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President Barack Obama flies to Paris Sunday hoping to seal an historic climate accord

World leaders are convening a landmark summit on reducing carbon emissions

Paris CNN —  

With a major piece of his White House legacy at stake, President Barack Obama flies to Paris Sunday hoping to seal an historic climate accord in a city still rattled by terror attacks two weeks ago.

Fallout from the November 13 ISIS rampage is set to assume an outsized portion of Obama’s agenda in the French capital, where world leaders are convening a landmark summit on reducing carbon emissions.

The attacks have lent the climate summit, known as COP21, an air of defiance. French President François Hollande said the United Nations conference, in the works for years and expected to draw upwards of 40,000 delegates and journalists, would bring “hope and solidarity” to a scarred city.

French security forces have all but locked down the summit site at the Le Bourget airport in Paris’ northeastern suburbs. Massive rallies have been called off by the French authorities, concerned about public crowds. And heightened levels of security were visible across the capital as scores of heads-of-state arrived into town.

For Obama, high-level meetings with world leaders to agree upon carbon reduction targets will be interspersed with talks on terror and the global fight against ISIS, according to the White House. He’ll raise the topic with Hollande during dinner Monday evening, and administration officials say a sidelines discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin about ISIS strategy is possible.

And while exact details of Obama’s plans in Paris have not yet been disclosed, it is expected the U.S. President will take time during his visit to pay public tribute to the victims of the terror spree.

“I’m sure that he’ll want to mark the recent terrorist attack and pay tribute to the people of Paris,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, ahead of the President’s departure.

Obama last week cast his attendance at the Paris summit as a symbol of defiance to the ISIS gunmen who rampaged through parts of the city.

“What a powerful rebuke to the terrorists it will be when the world stands as one and shows that we will not be deterred from building a better future for our children,” he said on Tuesday. He was standing alongside Hollande, who was in Washington lobbying for a more robust battle plan against ISIS.

Obama has spent the last several years working to secure commitments from other nations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions leading up to the summit, and the White House has signaled the terror rampage won’t deter it from aggressively confronting the climate issue in Paris.

In nearly every discussion with his foreign counterparts, Obama has pressed the climate case, insisting this week’s Paris talks yield a global commitment toward preventing the planet from warming 2 degrees Celsius, a benchmark threshold.

In Beijing one year ago, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a major agreement on cutting China’s emissions, a breakthrough for the world’s largest carbon producer. But talks with other countries, including India and Indonesia, failed to yield similarly historic advances.

Nonetheless, 170 nations have submitted plans to reduce emissions ahead of the conference, a signal that’s led to optimism for the summit’s outcome.

“Governments from all corners of the Earth have signaled … that they are determined to play their part according to their national circumstances and capabilities,” Christiana Figueres, chief of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, said in a statement heading into the summit last month. “Fully implemented these plans together begin to make a significant dent in the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Obama hopes to make combating climate change a significant part of his domestic presidential legacy, alongside health care and immigration reform. But like those items, his agenda has been stymied by Congress, which hasn’t approached significant legislative action on climate change since a cap-and-trade bill failed in 2009 and 2010.

Most Republicans oppose Obama’s unilateral actions on climate change, and many have expressed doubts that humans are even responsible for warming temperatures. In an episode Obama now mocks regularly, Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, brought a snowball to the chamber floor to demonstrate that winters are still cold.

Facing that sort of entrenched skepticism in Congress, Obama has instead relied on powers written into existing environmental law to approve new regulations, including major new restrictions on power plants that would curb carbon emissions. The power plant rule forms the underpinning of the U.S. plan submitted to the Paris climate talks.

Republicans in Congress are working to gut the rule, however, including during an expected House vote this week. The timing could undercut the U.S. position at the talks, which rely on years-long commitments to cutting emissions.

The White House has said Obama will veto any measure that reverses his power plant rule, and opponents don’t appear to have enough support to override him. But because Obama’s climate moves aren’t written in law, the next president could reverse them. Many are already mired in legal challenges from individual states.

An intransigent U.S. Congress has already prompted leaders at the Paris summit to scale back plans for a legally binding agreement, which if deemed a “treaty” would require approval in the legislature.

“It would be pointless to come up with an accord that would be eventually rejected by either China or the U.S.,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, chair of the U.N. summit, told the Financial Times.

World leaders are hoping to avert the stumbling blocks from past climate agreements, including the Kyoto protocol, which allowed developing nations to continue emitting carbon unabated, and the Copenhagen agreement, which yielded little concrete action.

Part of that effort will include procuring financial commitments from wealthier nations to fund green energy projects in poorer countries – another aspect of Obama’s climate plan Republicans in Congress are seeking to block.

White House aides see the agreement with China – a country that previously had balked at demands from developed countries to reduce its carbon output – as a signal that this year’s summit could produce a different outcome.

“We now live in a new reality where China has pledged to peak its emissions, to bring online a gigawatt of clean energy every week through 2030, to implement a national cap and trade plan, and to provide billions of dollars in climate finance to poorer nations,” said Paul Bodnar, the senior director for energy and climate change on Obama’s National Security Council. “That’s important and unprecedented progress.”

In Paris, Obama plans to meet with China’s president Xi, along with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, two key players in global attempts to reduce climate change.

He’ll also meet separately with the leaders of island nations, which would be disproportionately affected by rising sea levels.