between rich and poor countries over sharing the burden of tackling climate change.
“Of course, what happened in Paris should not have happened and nobody wants the loss of innocent lives,” said Meena Raman of the Malaysia-based Third World Network, a developing country non-profit group that monitors the climate negotiations.
But thousands of people had been displaced or killed in various countries around the time of past climate summits, as a result of disastrous typhoons and other events more directly linked with global warming, she said. “And yet you didn’t see developed countries being much more sympathetic about issues like loss and damage,” she told the FT, referring to one of several stumbling blocks that have to be resolved in Paris.
The draft text of the accord to be negotiated in Paris includes support for developing countries facing loss and damage from global warming, including a “climate change displacement co-ordination facility”.
Wealthy countries, who would have to foot the bill, are opposed to such measures being included in the final agreement.
Even without the terror threat, the challenge of hosting one of France’s biggest diplomatic events in decades would be formidable. About 40,000 people are expected to attend the climate conference, which the French government has been planning for almost two years.
The event will be held in a convention centre at the Le Bourget airport, north of Paris, not far from the Stade de France sports arena targeted in the November 13 attacks. Le Bourget is also a short drive from the street in the suburb of Saint-Denis where police last week stormed a building and killed the suspected ringleader of the November 13 attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud.
As well as the dozens of world leaders due at the start of next week’s meeting, a large group of prominent business executives are expected, along with official delegates from 195 countries, at least 3,000 journalists, and thousands of environmental campaigners and observers.
Several side events are due to go ahead near the main conference site, but the cancellation of the Paris rally that had been expected to attract up to 200,000 people, has been a blow for climate campaigners.
“This is a source of huge regret, but we must respect the decision,” said Jean François Julliard, executive director of Greenpeace France.