Climate change, terrorism converge for Obama

Climate change, terrorism converge for Obama
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President Obama tackled two of the biggest challenges in his presidency during the first day of his paramount trip to Paris: Climate change and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

Obama’s Paris trip remains centered around global warming, and he launched the United Nations’ climate summit on Monday by arguing forcefully that this is the “last generation that can do something about” global warming. 

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Yet the rise of terrorism — and the ISIS's attack on Paris weeks earlier, after Obama had already scheduled his trip — at times overshadowed his words on climate, particularly given the setting. 

He and other world leaders are meeting in a city still recovering from the attacks less than a month ago at the hands of terrorists who killed 130 people.

In an unannounced detour after landing, Obama laid a rose at the site of the bloodiest of the attacks, and also met with French President François Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the international response. 

The Nov. 13 attacks across Paris have been at the forefront of officials’ minds leading up to the Paris summit and in the early moments of it this week, and Obama sought to tie the two issues together when he addressed dignitaries on Monday. 

“We salute the people of Paris for insisting this crucial conference go on — an act of defiance that proves nothing will deter us from building the future we want for our children,” Obama said.

“What greater rejection of those who would tear down our world than marshaling our best efforts to save it?”

Obama’s time in Paris will only span two days. But the U.N. event caps years of back-and-forth negotiating by world leaders desperate to coalesce around an international solution to climate change and avoid the mistakes of 2009’s meeting, which ended with little agreement.

Obama, one of nearly 150 heads of state or government at the event, used his speech both to turn up the urgency in the climate fight and to show that the United States is serious about its role in the battle.

“We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it,” he said at the kickoff event.

“I’ve come here personally, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and the second-largest emitter, to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it,” he continued.

The threats of ISIS and climate change share more than just timing on Obama’s agenda. His administration has repeatedly said that action on climate means action on terrorism, since the effects of climate change can amplify terrorism, to the mockery and consternation of the GOP and his opponents.

“If you take the instability that we see in places like Africa and the Middle East, that can be magnified by the effects of climate change and extreme drought and extreme disruption,” Ben Rhodes, a national security adviser to Obama, told reporters Monday in Paris.

Rhodes stressed that the two threats are very different, but said both benefit from international action and American leadership.

Obama’s agenda on Monday was peppered with bilateral meetings with other world leaders, and both climate and ISIS were on the agenda. 

Climate change was the chief concern for Obama’s discussions with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Obama has found success in bringing China to the climate change negotiating table, with the two countries — the largest single carbon emitters in the world — agreeing to significant greenhouse gas reduction targets. Both leaders touted Monday their cooperation on climate change. 

But ISIS was on their agenda as well, with Obama offering condolences for the recent execution of a Chinese hostage by the terror group and calling on China to play a more active role in taking on ISIS. 

“I think it indicates the degree that this is a threat to all of our countries,” Obama said. “And I look forward to discussing how China can play a greater role in addressing this crisis, and especially supporting a political transition in Syria, and assisting on humanitarian needs, because what’s clear is that China is invested in helping to resolve global problems. And all of us, including the United States, benefits.”

During a short meeting with Putin, the leaders focused mostly on foreign policy, ISIS and Syria and the recent tension between Russia and Turkey.

According to a White House official, Obama “stressed the imperative of focusing military efforts against [ISIS], as our international coalition is doing, rather than targeting moderate opposition.”

That’s in stark contrast to Putin’s position. The Kremlin has, throughout Syria’s civil war and related events, gone to great lengths to defend the government of President Bashar al-Assad and fight all the regime's opponents, including the ones the United States and its allies want to prop up to fight ISIS.

On both climate change and terrorism, Obama is to craft international agreements while putting out political fires at home. 

Republicans have sharply criticized Obama’s strategy on Syria, ISIS and the refugee crisis the civil war has spurred on. 

Conservatives and Republicans have said the U.S.-led coalition needs to do more — including potentially using ground forces — to attack ISIS. Obama and French President Hollande met in Washington last week, but announced only an intensification of the current airstrike strategy against the terror groups. 

The GOP is also working to restrict the number of Syrian refugees the Obama administration welcomes to the U.S., a push that won large Democratic support in the House in the wake of the Paris attacks. 

Republicans have also looked to undermine Obama’s climate agenda and send a warning to the rest of the world that his Paris commitments aren’t permanent.

The House will vote this week on two Senate-passed resolutions to block the power plant regulations that are at the heart Obama’s climate plan, and Senate Republicans have called for a vote on any final U.N. accord.

Obama is certain to veto the former, and experts say the latter is unnecessary and unlikely. But Republicans want to complicate the president’s diplomatic efforts, challenging him even as he makes his case for climate action on the world stage.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Obama is being “irresponsible” by promising world leaders emissions cuts based on policies — like the climate rule for power plants — that he believes are on shaky legal and political grounds.

McConnell wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece: “The president’s international negotiating partners at that conference should proceed with caution before entering into an unattainable deal with this administration, because commitments the president makes there would rest on a house of cards of his own making.”