I love Paris.
Walking through the world’s most beautiful streets for the Climate Conference reminded me of why. To me and to so many, Paris represents a romanticized idea of what life should be like; a life that values time spent pursuing the arts, vivacious conversations with friends in picturesque cafes, an afternoon furiously scribbling down the meaning of life after a bout of inspiration during an afternoon stroll. A life that values love and passion, art and culture, and offers an escape from small worries that occupy too much space in our minds. A brief promise that life can be more than what we know. For generations, people from around the world have found solace, inspiration, and answers in its streets.
But those of us who know Paris noticed a city slightly altered. Just the month before, the streets and cafes that make Paris’s heart beat were terrorized as seven attackers committed acts of heinous violence that will forever shake the sense of personal security of those who reside within the city’s extraordinary walls. Cue a slew of expressions of solidarity, moments of silence, flags at half mast, and days of action. And then the world’s monuments and everyone’s Facebook walls lit up in bleu, blanc et rouge.
Now, security guards and police interrupt the bustle of the metro, which runs half empty as commuters take to their cars for fear of another attack. The city mourns its losses in many ways, but most remarkably, through a beautiful display of flowers, candles, and quintessentially French cartoons at the historic Place de la Republique—site of the solidarity march of world leaders after the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year. Interspersed between the ribbons and wreaths are poignant messages of resilience, courage, peace, and unity.
Paris goes on. In fact, it goes forward.
In the wake of the attacks, the leaders of the world looked to Paris for answers to one of the toughest problems of our time: how to stop the irreversible damage to our planet from climate change. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius did not miss a beat in announcing that the Paris Climate Conference would go on as planned following the terrorist attacks. It was a bold statement to terrorists that they would not disrupt business as usual. And, not a single one of the 120 world leaders slated to attend cancelled their trips.
Why? Because, to those who care about civilization, Paris is personal. An attack on Paris feels like an attack on values that we hold dear. It is more than the senseless killing of 129 innocent people; it feels close to home—it’s in our backyard, and if violence can happen there, it can happen anywhere. It was a bid to disrupt the entire fabric of daily life, and our ability to look ahead. To take the horrific violence that has already ravaged Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many places, and place it in the heart of Europe. To make violence “the new normal” everywhere.
So too, another “new normal” emerges before our eyes, but stealthily, more subtly, over time. The irreversible damage to our planet due to climate change has already started to take its violent toll on ice caps and weather patterns, and we too often stand by quietly, watching as our emissions ravage the stratosphere. No one is immune to the catastrophic consequences of poor air quality, massive forest fires, desertification, and rising sea levels, all of which will cause massive population displacement in our lifetimes if we don’t change course now. But only some regions have started to experience the problems, while others, wealthier or more protected from the effects of sea level rise and forest fire and storm, haven’t yet felt strong effects. It’s not personal. At least, not yet.
In ways, Paris became, with the attacks, an even more appropriate setting for the climate conference. Because to solve both problems, to defang extremist violence and extreme weather, we need to overcome a dangerous “us and them” mentality. In Paris, “they” are the youth, whose names and faces identify them as members of a troubled ‘other’ “They” are politically and culturally disenfranchised, and physically kept at the margins of the city. Everywhere, “they” are the marginal, the disempowered of disintegrating countries, or refugee camps. Struggling for a vision of how their lives and sacrifice will have meaning, despairing of ever reaching the inner circle that promises opportunity, respect and dignity, “they” become vulnerable, in these spaces, to radicalism, to the threat and allure of violence in the name of purity. This is the breeding ground of ISIS, and other causes that seem self-evidently insane and mindlessly destructive to “us”, who have never felt so disenfranchised and excluded by the system as to want to break it.
And in climate change, “they” are the far-off Pacific islanders who practice their traditions in unfamiliar tongues and lead unfamiliar lifestyles. “They” are vulnerable populations of farmers who await rains that do not come, who ask themselves how they will survive if they cannot make the $2 dollars a day their crops yield under normal conditions. “They” did not cause this damage, but they are the most vulnerable, the most affected by climate change. And their voices are powerless, with the exception of annual meetings like the climate conference in Paris. The rest of the year, the “us” sit comfortably in air-conditioned homes and fuel-inefficient cars, inflicting a different kind of violence on our planet.
Now, Paris is an opportunity to admit that we will no longer be “us and them,” but to empathize with the lands and forests lost and the collective harm we’ve done. It’s an opportunity for a new kind of radicalization—a radical shift in the way we see the world’s resources: not for plundering, but for protecting.
The climate conference in Paris is an opportunity to fight bad with good.
It took senseless violence in the streets of the City of Lights to fire us up about the threat of ISIS, to worry about homegrown terrorism, and to ask why we didn’t realize that the daily manslaughter in Syria would affect us too. How many cities will sink under water before we realize we should have cared about climate change with the same urgency?
We can’t mourn Paris because it’s convenient for us, and then forget about it later, just as we can’t let islands and cultures disappear under the Pacific because we don’t want to change our lifestyle. We can’t ignore the problems—violence occurs every day in many forms, but we only choose to care about it sometimes.
The trouble is—there’s no easy solution to end the violence that has destabilized the Middle East. There’s no quick fix to the disenfranchisement of people living in Paris’s banlieues or those traveling to Syria to join the ranks of ISIS. There’s no replacement for the species and civilizations that have been and will be lost due to our warming climate.
But in the face of these big problems, we are presented with an opportunity to finally stand together and ask the difficult questions about why some people’s livelihoods matter than others. We owe it to the victims who lost their lives watching a concert at the Bataclan, enjoying a drink on an evening terrace, or walking home along Paris’s beautiful streets. We owe it to future generations to preserve our planet, trees, and ecosystem before there is nothing left. We owe to future generations to protect the streets of Paris, and other achievements of civilization, before they disappear under water.
We owe it to Paris to protect what the city begs us to appreciate every day: our humanity.
An earlier version of this piece was published by Harvard’s Kennedy School Review.
Photo by author.