How ISIS inadvertently helped climate talks

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Timing of ISIS Paris attack likely boosted chance of climate conference success as nations feel solidarity to save the world
  • She says Obama casts COP21 as act of defiance; even big polluter China, now targeted by ISIS, enters conference in spirit of unity

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)ISIS planners were probably not thinking about climate change when they chose the date for their terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month. It's highly unlikely that they looked at the calendar and considered the implications of striking the French capital just two weeks before the world's most important gathering on climate change.

And yet, by attacking Paris just before the U.N. Climate Change Conference, COP21, they inadvertently gave a boost to the chances that the conference will succeed.
The blood drawn by ISIS christened Paris as a central stage in a momentous global drama. And then, by an accident of timing, the climate conference became a new act in this historic play. Savage violence juxtaposed against saving the planet has turned the conference into a show of resistance against terrorism.
    When French President Francois Hollande met with President Barack Obama at the White House shortly after the attacks, seeking to enlist the United States in a new push against ISIS, Obama officially branded the COP21 conference part of the war against ISIS. "What a powerful rebuke to the terrorists it will be," he declared, "when the world stands as one and shows that we will not be deterred from building a better future for our children."
    With that, the pressure was on for world leaders to attend, and for all, including Obama, to produce results. Attending the gathering took on a solemn meaning. The number of heads of government announcing their participation quickly mushroomed. Little more than a week ago, the U.N. announced proudly that more than 120 would participate "to show solidarity with France."
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    In 2009, the climate change meeting in Copenhagen included just 60 world leaders. When COP21 opened, some 150 president and prime ministers were on hand.
    But the potential effect of the attacks goes beyond attendance. Because the conference has been branded as a symbol of countering ISIS, achieving results takes on additional symbolic weight. And there is an even more powerful political cost of failing.
    Consider the case of the American president: As soon as he arrived in Paris, Obama went to pay his respects at the Bataclan theatre, scene of the worst carnage on November 13. When he spoke at the opening of the conference, he again described holding the meeting in Paris as "an act of defiance." In linking the ISIS attacks and the global gathering, he raises the political cost of failure on climate talks.
    Obama was already on the defensive on ISIS after having declared ISIS "contained" just hours before the carnage in Paris. The unfortunately timed claim added to charges that he has failed the challenge of global leadership. Now Paris, the same city that put the lie to his boast, offers the chance of at least partial redemption.
    He is unlikely to achieve major success against ISIS in what's left of his presidency, but if he can exercise leadership in Paris, there is a chance to show that he can lead the world in a challenge of lasting significance.
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    He has more of a head start than in the past: In previous climate negotiations, the United States has clashed with China over the correct strategy to tackle global warming. Instead of suspiciousness and acrimony, the world's leaders -- including China's President Xi Jinping -- have arrived in Paris in a spirit of unity, as if visiting a friend in mourning.
    China, which has overtaken the United States as the world's top polluter, has been stunned to see its own citizens killed by Islamist terrorists.
    Just after the Paris massacres, ISIS announced it had "executed" Fan Jinghui, the first Chinese national killed by ISIS. And the Chinese people were still in shock over the news when an al Qaeda group burst into the Radisson hotel in Bamako, Mali, and took 170 people hostage. When the siege was over, 22 people were dead, including three Chinese citizens. The Chinese people are angry, and the country's leaders have vowed to take action.
    The bottom line is that China, too, is now on the anti-ISIS side. China's leaders have arrived in Paris at a time when terrorists have managed to create emotional links between antagonists on the subject of how to defeat terrorism.
    Will all this be enough to overcome the many substantial obstacles to a climate deal? There's no guarantee. But we should not dismiss the power of human connections in diplomatic negotiations.
    Instead of arriving in Paris with a sharp focus on how to defend their interests and minimize the cost of a climate deal, delegates of 195 countries have come to City of Lights with the inescapable awareness that they have stepped into the scene of a massacre, of a historic affront against civilization. When they sit across the table, they know whose side they're on.
    The terrorist attacks have made it clear that they are on the side of saving the world.