Security Figures Prominently at Paris Climate Conference

The Conference of the Parties’ U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change that began today in Paris has more at stake than halting the global temperature rise by 2 degrees Celsius.


Simon Dawson

Traveling to the French capital for the 2014 Paris Climate Conference, known as COP21, wasn’t a bold choice on November 12, but by the following evening, the City of Light was no longer shining brightly. At least three ISIS terrorists had sprayed bullets inside the Bataclan theater, where concertgoers were hearing the Palm Desert, California–based rock band Eagles of Death Metal. Elsewhere in the 11th arrondissement, and in the 10th arrondissement, their fellow killers completed their night of merciless savagery — with 130 dead, and dozens more left in critical condition at area hospitals.

The 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change formally kicks off in Le Bourget, near Paris, today and runs through December 11. Nearly 50,000 people, including 25,000 official delegates — as well as dignitaries such as U.S. President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande — will mix among the likes of Virgin Group co-founder Richard Branson and heads of industry from around the globe.

This year’s COP, coming on the heels of disappointing results in past meetings from heavy polluters like the U.S., is expected to be crucial in helping reach an international agreement to keep greenhouse gas emissions low enough to halt the earth’s temperature rise at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over the next 85 years.

But because of the terrorist attacks, and subsequent security ramp-up, attendees have been forced to reevaluate their plans. Public demonstrations — a highlight of previous climate conferences — have been canceled. There are more than 11,000 police officers and gendarmes (soldiers) on duty in Paris, including 6,300 who were specifically allocated to enforce extra security Sunday and today because of the nearly 150 heads of state and government visiting.

The majority of individuals contacted for this article — including those from oil companies, an airline and environmental nonprofits — couldn’t or wouldn’t discuss their security plans traveling to or at the conference. Most people wouldn’t even state whether their security budgets had increased. And no one claimed to have hired a bodyguard, perhaps because that is the purview of more well-heeled or high-profile individuals.

Ariane Sims, who manages outreach to environmental experts for Santa Monica, California–based Planet Experts, a web site that publishes a collection of environmentally focused articles and blogs, did talk to Institutional Investor, however.

“After the attacks it, became a question of what’s going to happen going forward,” she says, while affirming this past Friday that Planet Experts staff is still attending. “In addition to the U.N. negotiations, there are a multitude of side events related to mobilizing the climate treaty [that were scheduled], such as a massive march. A lot of those things are getting canceled or scaled back.”

The shuttering of the marches has widely affected attendees’ plans. For example,, an international climate change activism group co-founded by author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, is going to Paris, but it’s one of many organizations that has had to reconfigure plans because the marches scheduled immediately preceding and following COP21 there have been scrapped.

Worldwide, though, citizens are marching on. From Australia and the Philippines to Mexico and the U.S., the planet-friendly masses are showing their passion for capping carbon emissions. In New York on Sunday there was a march at City Hall, whereas marchers on December 12 will converge on Boston Common under the banner of “Jobs, Justice and Climate.”

In Paris, even as hundreds of protesters showed up on Sunday at Place de la République to fight the ban on outdoor public demonstrations, events like an art installation at the foot of the Eiffel Tower by aerial artist John Q are potentially being canceled. But indoor events during a packed schedule are going forward, albeit with greatly heightened security.

Moti Shabtai, the president of Paramus, New Jersey–headquartered Qognify (formerly the physical security business unit of Israel-based NICE Systems), says it takes multiple lines of defense in order to ward off terrorism. His firm helps secure the Eiffel Tower, as it has for nearly two decades, with little closed-circuit television cameras all over the monument and its surroundings.

Just as he’s not at liberty to disclose how many cameras are on the Eiffel Tower, Shabtai can’t say whether or not Qognify’s presence will be felt at COP21. He does offer that, when it comes to big events in the world, such as the past World Cup, “Generally, we are involved.”

Whether or not climate conferencegoers will be secure depends as much on technology as on people. Even the most sophisticated surveillance equipment, like the video cameras that Qognify employs, has limitations and is best used in tandem with additional security measures, such as motion and metal detectors. “Humans are limited in the ability to see so many things 24/7 and to detect [them],” Shabtai says.

Aaron Cohen, an American who fought with the Israel Defense Forces during the 1990s and now owns a tactical clothing firm, Cherries Covert Ops Apparel, and offers online counterterrorist training, would probably agree, but he is less concerned about Paris than some other events. “The numbers [of officers and gendarmes] will be sufficient for the conference, but [COP21] will not necessarily be targeted because it’s a soft target,” he explains. “[Terrorists] don’t go after well-protected events.”

Still, Cohen says that Westerners, including the French, are generally behind the curve when it comes to dealing with terrorists. His experience as an Israeli soldier informed this view: “There’s still a manhunt under way in Europe, which shows how easy it is to disappear back into the crowd.”

As marches are shuttered, and the police presence is ramped up — including plainclothes officers and sharpshooters, Cohen believes — everyday individuals attending COP21 are experiencing a range of hassles.

Annie Agle, a consulting organizer for the conference as well as a project consultant with the New York–based nonprofit Development Three, will be a panelist at a side event called “Strengthening Intergenerational Dialogue and Partnership on Gender Equality & Climate Change.”

“We have seen very little in terms of negotiations or side events [being shuttered],” Agle says. “That being said, visa applications for us — we have two team members [needing] Schengen visas the EU requires — have been more difficult [to obtain].”

Agle cites a colleague from India as having trouble getting his visa, saying some of her people were being interviewed more intently because of the attacks. “It seems like the Defense Ministry is doing much more homework than before,” she says.