What Obama Told the UN on Climate Change

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Barack Obama sought to affirm the United States’ desire to address climate change on Tuesday in an address to the United Nations, an attempt to demonstrate his commitment to action despite dimming hopes that Congress will pass a new law before the Copenhagen climate talks in December. While he touted the efforts the US and other countries have made thus far, he was also upfront about the difficulties that lay ahead in negotiations.

“We understand the gravity of the climate threat,” Obama told the gathered leaders. “We are determined to act, and we will meet our responsibility to future generations.”

His remarks sought to highlight what the US has been able to accomplish this year even without passing a cap on emissions. “I am proud to say that the United States has done more to promote clean energy and reduce carbon pollution in the last eight months than at any other time in our history,” said Obama, citing investments in renewable energy and efficiency through the stimulus, the extension of tax credits for renewable energy, the development of offshore wind, and the recent announcement of new emissions standards for automobiles.

“And already, we know that the recent drop in overall US emissions is due in part to steps that promote greater efficiency and greater use of renewable energy,” he said (though he didn’t add that it’s in large part due to the dismal economy and a fuel-switching at some power plants). He also cited the House passage of a cap on emissions, and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s work on an energy bill, which will likely be paired with a cap-and-trade bill.

Obama also pledged that at the G20 meeting later this week, he would work with other leaders to “phase out fossil fuel subsidies so that we can better address our climate challenge.” And he cited the administration’s additional efforts to work with other major emitters through six meetings of the Major Economies Forum this year and partnerships with nations with China, Brazil, India, Mexico, and other nations.

“Taken together, these steps represent an historic recognition on behalf of the American people and their government,” said Obama. “But though many of our nations have taken bold actions and share in this determination, we did not come here today to celebrate progress. We came because there is so much more progress to be made.”

Obama noted that the United States has a responsibility to provide financial and technical assistance to developing nations for clean energy technology and adaptation. But he also called on rapidly-growing developing nations—i.e., China and India—to “do their part as well.”

“They will need to commit to strong measures at home and agree to stand behind those commitments just as the developed nations must stand behind their own,” he said. “We cannot meet this challenge unless all the largest emitters of greenhouse gas pollution act together.”

Yet he cautioned against over-optimism about the path forward on international negotiations, and cautioned against allowing “the perfect to become the enemy of progress” in crafting a new treaty. “As we head towards Copenhagen, there should be no illusions that the hardest part of our journey is in front of us,” he said. “We seek sweeping but necessary change in the midst of a global recession, where every nation’s most immediate priority is reviving their economy and putting their people back to work. And so all of us will face doubts and difficulties in our own capitals as we try to reach a lasting solution to the climate challenge.”

He urged nations to be “flexible and pragmatic,” and to “work tirelessly in common effort” in the next months, with only 15 days of negotiations left ahead of the December summit in Copenhagen.

“The journey is long. The journey is hard,” he said, “and we don’t have much time left to make that journey.”

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