President Barack Obama urged world leaders at a United Nations summit to reach a global agreement to combat climate change “while we still can.”
Speaking before more than 120 officials, the president cited more frequent droughts and flooding in warning, “The climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it.”
Obama took credit for putting the U.S. on course to reduce its carbon emissions by 2020 to a level 17 percent below that of 2005. U.S. financial support is helping 120 nations skip the “dirty phase of development” and move directly to low-carbon energy sources, he said.
The president tied calls for action on global warming with a pledge to help other nations cope with climate disruption that earlier inaction has now rendered inescapable.
“I call on all countries to join us — not next year, or the year after, but right now, because no nation can meet this global threat alone,” Obama said.
Speaking after a summer he called the “hottest ever recorded,” the president unveiled a series of initiatives designed to help developing nations protect themselves against the ravages of a warming planet. And he detailed several public-private partnerships the U.S. government is joining to combat climate change.
Under the U.S. plan, poorer nations will be given access to improved weather risk assessments as well as new global elevation data. The protective measures will “harness the unique scientific and technological capabilities of the United States,” the White House said in a statement.
The president, who took credit for expanding energy production from wind and solar power, also issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to consider the impact of their international development programs on recipient nations’ ability to withstand rising temperatures.
Fresh from a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, representing the absent Chinese president, Obama said the U.S. and China — the world’s two largest economies and largest emitters of carbon — shared “a special responsibility to lead” in addressing climate woes.
Zhang, though, said that China will “take on responsibilities commensurate with our development levels” — a signal it will likely agree to less ambitious cuts than rich nations.
Still, the climate summit — designed to create momentum for a draft international agreement by year’s end — was overshadowed by the U.S.-led bombing attacks in Syria. And some environmentalists said the U.S. needs to do much more.
“U.S. policy on the whole does not reflect the urgency of the president’s rhetoric,” said Raymond Offenheiser, president of the antipoverty group Oxfam America. “It will be impossible to fulfill the agreements” made five years ago to limit rising temperatures “without more substantial action by Congress and the president.”
The brainchild of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the daylong meeting sought to create momentum for negotiations on a draft global agreement in time for another meeting in December in Lima and a formal accord one year later in Paris.
For the president, climate change is among the issues that defined his campaign for the White House. In June 2008, accepting the Democratic nomination, he said future generations would recall: “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
The president’s goal for ambitious action ran into opposition from congressional Republicans, many of whom regard climate change as the product of politicized science. They ridiculed his vow to prevent the ocean’s rise with Peter Wehner, in Commentary magazine, likening the president to King Canute and writing that “the Great and Mighty Obama” would have no better luck with the tides than the 11th century monarch.
Public opinion is largely behind the president’s view. In a new New York Times/CBS News poll, 74 percent of Americans said global warming is having or will have a serious impact; 24 percent say the phenomenon will not have a serious impact.
By 54 percent to 31 percent, Americans say human activity rather than natural fluctuations explain the rising temperatures.
In the absence of support from Congress, the Obama administration ultimately embraced regulatory action to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions. And U.S. emissions last year were down 10 percent from 2007, according to Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors.
Rather than seeking a legally binding agreement like the 1997 Kyoto Treaty, which the U.S. never ratified, this time the U.N. wants countries to offer pledges of specific actions. With them will come financial contributions from richer nations to offset the impact on developing countries of transitioning to low-carbon fuels.
The summit opened after a choreographed run-up including public demonstrations in cities including New York and London, pledges by corporations and investors and the release of fresh scientific data underscoring the urgency of action.
The summit spotlight has landed firmly on the U.S. and China. The two nations combined account for about 45 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. As the president spoke, a member of the Chinese delegation could be seen snapping a photo of him.
During previous international meetings, China has regarded climate change as the responsibility of wealthy nations such as the U.S. that have been polluting for centuries. As the air in Beijing and Shanghai has turned into a foul brown soup, and the Chinese public has demanded action, that stance has shifted, albeit slightly.
“Responding to climate change is what China needs to do to achieve sustainable development at home as well as to fulfill its new international responsibility,” said Zhang.
China will cut the amount of carbon it produces per unit of gross domestic product by 40 percent to 45 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels, Zhang said, repeating a five-year old commitment.
Since the failure of earlier international summits, the U.S. profile on the issue also has improved. The shale gas revolution has helped reduce U.S. carbon emissions and cut imports of foreign oil.
Monday, the White House took credit for what spokesman Josh Earnest called “the tremendous progress the U.S. has made” on cutting carbon pollution, promoting clean energy and prepare defenses against climate disruption.
“Over the past five years, the United States has actually done more to reduce the threat of climate change domestically, and with the help of our international partners than in all of the 20 years before that,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a New York speech.
The administration worked with automakers to agree on fuel-efficiency standards that will require an average of 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks by 2025. Those standards will cut oil consumption by 12 billion barrels and halve vehicle emission by 2025, according to the White House.
After his re-election, Obama underscored his intent to take more aggressive climate steps by appointing John Podesta as a White House adviser. Last year, Obama issued a climate action plan, vowing the first-ever regulations limiting greenhouse gases from power plants, a cut in U.S. government financing for overseas coal plants and accelerated progress on efficiency standards for everything from microwave ovens to walk-in freezers. The power plant rules, the centerpiece of his plan, were proposed earlier this year and are set to be finalized next June.
The Obama administration also invested billions of dollars in clean energy, green lighted renewable projects on public land and reached an agreement with China to limit hydro fluorocarbons, chemicals used in refrigeration and air conditioning.
The legacy of the earlier U.S. failure to ratify the Kyoto pact and a domestic political climate that has sapped U.S. ability to act hasn’t gone away. Many foreign officials want to see the U.S. do more.
“It’s important to have the American leadership together with other countries to move faster on a global agreement,” said Izabella Teixeira, Brazil’s environment minister, in an interview in New York.
U.S. leaders need to “mobilize American society to face this. Yesterday, you started,” she added in reference to the New York protest last weekend.
Prospects for concrete action at the world body this week are faint. The goal is to avert what French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday called “a real catastrophe.”
Earlier this month, the World Meteorological Organization reported that the main drivers of climate change are continuing to rise. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the most important contributor to man-made climate impacts, are now 42 percent higher than in 1750, the WMO said.
The increase in CO2 from 2012 to 2013 was the largest annual change in the past 29 years, the report said.
Regulatory action pales beside what might have been done if Obama had been able to persuade congressional Republicans that climate change is real. Peter Ogden, former White House director for climate change in the Obama administration, said the president’s climate plan will achieve the same greenhouse gas reductions “in 2020 that would have been achieved under the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House in 2009.”
The White House is trying to frame the climate change battle as a potential benefit for the U.S. economy rather than a certain cost. “There does not have to be a conflict” between economic growth and sound environmental policy, the president said.
“Yes, this is hard,” Obama said. “But there should be no question the United States is stepping up to the plate.”