Our Head of International Media William French returns from a successful COP21 and argues that politicians and the press need to talk honestly about the tough choices ahead to make the global climate deal work.
(“Paris has done its bit… this is not the time to be silent.”)
These were the words of the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, speaking at the Earth to Paris civil society event on 7 December as negotiators were still wrangling over the final wording of the COP21 climate agreement.
Anne Hidalgo on stage during a session at COP21 in Paris.
Photo: UN Climate Change
Mrs. Hidalgo’s speech in the spectacular Beaux-Arts surroundings of the Petit Palais museum was just one example of her city’s commitment to a strong and credible deal, urging collective action and responsibility from politicians, business and civil society to tackling climate change.
"And the outcome of the Paris summit has been rightly acknowledged as a great achievement for French diplomacy from President Hollande downwards, which could herald a genuine transformation in the planet’s economy and environment."
She had earlier joined forces with fellow mayors from around the globe, including New York’s Michael Bloomberg, as part of the C40 Cities group – showing how cities themselves can take proactive steps even if national governments are lagging. To improve environmentally-friendly transport networks for example, Paris itself has announced it will double its network of bike lanes to 870 miles, create 10,000 secure bike parking spaces, and offer financial incentives for those buying electric and conventional bikes.
The French capital took its responsibilities as host city seriously, from huge solar panels on the Champs-Elysées to fleets of electric taxis shuttling to and from the conference venue in Le Bourget. And the outcome of the Paris summit has been rightly acknowledged as a great achievement for French diplomacy from President Hollande downwards, which could herald a genuine transformation in the planet’s economy and environment.
Yet amid the curiously Anglophone atmosphere of Earth to Paris and other COP-related events, it did sometimes feel as if the voices of Parisians themselves were muted. To some extent this was understandable given the awful terrorist attacks the city had endured just a few weeks previously, and the subsequent cancellation of the People’s Climate March on 29 November on security grounds. Indeed it is testimony to Parisian resilience that the climate summit went ahead at all, both as an act of defiance and a show of solidarity from the other participants.
"Nationalism and xenophobia represent a retreat from the world, a wilful disengagement from globalised issues such as climate change, terrorism and migration."
Anne Hidalgo’s words were also delivered the day after French electors had voted in huge numbers for the far-right Front National in the first round of regional elections, explicitly endorsing a political world view far removed from the COP’s lofty ideals of global responsibility towards future generations. Newspaper headlines from right-wing Le Figaro to Communist L’Humanité proclaimed “Le Choc” but it should have come as no surprise given the Front National’s persistent rise in the polls and its cynical exploitation of fears about migration, terrorism and economic insecurity.
The failure of Marine Le Pen’s party to translate these first round gains into actual victories in the second round on 13 December gives some grounds for comfort, though this was only possible because many Socialist candidates withdrew to allow the centre-right a free run against the Front. The far-right party will remain a toxic and potent force in the French body politic up to 2017’s Presidential elections with worrying implications for the wider national debate on identity, immigration and France’s role in the world.
Nationalism and xenophobia represent a retreat from the world, a wilful disengagement from globalised issues such as climate change, terrorism and migration. The challenge for ethical leaders is how to build popular consent among insecure electorates that will permit a comprehensive approach to tackle these challenges without building new walls and fomenting division.
The shift away from a fossil fuel-based economy will have tremendous implications for our individual and collective lifestyles, especially in the developed world where profligate energy use has been the hallmark of post-war development and growth. Old mass industries linked to fossil fuels have already all but disappeared, such as coal mining in the Nord-Pas de Calais, the Ruhr and South Yorkshire, yet promised new jobs in clean technologies have yet to be created on a similar scale. Whole communities are bereft of prosperity and feel robbed of their identity by the shapeless forces of 'globalisation', making the people who live there easy prey to the siren song of the far-right.
UN Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon and COP21/CMP11 President, Laurent Fabius addressing the press. Photo: UN Climate Change
For the Paris deal to truly be the first step on the path to a sustainable reckoning with climate change, leaders need to be honest with voters about the scale of the challenge ahead. This responsibility also extends to the media, which too often has treated climate change with a blend of scientific ignorance, hyperbole and disinformation linked to corporate interests.
Paris will doubtless continue to 'do its bit' in the fight against climate change once the COP circus has packed up and its officials take a well-earned break. This is consistent with the city’s proud role in previous struggles for human dignity, from the declarations of “liberté, égalité et fraternité” in 1789 to the egalitarianism of the 1871 Paris Commune, and Resistance and liberation from Fascism in 1944.
The rest of the world now also needs to heed Mrs. Hidalgo’s words, break its silence and fight loudly so our children and grandchildren can inherit a healthy and sustainable planet.