Professor and Metcalf Chair in Environmental Law, University of Toronto.
The year 2015 has been cruel to the world and, in particular, to France. "Paris 2015" was to be synonymous with hope, resolve and success – hope for humanity's ability to confront a global challenge, resolve in bridging deep divergences and success in arriving at a universal agreement on combatting climate change. Tragically, Paris 2015 has instead come to be associated with terror – the barbaric murder of innocent civilians in the name of Islamic State ranks as the worst atrocity in France since the Second World War. Paris's fate in 2015 is to confront the world, in the starkest possible fashion, with how to respond to two very different but equally serious threats.
Islamic State's brand of globalized terror brings carnage to the doorstep of the Western world, striking from within, lurking in everyday life and everywhere, or so it is meant to seem. The reactions of political leaders were swift and visceral. France is now in a state of emergency and at war with Islamic State, striking targets in Syria.
"Terrorism will never destroy the republic, because the republic will destroy terrorism," vowed French President François Hollande. Arrests have been made across Europe. Security forces are on high alert. Fear is corrosive of Western resolve to welcome Syrian refugees. Political leaders must act, of course, and the responsibility resting on their shoulders is unimaginable. But the bitter irony is that it is virtually impossible to prevent the kinds of attacks Paris has just endured. Is "war" the right frame for our response? Will military strikes make a difference? Can clampdowns at home eradicate threats from within? What will be the consequences for secular Western democracies? It is not clear that anybody knows the answers, or at least there are as many views as there are options.
More than 10 years ago, Sir David King, Britain's chief scientific adviser at the time, observed that climate change is a problem "more serious even than the threat of terrorism." Why has the world struggled to respond? Perhaps because the threats posed by climate change appear less palpable, less dramatic, less obviously lethal, and less immediate. And yet, 2015 is the hottest year on record since the Industrial Revolution; it brought an onslaught of extreme weather events. Worse, we have come halfway to the maximum global temperature increase deemed reasonably safe by scientists, and have used up most of the global emissions headroom for averting dangerous climate change. These threats are very real, the consequences potentially catastrophic. In his 2015 State of the Union Address, U.S. President Barack Obama stressed that "no challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change." He added: "The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it."
That is what will be at stake between Nov. 30 and Dec. 11, when 190 states and countless civil-society organizations will meet in Paris to move the world on the right greenhouse-gas emissions track. Or will they? The security challenges will be monumental. The summit organizers had expected about 50,000 state and civil-society delegates to attend. Even if some decide to stay away, access to and security for the site, and for heads of state, will pose severe challenges. The French government is clearly concerned, having just authorized the distribution of an antidote to the potentially deadly effects of nerve gas. Did Islamic State intend to scuttle the climate summit, or use its proximity to amplify the effects of its attacks? Is it planning a new attack on the summit? The power of terror is that this is difficult to know.
The French government and world leaders seem determined not to let the Islamic State attack derail the climate summit. That is the right approach, because we do know, with crystal clarity, not only that climate change requires urgent action, but also that it is a problem to which we actually have a solution, if we act now. Let us hope that we will not be forced to choose short-term safety over putting the world on the right climate path. Let us hope that Paris 2015 will ultimately stand for global action, despite it all.