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Tackling Climate Change

Live from COP21

Nov. 30, 2015

Leaders from across the world have gathered in Paris to discuss the future of our planet. Delegates to the 21st UN Conference on Climate Change are negotiating a new framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and slow the pace of global warming. Newsroom Tokyo has special coverage this week on climate change, including why it is happening, and what is being done to tackle the problem.

Newsroom Tokyo presenter Sho Beppu is crossing live from the main conference venue at Le Bourget, just outside the French capital. COP21 is going ahead less than three weeks after the terror attacks in Paris.

Beppu: Live from Paris

The entire country remains in a state of emergency in the wake of the Paris attacks. Security is extremely tight as government leaders and heads of state from around the world gather here at the main venue in Le Bourget.

There is a palpable sense of urgency on day one of the climate conference, reflecting a determination to find common answers to global warming. Leaders will be addressing the conference throughout the day. Among them are US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jing Ping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Paris is mobilizing its resources to ensure the success of this conference, and banners promoting action on climate change are on display at the city hall. Under the ongoing state of emergency imposed after the November 13 terrorist attacks, thousands of police officers and soldiers have been deployed around the capital. Traffic restrictions are also in place.

The country is still mourning its dead and people continue to lay flowers and candles in memory of the victims. At the Place de la République in central Paris, people gather to express their political and social views. Activists are carrying placards urging world leaders to take more action to tackle the issue of climate change.

“We want world leaders to adopt mandatory and demanding measures...to limit the impact of climate change,” said one woman.

"Either you live in fear, or you refuse to be afraid. I think that's very important,” a Parisian said of the current atmosphere. Many people claim they are not scared, but it is obvious the country is worried by the possibility of other attacks.

Expert Opinions

One expert says the terror threat is in fact growing. Academic Farhad Khosrokhavar has been studying the mechanisms of radicalization among France’s youth and says the phenomenon is no longer limited to the underprivileged portions of society.

"I say that this is a new phenomenon since the Syrian Civil War in 2013. A new layer made up of middle class youth has been radicalized,” says Farhad Khosrokhavar of the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris.

“It's not at all related to what we call 'the sickness of the suburbs'. We know that there were two brothers among the perpetrators, but they were not from an underprivileged area,” explains the prominent sociologist.

Another expert is critical about the government’s response to the crisis. Professor Gilles Kepel argues the intensification of airstrikes against the Islamic State group does not address the roots of the problem in France itself.

“There is no war going on within Europe. We're carrying out police activities, intelligence gathering and social inclusion,” he says. “In this sense, I believe the words of President Hollande were exaggerated. It is a misunderstanding. There is no war in Europe."

The academics views’ show how important it is to tackle terrorism based on a rational and informed approach. The same is true for climate change.

Conference Opening

In their opening remarks, French President Francois Hollande and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed a pressing need to take concerted action. But before negotiations got underway, Ban led a moment of silence to honor the Paris terror victims.

French President Francois Hollande spoke of a link between climate change and civil unrest. “Global warming leads to conflicts, like clouds bring the storm. It causes migration, and puts more refugees on the road than any war,” he said. “Many countries are at risk of not being able to satisfy the vital needs of their populations. They risk famine, rural exodus, and conflicts in the fight to acquire the most precious of resources, which is water.”

Ban told delegates: “You have the power to secure the well-being of this and succeeding generations.” “I urge you, distinguished leaders, to instruct your ministers and negotiators to choose the path of compromise and consensus, and if necessary, flexibility,” he continued. “Bold climate action is in the national interest of every single country represented at this conference. The time for brinkmanship is over. Let us build a durable climate change regime with clear rules of the road that all countries can agree to follow.”

Beppu’s Experience

As a former correspondent in the Middle East and Africa, I have seen with my own eyes how climate change can create hotbeds for conflict and terrorism. In late 2013, I traveled to northern Mali and visited Timbuktu, an ancient city on the southern edge of the Sahara desert.

It had been occupied by Islamic extremists for 10 months, until a French-led military intervention forced them out earlier that year. The city was devastated, not just by war, or the destruction of historical monuments based on the militants' own interpretation of Islam, but also because of desertification. The desert was slowly but steadily creeping into Timbuktu.

In the outskirts, entire homes were covered in sand and residents told me the drought was getting worse every year. The traditional way of life, which depends on keeping livestock, was no longer sustainable. Instead, people formed long lines at UN food distribution centers.

Many people were desperate, and it became clear to me that extremist groups had exploited this situation to recruit more followers.

A ‘Threat Multiplier’

Under Obama’s leadership, the US government has taken a more proactive stance on climate change as the issue intertwines with other threats.

A leading thinker behind the major policy shift is Charles Kolstad, an internationally renowned environmental economist who teaches at Stanford University.

Professor Kolstad says climate change becomes a much bigger problem when combined with smaller crises. “If you superimpose on that, changes in the climate, drought, natural disasters, it can cause those threats to turn into wars or other conflicts much more quickly than they would without the climate change. So that’s the sense of what is a “threat multiplier”,” he explains.

The concept of "threat multiplier" is central to a report released in 2014 by the US Department of Defense. It says climate change has the potential to exacerbate a wide range of existing challenges, from infectious diseases to terrorism.

"There are many regions of the world where conflicts are just below the surface,” says Kolstad. “Those regions are constrained by resource scarcity, often water, water is scarce. That means that a drought can really make things much worse.

“Migration can take place if a country is really hit hard by a drought. People can start moving across borders. And as we have seen in Europe with the Syrian refugees, that can create a lot of tensions. And it’s, that’s not saying that that will turn into war or conflict but the likelihood of turning into something like that is higher with climate change,” he says.

Kolstad argues resource scarcity does not just make conflicts more likely, but is highly disruptive for society as a whole. "If the drought lasts for a hundred years then that is not so disruptive,” he continues. “You just get used to living in the desert. But the problem is when you have a drought for four or five years, and then it rains for four or five years, and then you have another drought. People have a lot of difficulty in adjusting to those changes, to those, that uncertainty over water availability."

Experts warn climate change is fueling extreme weather events, making natural disasters more frequent, and more destructive. But the effects of rising temperatures vary considerably across the world.

“Some areas can become drier, some areas can become wetter, some areas can be much hotter, some areas can be not so hot,” says Kolstad. “It’s certainly true that the temperature change in the tropics is less than the temperature change in the Arctic. So if the average change is by 2 degrees, it may change by 8 or 10 degrees at high latitudes and cause a lot of changes in ice pack, and on, many, many things."

Kolstad underlines the importance of his own field in finding a way to fix the problems associated with climate change. “Economics as a discipline is designed to look at where the benefits of taking action lie, the cost of taking action and find middle ground where we can take the right amount of action,” he says.

“Basically every year we have a COP. This is COP21. There have been 20 others before this. And people talk a lot, but very little comes out. And economics can help make the next step forward and identify what are the right actions to take."

COP21: What’s at Stake

Masako Konishi, a meteorologist and World Wide Fund for Nature Japan climate change officer has many years of expertise in the field. She joined Newsroom Tokyo in a live interview at the COP21 venue.

Beppu: We have been seeing in our special coverage how climate change impacts on national security issues, or can even be a cause of civil war. Is this sense of urgency shared by world leaders gathering here?

Konishi: It was fueled by vulnerable countries, but for developed countries it was not like that. I have been following these negotiations for the last 11 years and now, I am seeing a really tremendous change, even from developed countries’ heads of state, especially from the United States under the Obama administration.

Beppu: The leaders are here and people are saying that this could be a historic moment. Do you think that we are really going to have an accord?

Konishi: Yes, I believe we are going to have an accord because 150 heads of state are here and they are willing to talk about what kind of measures they are going to take against climate change. The momentum’s here and I do believe there will be a Paris agreement. The problem is how legally binding, how strong this regime could be, that is the question.

Beppu: It is easy to agree on controls and principles, but what is the sticking point here?

Konishi: The question is if the Paris agreement could implement a mechanism so that over time, the reduction target could increase or not.

Beppu: Why are some people opposed to that?

Konishi: There is a severe fight between developed and developing countries, so previously, before Paris, it was divided into two worlds: developed counties who are responsible for climate change, and developing countries. But now, a Paris agreement is applicable to all, and how to make it possible to be applicable to all, is the question.

Beppu: Some countries are saying that although they are emitting quite a lot right now, historically it was other countries that were emitting a lot. Is this a strong debate among delegates?

Konishi: Yes, it is a point. If you think about per capita greenhouse emissions, the United States for example emits 16-18 ton per capita, whereas India is only 1 ton and Japan is 9 tons. Do you think it’s fair if Japan, per capita, emits 9 times more than India, to have the same binding obligations under the Paris agreement?

Beppu: For this conference to be a success, what is needed?

Konishi: Negotiation and compromise. The true sticking point is how developed countries can show support for developing countries through finance and technology transfer so that these vulnerable countries can have sustainable development. How to ensure the sustainable development of the developing countries, while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions globally: that is the question we are all facing at this negotiation.

With that we wrap up the first day of our special coverage from the climate conference. Tomorrow we will focus on how the negotiations are progressing as the world searches for a real solution to tackle the climate change crisis.