Sept. 23 (Bloomberg) — President Barack Obama joins more
than 100 world leaders today at a United Nations summit on
climate change that’s designed to move the issue beyond talk to
action — though not just yet.
The brainchild of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the
daylong summit is designed to create momentum for negotiations
on a draft global agreement in time for another meeting in
December in Lima and a formal accord a year later in Paris.
“Climate change threatens hard-won peace, prosperity and
opportunity for billions of people,” Ban said today in opening
the global summit. “Today, we must set the world on a new
Rather than seeking a legally binding agreement like the
1997 Kyoto treaty, which the U.S. never ratified, the UN this
time wants countries to offer promises of specific action. With
them will come funding from richer nations to offset the impact
on developing countries of the transition to low-carbon fuels.
The summit follows a choreographed run-up including public
demonstrations in cities such as New York and London, pledges by
corporations and investors and the release of fresh scientific
data underscoring the urgency of action.
The spotlight will be on the U.S. and China. Combined, they
account for about 45 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.
During previous international meetings, China has regarded
climate change as the responsibility of wealthy countries and
longtime polluters such as the U.S. As the air in Beijing and
Shanghai has turned into a foul brown soup, and the Chinese
public has demanded action, that stance has changed.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said yesterday the
U.S. and China “have decided to go in the right direction” on
the need for climate action.
For Obama, climate change is among the issues that defined
his run for the White House. In June 2008, when he declared
victory in the Democratic presidential primaries, 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 hopes for ambitious action ran aground on
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.
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 Advisers.
Since the failure of earlier international conclaves, the
U.S. profile on the issue has improved. The shale gas revolution
has helped reduce the country’s carbon emissions and cut imports
of foreign oil.
And as the president heads to New York, the White House is
claiming credit for what spokesman Josh Earnest called “the
tremendous progress the U.S. has made” on cutting carbon
pollution, promoting clean energy and preparing defenses against
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
emissions 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 completed next June.
Taken together, the combination of Obama’s regulations,
cheap natural gas and the 2007-2009 economic recession mean that
the U.S. is on course to hit the 17 percent reduction in
emissions that Obama had pledged to the UN, according to an
analysis by Resources for the Future.
The administration also allocated billions for clean
energy, green-lighted renewable projects on public land and
reached an agreement with China to limit hydro fluorocarbons,
chemicals use in refrigeration and air conditioning.
Public opinion is largely behind the president’s stance. In
a new CBS News/New York Times poll, 74 percent of Americans said
global warming is having or will have a serious impact; 24
percent say the phenomenon won’t have a serious impact. By a 54
percent to 31 percent margin, Americans say human activity
rather than natural fluctuations explain the rising
The poll, conducted Sept. 10-14 of 1,000 people, has a
margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Still, the legacy of the earlier U.S. failure to ratify the
Kyoto pact and a domestic political climate that has sapped
American efforts to move aggressively haven’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, which attracted thousands of people.
Yet prospects for concrete action at the world body this
week are faint, with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian
Prime Minister Narendra Modi declining to even attend. The
summit’s goal is to avert what 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 manmade climate impacts, are now 42
percent higher than in 1750, the group said.
The increase in CO2 from 2012 to 2013 was the largest
annual change in the past 29 years, according to the report.
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, a 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 legislation that passed
the then-Democratic-controlled 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. And U.S. officials are emphasizing that inaction
carries its own price tag.
“It doesn’t cost more to deal with climate change; it
costs more to ignore it and to put our head in the sand and
continue down this road,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in
New York yesterday.
To contact the reporter on this story:
David J. Lynch in Washington at
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Steven Komarow at
Steve Geimann, Elizabeth Wasserman