#EarthtoParis, Nations’ Leaders Hold Pep Rally to Kick Off Climate Talks

More than 140 world leaders gathered in Paris on Monday to deliver messages of optimism at the start of two weeks of intensive climate change negotiation talks. Formally, it’s known as the 21st Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (COP21). The gathering has taken place every year since the ratification of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), but this year is particularly significant: in the 2011 meeting in Durban, South Africa, parties agreed that a major climate change treaty must be established by 2015 to establish greenhouse gas reduction goals from 2020 onwards, where the Kyoto Protocol left off.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon laid out the crucial objectives of COP21 in his opening speech at the Leaders Summit, emphasizing the necessity of coming to a long-term, legally binding agreement that keeps Earth’s annual temperature rise at less than two degrees Celsius—a number that scientists have determined is the maximum temperature rise Earth can withstand without irreversible catastrophic damage and a goal that even UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres says is currently not achievable. “The time for brinksmanship is over,” the Secretary-General entreated, adding that the “current ambition must be the floor, not the ceiling for future efforts.”

President Obama offered his condolences for the Paris attacks earlier in the month, using it as a call to act on climate change (France is still under a declared state of emergency):

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

He reiterated that it is not a singular problem, but a global problem that all of humanity faces:

Fourteen of the fifteen warmest years on record have occurred since the year 2000—and 2015 is on pace to be the warmest year of all. No nation—large or small, wealthy, or poor—is immune to what this means.

The president also took responsibility for the United States’ contribution to global warming while warning that action must be achieved now:

For I believe, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that there is such a thing as being too late. And when it comes to climate change, that hour is almost upon us. But if we act here, if we act now, if we place our own short-term interests behind the air that our young people will breathe, and the food that they will eat, and the water that they will drink, and the hopes and dreams that sustain their lives, then we won’t be too late for them.

Public desire for action is strong, with tens of thousands of climate change protesters rallying around the world to call for leaders to make a real difference. And the necessity of a real, enforceable climate change deal is now at our doorsteps. But optimism is restrained in the aftermath of the chaotic and unproductive 2009 attempt to come to an agreement in Copenhagen which was prefaced with high hopes. As Suzanne Goldenberg laments in the Guardian (while calling the entire UN endeavor for climate change the “climate circus”), “The UN was so optimistic about the prospects at the start of that year that it signed off on an ad campaign touting ‘Hopenhagen.’”

Many diplomats, calling this year’s conference the “anti-Copenhagen,” remain optimistic that some of the factors leading to the disastrous 2009 conference (political missteps, strategy mistakes, mistrust, and snubbing) no longer persist to such a severe extent due to the changing political climate, and they believe that the urgency of acting on climate change is now a commonly shared sentiment among nations.

While only time will tell, humanists must stand up for action to mitigate climate change. In a country where climate change opinion is still sharply divided along partisan lines and presidential candidates are freely spewing mistruths about global warming, Obama’s hopeful words for America’s responsibility in healing the planet may ring vacant in the halls of Congress.

For more on COP21, read articles from Politico and Vox, and use hashtags #EarthtoParis and #COP21 to follow the conference on Twitter.

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