Obama promises U.S. leadership on warming in U.N. address

Source: Lisa Friedman, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 24, 2014

UNITED NATIONS — President Obama today declared the United States is “stepping up to the plate on climate change,” claiming America has cut more carbon emissions than any other nation on Earth over the past eight years.

Speaking before world leaders convened by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for the first-ever heads of state summit on global warming, Obama declared unequivocal support for a new international agreement. He repeatedly said the United States will lead but called on other major emitters, particularly China, to march in lock step.

“The two largest emitters in the world have a special responsibility to lead,” he said. “It’s what big nations have to do.

“Let me be honest,” he added. “None of this is without controversy. In each of our countries, there are interests that will be resistant to action.” But he repeated, “We have to lead.”

Obama didn’t pledge specific new emission targets, nor did he announce new funding for vulnerable countries. He did promise the United States would announce new carbon cuts for the years after 2020 early next year, and he unveiled a new partnership to help poor countries prepare for weather-related disasters.

Environmentalists gave the speech mixed reviews.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of the activist group 350.org, mocked Obama’s baseball analogy, saying America “dropped down to a bunt single when we’re behind by 10 runs in the ninth inning.”

“If the president really wants collective ambition,” McKibben said, “he’s got to show a little can-do spirit.”

But Jennifer Morgan, climate and energy director of the World Resources Institute, called Obama’s comments encouraging. “Strong signals that the U.S. is de-carbonizing its economy will set the stage for a successful outcome at the climate negotiations next year,” she said.

Today’s summit arrived against the backdrop of airstrikes in Syria and a deadly Ebola virus ripping across Africa, yet dozens of world leaders today called on one another to give climate change a top spot on the global agenda.

“I’ve been shouting for so long over climate change that I’ve lost my voice,” said a hoarse President Anote Tong of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. “As sensible people, we need to start taking the right measures … actions that will guarantee that the future of our people would be secure.”

More than 120 heads of state are slated to take the stage by day’s end. The biggest concrete pledges so far have come from France and South Korea, which pledged $1 billion and $100 million, respectively, to the global-warming-focused Green Climate Fund, and more financial pledges were expected from European and Nordic countries.

But from Japan to Indonesia, few leaders of big polluting nations declared their countries would undertake specific new emissions cuts. Instead they touted work they have already done and promised to work together toward a new international climate deal in 2015.

“The costs involved with tackling climate change are high, but the benefits are worth the effort,” said Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who added that her country has cut deforestation 79 percent.

Countries are expected to ink a new global climate agreement in Paris in 2015 that will go into effect after 2020. Unlike the current Kyoto Protocol that only demands carbon cuts from industrialized countries, this deal is expected to require cuts from all big emitters — including China and India — and countries have loosely promised to announce those targets early next year.

By early afternoon, leaders from China, Japan, South Korea and the European Union announced they, like the U.S., would put forward emission targets by early next year.

On the sidelines of the leaders’ speeches, dozens of deals were in the making. A coalition of 200 mayors launched the Compact of Mayors, which said it will be the largest effort to date to enact carbon cuts in cities, which account for 70 percent of global emissions.

Environmental groups announced a major new partnership with oil and gas companies to reduce methane emissions, with the United States pledging $15 million to a new World Bank pilot auction. And companies, indigenous groups and nonprofits unveiled the first global timeline to slow and end deforestation.

Secretary-General Ban, who opened the summit saying, “We are not here to talk, we are here to make history,” at the midway point called the gathering “unprecedented.”

French President Fran├žois Hollande said countries and companies must take the pledges from the summit and turn them into actions on the ground.

“We can’t just limit ourselves to words, expressions of regret and exercises in stocktaking,” Hollande said.

Meanwhile at home, critics slammed Obama for talking climate as terrorism and other threats loom.

“Concerns about national security threats, our still-fragile domestic and global economies and health crises spanning the globe are mounting. Yet, our president has chosen to go ‘all in’ on climate change, an issue of little salience to the American people and certainly the global community, as demonstrated by the absence of key nations from today’s U.N. climate meeting,” Laura Sheehan, senior vice president for communications at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said in a statement.