PARIS – The Paris climate conference, COP21, opened this week under cloudy skies and lingering dread from the multiple attacks of Friday the 13th of November.
With concern for terrorism high, and with the arrival of hundreds of world leaders and celebrities for the meeting, police and military forces controlled the city almost like an occupying army. They shut down the major highway to Charles de Gaulle Airport, shuttered underground garages, closed the famous Tuileries Garden by the Louvre, and cordoned off entire city blocks around hotels hosting visiting dignitaries. Following international protocol, French President François Hollande welcomed visiting heads of state in the order of how long they’d been in office. One French journalist noted wryly that “the dictators come first.”
Negotiators assembled in gigantic warehouse-like metal buildings on the grounds of Aéroport de Paris-Le Bourget, an airfield serving corporate jets and private planes. Like the fake façade of a western stage set, a huge, multistory plywood box painted with the U.N. and COP21 logo – a green leaf with a stem resembling the Eiffel Tower – greeted guests. Also welcoming the 45,000-plus visitors expected at the meeting were hundreds of heavily armed police officers in blue uniforms, some on horseback. “I’ve never seen so many cops,” said Valéry Laramée de Tannenberg, the editor of a French environmental trade journal and author of a new book on the impact of climate change on wine.
Obama: ‘We embrace our responsibility’
In a speech at the opening session, President Obama grimly noted problems linked to climate change already taking place in Alaska, which he visited last summer, including tundra fires, towns displaced by shore erosion, and melting permafrost. To the approval of environmentalists, he made perhaps the most forceful statement yet of U.S. commitment to addressing global warming. He said, “the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.”
At a subsequent press conference President Obama predicated a successful outcome, staking out a powerful endorsement of the negotiations. “I’m convinced that we’re going to get big things done here.” His strong support for progress on an international treaty could be among the most important legacies of his presidency. But even in this highly staged event, the recent attacks, the worst of which occurred about six miles from where he addressed the journalists, competed with the would-be focus on climate change. The first two of reporters he called on after his remarks focused on climate change led with questions about terrorism, ISIL, and Russian military activities. He took the opportunity to liken the overwhelming technical and diplomatic challenge of slowing global warming to the despair caused by terrorism. “It’s not easy,” he said. “It takes time. And when you’re in the midst of it, it’s frightening. But it’s solvable.”
Scientist Chris Field – No ‘Safe’ Guardrail
While vigorously endorsing the conference, some scientists in attendance expressed concerns that the negotiations will not “solve” the problem of global warming even if the meeting achieves the most ambitious goals of organizers. Stanford University biologist Chris Field pointed out that worrisome impacts of warming are appearing already and that, “the more warming that occurs the greater the risk of impacts that are severe, irreversible, widespread.”
Field co-chairs the committee of the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that studies climate impacts. The benchmark temperature figure often discussed is to prevent the planet from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial temperature. Field says that as hard as it will be to achieve this target, doing so will hardly prevent serious disruption, including devastatingly higher sea level, more increasingly grave extreme weather, and far-reaching damages to marine life.
“There is no amount of climate change that represents a guardrail below which is safe,” Field said, echoing a viewpoint shared by many of his climate scientist colleagues both in the U.S. and globally.