Why We Need The Paris Climate Talks More Than Ever

It's not just about rebuking the terrorists—it's about making sure we don't let climate change create more of them.
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It's not just about rebuking the terrorists—it's about making sure we don't let climate change create more of them.
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French President François Hollande and U.S. President Barack Obama embrace during a joint news conference at the White House, November 24, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

When Air Force One touches down in Paris late Sunday night, it will be the beginning of what President Obama has said he hopes will be a "powerful rebuke" to terrorists worldwide.

Speaking alongside French President Francois Hollande at the White House last week, he described his anticipation ahead of global climate talks and vowed to deliver not just a global agreement addressing the imperatives of climate change, but also a message by example to the destructive forces of terrorism at large: "What a powerful rebuke to the terrorists it will be, when the world stands as one and shows that we will not be deterred from building a better future for our children," he said.

It's a message underscored by the tens of thousands of people who joined together in rallies in cities around the world, including London, Sao Paulo, and Berlin. In the Place de la Republique in the French capital, thousands of pairs of shoes were laid out to symbolize absent marchers after the deadly terror attacks on November 13 led police to cancel Paris' day of action.

Some Paris activists, determined not to let the terrorists win, staged smaller breakaway demonstrations that turned ugly Sunday afternoon, with police sporadically hitting some of the more confrontational demonstrators with tear gas. Environmental group 350.org, has distanced itself from these protesters, saying in a statement that the group of protesters was "unaffiliated" with the larger movement and that they were "violating the nonviolent pledge that every group involved in the climate coalition here in France has agreed to."

The demonstrations come roughly two weeks after terror attacks in Paris killed 130 innocents and wounded hundreds more. In the days following the attack, French President Francois Holland pulled out of the G20 Summit in Turkey. But he also signaled he would not cancel the Paris climate summit, known as COP21, scheduled to take place just two weeks after the attack, adding the nation would not give in to "terrorist blackmail."

And though formal negotiations are hardly underway, already that promise has rendered the conference a bit more sombre.

"This is not just a problem for countries on the coasts, or for certain regions of the world. No nation is immune. So I’m here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security."

A moment's silence was observed in honor of the Paris victims at a Sunday afternoon negotiating session, where several conference negotiators had opted to get a head start on deal making. "The best way to honor the memory of those who have fallen, those who are victims of barbaric attacks, is to carry out what we have committed to," said Ahmed Djoghlaf, a co-chair of the talks.

It's a sentiment that's been echoed by many other high-ranking officials in the aftermath of the Paris terror strikes. “Of course #COP21 proceeds as planned," tweeted the head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, soon after the news of the tragedy broke. "Even more so now. #COP21 = respecting our differences & same time acting together collaboratively." French Energy Minister Ségolène Royale agreed the conference matters "more than ever" in the wake of the attack; "if not, terrorism wins."

They're more right than they know.

Democratic hopeful and irascible rabble-rouser Bernie Sanders has called climate change the greatest threat to national security, telling CBS moderator John Dickerson in a recent debate that climate change has been linked to a growth in terrorism. "If we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say, you’re gonna 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. Martin O'Malley has made similar comments. So has Prince Charles.

Since politicians don't really understand the connection between national security and the climate, Sanders' comments were widely panned. Arizona Senator John McCain said Sanders must be "consuming" pot to think climate change was a top national security threat, while conservative website Hot Air deemed it "a classic example of how the American left lives in a hermetically sealed bubble." Even Politifact, in a ruling that focused on Sanders' word choice, came down against him. Sanders said that climate change is "directly linked" to the growth of terrorism—and Politifact ruled that "directly" was too much of a stretch.

And while the direct linkage may be hard to prove given all the variables at play in any given conflict, in the broader sense, Sanders is quite right. Climate change is considered a contributing factor to terrorist movements, especially in the Middle East, and Sanders is far from the only one making the connection. Obama has been talking about climate change as an issue of national security since at least May. "This is not just a problem for countries on the coasts, or for certain regions of the world," Obama said in a commencement address at the United States Coast Guard Academy. "Climate change will impact every country on the planet. No nation is immune. So I’m here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security."

And scientists have observed for years how drought, natural disasters, and scarcity give rise to conflict. As Joe Romm wrote recently, if COP21 should fail, conflicts like the Syrian civil war will "become more common, along with disasters that war helped spawn, including ISIS and the refugee crisis." Romm points to a major peer-reviewed study published in March, which, in the words of Retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley, identifies "a pretty convincing climate fingerprint” for the Syrian drought.

Known as "Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought," the study found that climate change made the drought in Syria from 2006 to 2010 two to three times more likely. Lead author Colin Kelley explains: "While we’re not saying the drought caused the war, we are saying that it certainly contributed to other factors—agricultural collapse and mass migration among them—that caused the uprising."

Titley, a meteorologist who is now a professor at Penn State University, put it this way in a conversation with Slate's Eric Holthaus: "It’s not to say you could predict ISIS out of that, but you just set everything up for something really bad to happen." Given the findings, he adds, "you can draw a very credible climate connection to this disaster we call ISIS right now."

Beyond such geopolitical conflicts, there's the fact that ISIS is an economy that survives on and is driven by oil—the very thing conferences like COP21 are meant to help the world eliminate from our energy economies. The Islamic State is thought to depend on donations from a number of wealthy sources who have cornered the fossil fuel market—earning as much as $1.5 million from crude oil production a day, according to the Financial Times.

And even if you don't believe there's any connection between climate change and terrorism at all, there's still a case to be made that the talks in Paris are more important than ever.

After all, it would be shortsighted to let terrorism distract us from the many other threats we face. As Paul Krugman put it recently, "terrorism can’t and won’t destroy our civilization, but global warming could and might."

The connection between climate change and terrorism may, at times, be tenuous, but this much isn't: Working to help developing countries adapt to a changing climate, and helping to create an environment in which there are fewer unstable political and economic circumstances, will mean fewer failed states, fewer refugees fleeing impossible situations. And that is a step in the right direction.

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Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change” is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.

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