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UN Climate Summit: Obama flexes US muscle in global climate fight (+video)

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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

(Read caption) U.S. President Barack Obama (L) speaks during the UN Climate Summit at UN headquarters in New York, Tuesday.

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The world’s largest economy and second-largest carbon emitter has begun to take action against a global climate crisis, President Obama told world leaders in a speech at the UN Climate Summit Tuesday. But the US must do more, he added, and cannot do it alone.

Mr. Obama formally announced a bevy of new executive actions aimed at promoting clean energy at home and abroad, while pushing world leaders to post ambitious climate targets to rein in unbridled emissions that are warming the planet.  

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“There is one issue that will define the contours of this century more than any other – and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate,” Obama told the UN Tuesday. “The climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it. The alarm bells keep ringing. Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we don’t hear them. We have to answer the call.”

Obama has made climate and clean energy a marquee issue in his second term, positioning environmental action as a crux of his legacy. But with Congress unsympathetic or flat-out opposed to his agenda, a hand-tied Obama has leaned on executive power and UN negotiations to advance his goals. On Tuesday, the White House announced a new round of actions to adapt to today’s changing climate and mitigate future impacts. Those include:

  • Incorporating climate impact assessments into the designing of US development programs overseas.
  • Developing the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership, a public-private partnership aimed at reducing the emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide but with a shorter lifespan.
  • Strengthening collaboration between the US, the World Bank, and the UN on programs to expand clean-energy infrastructure in Africa, where 600 million people still lack access to electricity.

In a briefing Monday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the new measures “a suite of planned tools that will harness the unique scientific and technological capabilities of the United States to help vulnerable populations around the world strengthen their climate resilience.”

Those commitments are the latest in a burgeoning roster of executive climate actions that have riled Republicans, who believe the president is exceeding his authority. The chief target of GOP ire – and the boldest Obama  proposal – is the president’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to slash the power sector's carbon emissions 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 [Editor's note: a previous version of this story referred to the plan as the "Clean Coal Plan" and listed 2020 as the target deadline. For more information, visit the EPA's website.].

Obama’s speech at the UN Tuesday – and his accompanying executive acts – stressed the global nature of the climate challenge. The developing world has pressured the US, EU, and other developed nations to lend a hand in both decarbonizing and in fending off negative impacts of climate change – from rising sea levels and desertification to food insecurity.

“The international dynamic around this is critical,” says David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute. “Clearly this is a global problem that requires global solutions. The international arena is a critical one.”

The president acknowledged as much, singling out China as a critical partner in a global campaign against climate change. As the world’s two largest carbon emitters, China and the US have “a special responsibility to lead” on climate issues, Obama said Tuesday. “That’s what big nations have to do.”

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Not everyone sees it that way. Congressional Republicans, energy-state Democrats, and the oil and gas industry say pledging drastic global targets is dubious, since some developing economies are reticent to make bold commitments to shift from fossil fuels.

“[T]his administration's carbon regulations will result in higher electricity costs and decreased reliability,” Lisa Camooso Miller, spokesperson for Partnership for a Better Energy Future, a coalition of stakeholders in energy and other industries, said in a statement Tuesday. “That's a price few nations are willing to pay."

Industrialized nations like the US and EU countries have benefited from climate-warming coal for hundreds of years. Some fear that restricting coal use worldwide would stunt growth in the developing world.

“[A]s other major industrial and economic powers sit on the sidelines, it’s clear that the president is leading a cause that no one wants to join,” said Laura Sheehan, spokesperson for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a coal industry group.

But some studies – including one conducted last month by MIT and funded by the EPA – note that much if not all of the cost of transitioning away from fossil fuels is offset by savings in healthcare costs and other industries.

Obama’s cabinet officials have been spotlighting climate change strategies this week. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced $3.6 Billion in federal funds increase transit system resilience across the East Coast, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sounded the economic alarm on climate change in Washington Monday.

"As an economic matter, the cost of inaction or delay is far greater than the cost of action," Mr. Lew said Monday in a speech delivered at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

And at the State Department, Secretary John Kerry committed $15 million Monday to a World Bank initiative that will stimulate funding for projects reducing methane pollution – the second most prevalent greenhouse gas.

The US was not alone in announcing new climate efforts at this week’s climate summit. Leaders from around the globe came forward with their own climate mitigation proposals Tuesday, though talks on a binding, worldwide agreement to scale back emissions will wait till a December 2015 meeting in Paris.

“Climate change threatens hard-won peace, prosperity and opportunity for billions of people,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, in opening Tuesday’s day-long summit. “Today, we must set the world on a new course.”

The European Union committed Tuesday to cut carbon pollution 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

“In line with our ambition, we are also ‘mainstreaming’ climate action into all our policies,” said José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, in his speech to the summit. “Our agreed aim is to spend 20 percent of our overall 2014-2020 EU budget on climate action.”

The EU will offer the developing world $3.9 billion in clean energy project grants by 2020, alongside $18 billion in climate grants to other countries through the next seven years.