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When our safety feels threatened, it’s difficult to think of anything else.

Major shocks like the Paris attacks are awfully good at changing the subject.

parisBut what if we decided to not let it happen? What if, instead of changing the subject, we deepened the discussion of climate change and expanded the range of solutions, which are fundamental for real human security? What if, instead of being pushed aside in the name of war, climate action took center stage as the planet’s best hope for peace?

The connection between warming temperatures and the cycle of Syrian violence is, by now, uncontroversial. As Secretary of State John Kerry said in Virginia, this month, “It’s not a coincidence that, immediately prior to the civil war in Syria, the country experienced its worst drought on record. As many as 1.5 million people migrated from Syria’s farms to its cities, intensifying the political unrest that was just beginning to roil and boil in the region.”

As Kerry went on to note, many factors contributed to Syria’s instability. The severe drought was one, but so were the repressive practices of a brutal dictator and the rise of a particular strain of religious extremism. Another big factor was the invasion of Iraq, a decade ago. And since that war—like so many before it—was inextricable from the West’s thirst for Iraqi oil (warming be damned), that fateful decision in turn became difficult to separate from climate change. ISIS, which has taken responsibility for the attacks in Paris, found fertile ground in this volatile context of too much oil and too little water.

If we acknowledge that the instability emanating from the Middle East has these roots, it makes little sense to allow the Paris attacks to minimize our already inadequate climate commitments. Rather, this tragedy should inspire the opposite reaction: an urgent push to lower emissions as rapidly and deeply as possible, including strong support for developing countries to leapfrog to renewable energy, creating much-needed jobs and economic opportunities in the process. That kind of bold climate transition is our only hope of preventing a future in which, as a recent paper in the journal Nature Climate Change put it, large areas of the Middle East will, by the end of the century, “experience temperature levels that are intolerable to humans.”

The implications of a failure to bring carbon down to safer levels go well beyond amplifying catastrophes like Syria’s historic drought. The last time atmospheric CO2 was this high, global sea levels were at least six metres higher. We find ourselves confronted with ice-sheet disintegration that, in some susceptible areas, already appears unstoppable. In the currently overloaded CO2 climate, it’s just a matter of time until hundreds of millions of people will be displaced from coastal regions, their agricultural lands and groundwater destroyed by saltwater intrusion from sea rise. Among the most vulnerable areas are broad swaths of South and Southeast Asia—which include some of the world’s biggest cities, from Shanghai to Jakarta—along with a number of coastal African and Latin American countries, such as Nigeria, Brazil, and Egypt.

A climate summit taking place against the backdrop of climate-fuelled violence and migration can only be relevant if its central goal is the creation of conditions for lasting peace. That would mean making legally enforceable commitments to leave the vast majority of known fossil-fuel reserves in the ground. It would also mean delivering real financing to developing countries to cope with the impacts of climate change, and recognizing the full rights of climate migrants to move to safer ground. A strong climate-peace agreement would also include a program to plant vast numbers of native-species trees in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, to draw down atmospheric CO2, reduce desertification, and promote cooler and moister climates. Tree planting alone is not enough to lower CO2 to safe levels, but it could help people stay on their land and protect sustainable livelihoods.

We knew that the Paris summit wasn’t going to achieve all of this. But just days ago, bold collective action on climate seemed within reach: the climate movement was accelerating, winning tangible victories against pipelines and Arctic drilling; governments were strengthening their targets, and some were even starting to stand up to fossil-fuel companies.

Enough pressure existed, it seemed, to achieve the main goals of the conference: an enforceable and binding international treaty to ratchet down carbon emissions once and for all. But the movement believed that keeping the pressure up during the summit would be critical. That just got a lot harder.

The last time there was this much climate momentum was in 2008, when Europe was leading a renewable-energy revolution and Barack Obama was pledging, as he accepted the Democratic nomination, that his election would be “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” Then came the full reverberations of the financial crisis. By the time the world met at the Copenhagen climate-change conference, at the end of 2009, global attention had already shifted away from climate to bank bailouts, and the deal was widely considered to be a disaster. In the years that followed, support for renewables was slashed across southern Europe, ambitions dwindled, and pledges of climate financing for the developing world virtually disappeared. Never mind that a decisive response to the climate crisis, grounded in big investments in renewables, efficiency, and public transit, could well have created enough jobs to undercut the discredited logic of economic austerity.

We cannot afford to allow this story to be repeated, this time with terror changing the subject. To the contrary, as the author and energy expert Michael T. Klare argued weeks before the attacks, Paris “should be considered not just a climate summit but a peace conference—perhaps the most significant peace convocation in history.” But it can only do that if the agreement builds a carbon-safe economy fast enough to tangibly improve lives in the here and now. We are finally starting to recognize that climate change leads to wars and economic ruin. It’s time to recognize that intelligent climate policy is fundamental to lasting peace and economic justice.

by Naomi Klein and Jason Box

First published 18th November 2015 in The New Yorker

and 19th November 2015 in Climate Crocks