Declaring that the future of the planet is at stake, more than 150 world leaders assembled outside Paris on Monday to launch an ambitious attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help countries that are struggling to cope with the effects of climate change.
After years of faltering negotiations, the United Nations conference is widely expected to produce a landmark agreement between nations rich and poor. But it remains to be seen whether it will achieve the target of limiting rising global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels this century.
The plans submitted by 184 countries ahead of the conference fall short of that goal.
“The future of your people, the future of the people of the world, is in your hands,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told leaders as the talks kicked off at Le Bourget, on the northern edge of Paris. “We cannot afford indecision, half measures or merely gradual approaches. Our goal must be a transformation.”
The high-level meeting began with a moment of silence for victims of recent attacks in France, Lebanon and elsewhere, a wave of violence that threatened to overshadow longer-term concerns about record temperatures, rising sea levels and extreme weather events.
“These tragic events … force us to concentrate on the essentials,” French President Francois Hollande said. “We must leave our children more than a world free from terror. We must leave them a planet that is preserved from catastrophes, a viable planet.”
To be meaningful, he said, the deal reached in Paris must be universal. Developed nations, which for years were the biggest polluters, must help developing ones adopt clean energy technologies and adapt to climate change, he said.
The last major environmental agreement, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, did not require developing nations to reduce their emissions. The United States never signed the deal because it was not approved by the Senate.
In his address to the conference, President Obama acknowledged that taking strong action on the environment has not always been a political winner. But he noted that the U.S. and other global economies have grown even as fossil fuel emissions have leveled off.
“We have proved that strong economic growth and a safer environment no longer have to conflict with one another,” he said. “And that should give us hope.”
Saying the science of global warming was undeniable, the president highlighted steps that his administration has taken to curb emissions, and praised the many other nations that have committed to do the same in the lead-up to the summit, known as COP 21. But he pressed leaders to do more, warning against “cynicism — the notion that we can’t do anything about climate change.”
“Our task here in Paris is to turn these achievements into an enduring framework for human progress. Not a stopgap solution, but a long-term strategy that gives the world confidence in a low-carbon future,” he said. “That’s what we seek in these next two weeks, not simply an agreement to roll back the pollution we put into our skies but an agreement that helps us lift people from poverty without condemning the next generation to a planet that’s beyond its capacity to repair.”
Speaking at a heavily guarded conference center, Obama said the determination of world leaders to act as one in pursuit of a common goal was itself a rebuke to the Islamist extremists who killed 130 people Paris two weeks ago.
“What should give us hope that this is a turning point, that this is the moment we finally determined that we would save our planet, is the fact that our nations share a sense of urgency about this challenge, and a growing realization that it is within our power to do something about it,” he said.
By inviting Obama and other world leaders to the opening days of the summit, organizers hoped to send a clear signal: Paris is not Copenhagen.
A similar effort to reach a binding agreement to address climate change had all but collapsed by the time Obama and his counterparts arrived in the Danish capital near the conclusion of the summit in 2009.
Officials hope the participation of world leaders at the start of this year’s conference, with commitments for action in hand as they arrive, will provide the momentum needed to reach a strong accord, even if it falls short of the 2-degree target at which scientists say most of the worst effects of climate change could be avoided.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who took over as president of the negotiations Monday, reminded participants that they have just “11 short days” to strike a deal.
“Success is not yet assured, but it is within our grasp,” Fabius said. “The eyes of the world are upon us.”