Paris Is a Snapshot of Our Hot, Violent, Militarized Future
How climate change, terrorism, and the “precrime” arrest of dozens of activists are all connected at the global climate conference in Paris.
Protesters clash with riot police. Image: AP
Today, leaders from 190 nations are gathered in Paris, where they will try to ink an agreement to slow the rise of global temperatures. Yesterday, protesters clashed with police, after France banned public demonstrations and 24 activists were preemptively placed under house arrest. Two weeks ago, ISIS-affiliated terrorists executed a deadly and tragic coordinated attack on the streets of Paris. Two weeks before that was the tail end of October—the hottest month yet recorded on the planet.
These events are all connected, of course. The 21st annual Conference of the Parties (COP21) has begun, with heads of state like US President Barack Obama, China's President Xi Jinping, and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, hosted by Francois Hollande in the still-reeling City of Lights. The aim is to collect enough binding pledges from each country to limit global temperatures from rising more than 2˚C above pre-industrial levels. Temperatures have risen nearly 1˚C, driven by human carbon emissions, already.
Regardless of what the summit actually produces in terms of commitments to reducing carbon pollution, it has already produced a microcosmic snapshot of our fast-approaching future under climate change: governments struggling to contain a spreading ecological threat, temperatures rapidly rising, and social turmoil threatening to spill over into violence.
"I come here as the leader of the world's largest economy to say that the United States not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it," Obama said in his opening statement, in which he noted the US's responsibility for a large share of the warming.
"Never have the stakes been so high because this is about the future of the planet, the future of life," President Hollande said. "And yet two weeks ago, here in Paris itself, a group of fanatics was sowing the seeds of death in the streets."
Whether Hollande intended to make the connection or not, the remarks were fitting: As tragic and senseless as they were, the recent acts of terror are also sadly instructive. There is a reason that the Pentagon considers climate change a "threat multiplier"—the phenomenon is apt to destabilize regions with increased drought, temperature, or sea level rise, which then makes violent conflict more likely—and that reason has a face now.
It's a threat multiplier. It's fair to say that it makes the emergence of future ISISes more likely, especially as the changing climate drives more mass migrations and societal disruptions.
Scientific research has linked the war in Syria, from which ISIS emerged, to climate change. Drought made worse by global warming trends drove erstwhile farmers into urban centers in search of work, where hunger, poverty, and restlessness set the tinder for conflict. Which is not to say that without warming, there'd be no ISIS; of course it's not that simple. But it's a threat multiplier. It's fair to say that it makes the emergence of future ISISes more likely, especially as the changing climate drives more mass migrations and societal disruptions.
Bernie Sanders found himself the target of Republican scorn when he not only said that climate change was the "single greatest threat to national security" in the first Democratic debates, but then doubled down on the statement in the wake of the Paris terror attacks. "In fact," he said, "climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism."
Politifact dinged him for accuracy, primarily for the use of the word "directly," which is perhaps one semantic bridge too far, but other than that, he's generally correct. "If we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say you're going to see countries all over the world—this is what the CIA says—they're going to be struggling over limited amounts of water, limited amounts of land to grow their crops. And you're going to see all kinds of international conflict," Sanders said.
Conflict that can then ripple out to rich, historically secure places like Paris. And the terrorist attacks have already impacted civil liberties in even that famously liberal city, even as all eyes are focused on it: First, the public demonstrations planned during the climate conference were banned. Then, the government preemptively arrested two dozen activists who'd planned on joining them.
"Twenty-four environmental activists have been placed under house arrest ahead of the Paris climate summit, using France's state of emergency laws," France 24 reports. The TV station interviewed two of the arrestees, who told their stories:
"They entered the apartment with shotguns and assault rifles. It was quite violent. They pinned us to the ground," said Amélie, a young barmaid who did not wish to give her full name. "It lasted quite a long time. We had no idea why they were there."
The officers handed Amélie a restraining order informing her that she can no longer leave Rennes, is required to register three times a day at the local police station, and must stay at home between 8 PM and 6 AM.
The order ends on December 12, the day the Paris climate summit draws to a close.
Thousands of Parisians showed up to demonstrate over the weekend, anyway, most peacefully linking arms in the streets. They were met by police in riot gear, who, after a confrontation, used tear gas and flare guns to disperse the crowds; 200 people were arrested.
Again—climate change isn't directly responsible for this violation of civil liberties. But the situation in Paris right now should be illustrative of an emerging norm; one that's hotter, more volatile, and less secure. So yes, in a few quick moves, climate change can indeed feasibly lead to restricted civil liberties in currently, wealthy democracies. It can happen, and we can see pretty precisely how.
It's understandable that French authorities would be intensely worried about another attack, its vulnerabilities so recently laid bare, and with the city populated by the world's chief governors. But instating and executing a law to curtail public demonstration—laws some critics are calling "precrime" laws—looks a lot like a slippery slope.
"I think what the government is really clamping down on ... [people who are] daring to oppose the government," Muriel Ruef, a lawyer representing one of the arrestees, told Al Jazeera. "It's the first time in a very long time I've seen anything like this."
Activists not bound to house arrest found ways around the demonstration ban—they placed thousands of pairs of shoes on the public avenue where the major canceled march was to be held, for instance. Around the world, hundreds of thousands of people marched in solidarity for climate action.
News reports have repeatedly labeled the proceedings as "tense," as the specter of violence and ramped-up security apparatus there loom. Maybe that's sadly appropriate. Perhaps that tenseness will serve to underline the true extent of the existential threat posed by climate change. The world is poised to transform radically, considering climatologists now fear vast swaths of the Middle East will be so hot as to be uninhabitable, large parts of countries like Bangladesh and many different island nations will be entirely underwater, and drought will be utterly crippling in Subsaharan Africa, all by the end of the century. Such large disruptions will inevitably sow chaos and instability.
The talks could benefit from a sense of urgency, too, despite taking place in what is shaping up to be the hottest year in recorded history. As of right now, the current slate of pledges would not limit global temperature rise to 2˚C, a number many scientists say is already dangerously high.
"What greater rejection of those who would tear down our world than marshaling our best efforts to save it," Obama said in his speech. That means saving all of it, though; our cities from the rising tides, our civil freedoms from a climate of fear.