It is always difficult to be optimistic about any summit of world nations, and that includes the World Climate Summit beginning Monday. In this case, however, the high stakes may be helpful.
President Obama and leaders from more than 200 nations will convene just outside Paris for the two-week conclave. Paris, of course, is still recovering from the recent ISIS attacks, and the summit's location will play a positive role if it reminds the world's leaders that they must act together on a variety of issues, global warming and terrorism high among them.
Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has regularly emphasized the link between terrorism and climate change on the campaign trail, inviting scorn from the right-wing press and politicians. Senator Sanders' contentions, however, are based on warnings from the CIA and the Department of Defense, the latter an organization conservatives routinely parrot when it comes to military adventures.
For several years, both organizations have told anyone who will listen that weather extremes caused by climate change will contribute to instability around the world. In a 2014 report, the Department of Defense warned that adverse climate change could cause instability by "impairing access to food and water, damaging infrastructure, spreading disease, compelling mass migration, interrupting commercial activity or restricting electricity availability."
The report concluded that "These gaps in governance can create openings for extremist ideologies and conditions that foster terrorism." This report is more timely today than it was a year ago and will likely be more so a year from now.
The link between terrorism and climate change, which will grow stronger as global warming increasingly exacts its toll, should weigh heavily on the minds of world leaders as they convene in France. Still, the obstacles to progress at the United Nations summit are formidable.
The primary goal is to reach an agreement that will sufficiently limit greenhouse gas emissions to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. In essence, the best hope of the summit is to slow the pace of global warming. This threshold was proposed by environmental scientists, but experts in the field have since warned that even if all the proposals made to limit emissions are agreed to in Paris — which is unlikely — new data indicate that warming of 2.7 degrees would still result. This means that the summit's participants must allow flexibility in whatever accord is reached to call for even stricter measures against greenhouse gas emissions in the future.
It is encouraging that China, long a leading polluter, has reacted to its horrible air pollution problems by agreeing with President Obama to limit its emissions. It is discouraging that India, another major polluter, comes to the summit with no plan to reduce greenhouse gases.
It is encouraging that Europe's large oil companies, which have a social conscience, have endorsed the UN's goals of curtailing global warming going into the summit. It is discouraging that the United States' large oil companies, which do not have a social conscience, have not done the same.
It is encouraging that President Obama has taken bold initiatives to address climate change. It is discouraging that Washington Republicans, science skeptics and allies of corporate polluters like the Koch Brothers who will fill their campaign coffers next year, are working to undermine those initiatives. Politics prevented the US from signing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, undermining its effectiveness.
There are plenty of reasons to feel both good and bad about the prospects of a climate change accord. However, with the growing peril of global warming obvious to all but the ideological deniers, the world's leaders have a powerful incentive to help our planet and its inhabitants.