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Paris Talks: Hope Over Experience

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres (L), French Minister for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy Segolene Royale (3rd L), and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (R), greet britain's prince Charles, upon his arrival for the opening of the UN conference on climate change, on November 30, 2015 at Le Bourget, on the outskirts of the French capital Paris.Photograph by Loic Venance — AFP/Getty Images

Paris climate talks got underway this morning – a massive meeting that will include 150 heads of state in one of history’s largest triumphs of hope over experience. The door-stopping tome expected to emerge won’t come close to the restrictive emissions regime envisioned in Kyoto in 1997, but rather will be a chaotic assemblage of pledges by individual countries designed mainly to satisfy domestic constituencies. Added together, they still won’t be enough to meet the somewhat arbitrary goal of preventing a temperature rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius.

The talks are backed by a modest consensus of global opinion. My former colleagues at the Pew Research Center found a median of 54% in 40 nations believe climate change is a “very serious problem,” and 51% believe it is “harming people now.” Concern was lowest, however, in the two countries contributing most to the problem – China, where only 18% rank it as a “very serious” problem, and the U.S., where only 45% see its as “very serious.” U.S. opinion is driven by polarized politics, which leads to sizable minorities on the right denying climate change is a problem while sizable minorities on the left demand unrealistic solutions.

But I remain an optimist – not in the bureaucrats in Paris or Washington, but rather in all the business leaders and entrepreneurs I’ve talked with in the last year who are devoting significant money and brainpower to addressing this issue. They see potentially big changes on the horizon – whether in battery technology, or nuclear fusion, or even politically-incorrect geo-engineering projects – that have the potential to change the calculus. That’s why one of the best outcomes of Paris may be the one announced this morning – a multi-billion dollar research and development fund spearheaded by Bill Gates. If the Paris gathering sparks a significant increase in R&D funding, it will have been worth it.

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