At a news conference in Paris today shortly before returning to Washington from international climate change talks, President Barack Obama offered an upbeat assessment of the task facing the more than 190 nations attending the gathering. Climate change, he said, "by definition is just about the hardest thing for any political system to absorb" because its effects are gradual and diffuse and don't trigger the sense of urgency politicians normally respond to. "And yet, I actually think we're going to solve this problem," he said.
The president then went on to lay out the requirements for what he believed must be part of any effective climate agreement. He said it had to include ambitious targets for every country to reduce its carbon emissions, it must be transparent to allow periodic reviews of whether those targets are being met, and it must provide a mechanism for ratcheting up those targets over time. Mr. Obama stressed that climate change is not a problem that the U.S. or any single country or group of countries can solve; it will take a worldwide effort to avert the worst consequences of rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. The sooner we start working cooperatively to reverse those trends the more likely we are to be successful.
Mr. Obama's remarks took an unexpected turn when he deftly shifted the subject to the war against the Islamic State, likening the challenge of climate change to the war on terrorism, which he said also demands a global, coordinated response. Like climate change, he said, terrorism is a "generational problem" that won't be overcome either easily or quickly but that will require a sustained effort by many nations working together over time. To defeat the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and similar groups Mr. Obama insisted the U.S. and its partners must cut off the terrorists' funding and shut down the pipelines that allow them to recruit new fighters from Europe and the U.S. to replace those lost on the battlefield. And he again took pains to stress that this is not something that the U.S. or any nation can do on its own.
The president's remarks on ISIS came at a time when Mr. Obama is trying to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to coordinate his country's military operations in Syria more closely with those the U.S. and its allies in order to present a united front against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Since Russian warplanes began bombing U.S.-supported Syrian rebel groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad three weeks ago, Mr. Obama has repeatedly tried to convince Mr. Putin of the folly of trying to keep Mr. Assad in power. Mr. Obama reportedly met with the Russian leader on the sidelines of the climate talks in Paris yesterday to urge that view, but this morning he conceded it may take some time before Mr. Putin realizes that absent any prospect for a political solution to the conflict, his intervention in Syria is only making the situation there worse.
Mr. Obama also reportedly spent time in talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose military last week shot down a Russian warplane based in Syria after it strayed into Turkish airspace. The incident briefly threatened to provoke a nasty confrontation between Russia and Turkey, a NATO ally. Mr. Obama has staunchly defended Turkey's right to defend its airspace, but he has also urged both sides to dial down their rhetoric over the incident. This morning he said escalating tensions between Ankara and Moscow would only distract attention from the effort to defeat ISIS, their common enemy.
The president seemed relaxed and thoughtful during the press conference, and there was a hint of the professorial manner in his dealing with the press corps that suggested he had thought long and hard about the problems facing the U.S. and the global community. It was clear his response to both climate change and ISIS is a nuanced effort to avoid to avoid the pitfalls of a muscular, unilateral U.S. approach in favor of patiently marshaling international partners and coordinating a global efforts sustainable over the long term. That is what real leadership is, and there's probably no better way for the U.S. to exercise that role today than through the policies Mr. Obama has adopted as his singular legacy.