Obama Joins Climate Summit That Doesn’t Force Remedies

President Barack Obama
For President Barack Obama, climate change is among the issues that defined his run for the White House. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/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 course.”

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.

China’s Air

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.

Obama’s Action

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 climate disruption.

Efficiency Standards

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.

Clean Energy

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 temperatures.

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.

‘American Leadership’

“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.

CO2 Increase

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.

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