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What the Paris Attacks Will Mean for the Upcoming Climate Conference

France is still determined to show that it's a leader on climate.

Jim Watson/Getty Images

Prior to Friday’s deadly terrorist attacks, Paris had been set to host a global party—the UN climate change conference known as COP21—at the end of the month. In scope and tone, there were echoes of the Olympics, with representatives from 127 countries gathering in the spirit of peace and cooperation, and thousands of onlookers flocking to cheer them on to a successful climate agreement. Flashy spectacles were to be as much a part of the entertainment as the negotiations themselves. Climate activists had organized marches on the eve and last day of the conference, and Al Gore planned a weekend concert from the foot of the Eiffel Tower. The climate conference has been years in the making, and boosted by a lot of hype.

Now, of course, everything has changed. Paris is no longer an opportunity for victory laps or feel-good concerts, and many of the conference’s side events have been canceled. A number of rallies and other festivities surrounding the conference will likely be called off as well. On Monday, organizers for the Global Climate March said that they want to go ahead with the protests as planned, but it’s unclear whether the French authorities will permit them to do so, given the security concerns. “We can think of few better responses to violence and terror than this movement’s push for peace and hope,” Nicolas Haeringer, French campaigner for the environmental group, one of the march’s organizers, said in a statement on Monday.

As for the conference itself, which will be held about 10 miles from the city center where the attacks took place, world leaders have pledged their resolve to attend. COP21 “will be held with enhanced security measures, but this is an absolutely indispensable action against climate change,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, according to the Associated Press. The conference is “an essential meeting for humanity,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls Prime Minister Manuel Valls told TF1 television on Saturday. President Barack Obama will still speak in-person at the beginning of the conference, a White House official confirmed over the weekend.

There’s no foreseeable effect on the outcome of the talks, either. “I don’t see these attacks having any substantial bearing on the substance of the negotiations, as opposed to Copenhagen, for example, where the 2008-2009 global economic crisis did raise doubts about the costs associated with climate action,” Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Bloomberg.  

Nevertheless, the terrorist attacks undoubtedly alter the context for the climate talks. They have provided a gruesome reminder that there is more than one major challenge facing the world—an obvious point, and yet one that can cause politicians to waver in their resolve, as they are dragged into debates over what is the most pressing issue. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, for example, has joked before, “I believe most of us would think that a beheading is a far greater threat than a sunburn.” Bernie Sanders approached this issue from the other direction during the Democratic debate on Saturday, when he stood by his claim that climate change is America’s (and the world’s) greatest security threat. “Climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism,” he said.

In reality, it doesn’t matter which issue occupies the number one spot. Terrorism is an immediate concern. And while climate change’s consequences move slower, it will eventually harm far more people if left unchecked. Both are priorities, and pitting the issues against each other is a false choice.

Staying the course on the climate talks will also be a show of support for France, the host nation, which has led the effort to get the most ambitious agreement possible. Just last week, the U.S. and France had a scuffle over the structure of the climate agreement. The French and Europeans have pushed for a treaty with legally binding commitments of greenhouse gasses, but political realities in the U.S. have meant that a treaty is a nonstarter in the negotiations.

French President François Hollande also visited China in early November to convince the biggest polluter in the world to agree to a five-year review period in which countries ramp up their climate ambitions. It was the first time China agreed to a principal feature of the agreement. “What we have just established here in this declaration is a likelihood that the Paris conference will succeed,” Hollande told reporters after issuing a joint statement with China. “That doesn’t mean that the Paris conference is definitely going to be a success, but the conditions for success have been laid down in Beijing today.”

The climate conference conference will certainly be less celebratory now. But it could still mark a turning point for the planet, one that saves people around the world from another kind of tragedy.