From left: United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande. (Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Shutterstock)

As he flew into Paris on Sunday for the United Nations climate conference, President Obama’s motorcade made a detour to the makeshift memorial at Bataclan, where just two weeks earlier gunmen killed more than 80 concertgoers. Obama was flanked by French President Francois Hollande and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who joined him in laying down single-stemmed white flowers. They stood in silence for a long moment, their heads bowed as they mourned the dead, and then they walked off somberly, their body language expressing solidarity, likely for the benefit of the cameras present. If we could go back in time and prevent the attacks from happening, we would do so without hesitation. But many officials seem to be reluctant to do anything about the deaths from climate change—deaths in huge, unfathomable numbers that far outpace the mortality from acts of terrorism. A 2012 study examining climate-related mortality commissioned by member countries of the Climate Vulnerable Forum concluded that “climate change causes 400,000 deaths on average each year today, mainly due to hunger and communicable diseases that affect above all children in developing countries.” The World Health Organization estimates that between 2030 and 2050 an additional 250,000 people will die from conditions related to global warming. The first victims of global warming are poor people of color. Inhabitants of the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu are generally acknowledged as the earliest climate refugees, with a significant fraction having migrated as the island literally disappears into the ocean due to rising sea levels. The South Asian nation of Bangladesh and sub-Saharan African nations are home to millions who suffer as a result of climate change and are least able to expend the funds necessary to adapt. Eventually, climate change mortality will catch up to wealthier, whiter nations. Will we finally take action to prevent deaths? By then, it will be too late for everybody. Even inside the United States, the first victims of climate change are poor people of color. Indigenous coastal communities in Alaska are seeing entire towns drown. To his credit, Obama visited Alaskan native communities this summer and focused on the climate-related devastation, saying, “Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now.” But in his speech in Paris this week, he acknowledged that his biggest challenge was not negotiating with China, but with his own government, Republicans in particular. He said, “I mean, you travel around Europe and you talk to leaders of governments and the opposition, and they are arguing about a whole bunch of things. One thing they’re not arguing about is whether the science of climate change is real and whether or not we’re going to have to do something about it.” Proving him right, GOP leaders wasted no time in exposing their idiocy. New Jersey governor and presidential candidate Chris Christie said Tuesday on MSNBC, “The climate has been changing forever, and it will always change and man will always contribute to it.” The same day, former Florida governor and fellow candidate Jeb Bush echoed Christie’s talking points, saying that the earth’s climate has “been changing forever.” He flippantly remarked, “I’m not sure I would have gone to the climate summit if I was president today.” Meanwhile, Republican House members passed two measures this week aimed at undercutting the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate coal-fired power plants; Obama has said he will veto them. The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman aptly described Republican posturing, saying that “their argument in the past has always been that we can’t confront climate change because moving away from fossil fuels would destroy the economy.” But, he added, “they’ve shifted their focus in recent weeks [to,] ‘How can we worry about climate change when [Islamic State] is about to kill us all!!!’ ” Decades of propaganda from the right has made its mark on the American public. A significant portion of Americans assume climate change is not a serious problem. A new poll by ABC and The Washington Post found that 47 percent of those who responded “say the federal government should do more than it is doing now to try to deal with global warming, down from a high of 70 percent under the Bush administration eight years ago.” Faced with Republican intransigence on the issue, Obama appears to be a downright progressive climate hero. But even his pledges and those of wealthy Western nations are not good enough. While the U.S. is backing carbon emissions cuts to limit warming to two degrees Celsius, countries in the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) are demanding a more ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius. CVF countries are breaking away from the Group of 77, a loose coalition of developing nations, to join their allies in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in making the demand, which for them is an immediate matter of life and death. In his opening speech in Paris, an official from the Maldives explained that members of AOSIS “are particularly vulnerable to climate extremes and climate change impacts and we are acutely aware of the vanishingly little time remaining to adopt a legally binding climate treaty.”
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