‘All eyes on Paris’: climate talks in a heightened security context

For the past few weeks, all eyes have been on Paris because of two major events.

The first is the seven coordinated terrorist attacks that hit the French capital on 13 November, killing 130 ordinary citizens, left many in shock, and led to an outpouring of messages of solidarity from around the world.

Second, Paris is now halfway through the UN’s COP21 climate conference. Over these two weeks, 151 worldwide leaders are negotiating the next global climate change agreement which many hope will keep global temperature rises below 2°C.

The November attacks prompted mixed reactions both in France and abroad, including shock, horror and incomprehension. French President François Hollande quickly declared the country “at war”, promising a security crackdown and conducting 30 air strikes in Raqqa, Syria, two days after the attacks. The country has been placed in state of emergency until the end of February.

The state of emergency gives the security services more powers, and allows police to act without judicial oversight and place people under house arrest if they are considered a risk. It also gives the authorities more scope to dissolve groups or associations that participate in, facilitate or incite acts that are a threat to public order.

It is in this context of heightened security that the long-awaited COP21 takes place.

After past failures at COPs, the Paris meeting has been described as the last hope for climate change, gathering much expectation. Before the attacks happened, many civil society actors had planned demonstrations and activism to ensure that the future climate agreement would not be only the work of government negotiators, but of people around the world.

In particular, millions of people planned to march for climate justice in France and throughout the world. One of these is Oxfam’s online campaign The world is watching: #eyesonParis.

Amid the rapid military escalation and calls for fortressed borders, concerns quickly emerged that climate change might, as Jason Box and Naomi Klein put it, “fall off the political map because a more immediate crisis of war”. Shortly after the attacks however, Hollande emphasised that the climate negotiations would not only go ahead, but “bring hope and solidarity”.

But security decisions have caused concern about the representation of alternative voices in COP21. First, the two climate marches scheduled in Paris for 29 November and 12 December in Paris have been banned on security grounds. A total of 24 environmental activists are currently under house arrest to keep them off the streets during COP21, as they are considered as a “security threat”.

People have sought to overcome the ban on public demonstrations with creative alternatives to express their hope for a strong climate deal, peace, and democracy. Last Sunday, 10,000 people joined hands to form human chains in Paris and other French cities. In the Place de la République, 22,000 pairs of shoes stood in for participants at the cancelled demonstration – these have now become the icon for the 2015 Paris Climate March.


Shoes in Place de la Republique – Climate of Peace #climat2paix (Takver / Flickr / cc-by-sa 2.0)

Meanwhile, French artist JR and filmmaker Darren Aronofsky are running The Standing March, a video projection of a “silent march” displayed on major Parisian monuments throughout COP21 to remind leaders that the world is watching. Screenings started last Sunday with projections on the Assemblée Nationale, which the artists say represents “the heart of the French democracy” – adding that “we must think about our future, the future of our environment and this is our answer to those who want to control our present”.

Citizen mobilisations for the climate are also taking place across Paris, under the coordination of the Coalition Climat 21 network, which gathers more than 130 civil society organisations. This weekend (5-6 December) notably sees the Peoples’ Climate Summit. A series of activities are also taking place from 7-11 December in the Climate Action Zone, with talks around themes such as “climate, justice, peace and militarism” or “alternatives and solutions”.

Last Sunday also saw clashes between a heavy-handed riot police and protesters determined to defy the ban, leading to scenes of violence and the use of tear gas, 200 arrests and damage to the memorial sites dedicated to the 13 November victims. While most media reports have focused on radical anti-capitalist and/or anarchist protesters, several videos posted online show other peaceful actions from diverse members of the public – playing music, singing, dancing, calling for climate action and alternatives, or handling flowers to the police. The revolution may not be televised, but it will certainly be tweeted…

While the need to strengthen security in the wake of the November attacks is completely understandable, the heavy-handed reaction of the police is less so. It raises questions as to whether new extended security powers are being used to control dissent. It is legitimate to ask whether the absence of loud and radical voices will have an impact on the climate deal, as diminished pressure from activists may lessen the pressure for a bold agreement.

What does the current context of heightened security mean for COP21? How can we be sure that strengthened security measures do not become a façade to clamp down on potentially too radical views, civil liberties and democracy?

In adopting the recently adopted global sustainable development goals, signatories committed, through Goal 16, to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development. This includes not only obvious references to reducing violence and combat terrorism but also ensuring “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”

“Both in its priorities and outcomes and its constituting processes, sustainability has always been about democratic struggles,” emphasises Andy Stirling in The Politics of Green Transformations , adding that “addressing it as a determinate technical end, rather than as an emancipatory process for determining plural human and ecological ends, betrays its own foundations.” But what kind of sustainability can be achieved in the context of heightened security and underlying ideas of a country at war?

If the side-lines of UN large sustainability summits provide opportunities to open up a political space for alternatives, allowing radical voices into the debates and keeping governments on their toes, what happens when the shape and form of these spaces are restricted and some voices are excluded or silenced on security grounds?

There is no easy answer. But these events do highlight the need to ensure that civil liberties and democratic values of some do not get undermined because of a logic of war. Is there a hierarchy of democratic values? If so, who decides on it, to what purpose and for whose interests? This is a thin line that needs being kept in check again and again.

In the long process towards sustainability and democracy, struggles need to keep going not only to reclaim and/or protect the political space for alternatives but also possibly expand it. As it stands, activists are “more determined than ever to make [their] voices heard on climate justice”, emphasising the need to push for “peace and hope” in responses to violence and terror.

Box and Klein also suggest deepening the climate change discussion to expand the range of solutions, which are fundamental for real human security. “What if, instead of being pushed aside in the name of war, climate action took center stage as the planet’s best hope for peace?”, they ask.

As it stands, the outcome of COP21 remains to be seen. Away from Paris for now, the extent to which the current security crackdown is affecting the official negotiating process is unclear. Judging by the copious amount of emails advertising parallel stakeholder side-events that inundate my inbox on a daily basis, opportunities to network and influence are in full frenzy.

It is, unlikely that COP21 will reach the “strong climate-peace agreement” that Box and Klein would like. But leaders will need to hammer a deal that is at least serious enough to tackle climate change if the French capital is to be remembered for its international summit in these last months of 2015. There are many reasons now for all eyes to be on Paris.

This article is part of our coverage of the COP21 climate change conference.