Sept. 23 (Bloomberg) — 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. For the first time he committed
the US to offer new lower emissions targets for the period after
2020. 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
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 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
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
UN 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
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
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,
“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
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
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
“Yes, this is hard,” Obama said. “But there should be no
question the United States is stepping up to the plate.”
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David J. Lynch in Washington at
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Jon Morgan at