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President Obama announces climate action at United Nations summit

The United Nation's 2014 Climate Summit was preceded by two days of large anti-climate change protests in Manhattan.

President Obama announced a new executive order and other government initiatives intended to combat the threat of climate change Tuesday. He delivered his remarks during the UN's 2014 Climate Summit, when worldwide political leaders, titans of industry, and other members of the global elite descended on Turtle Bay to discuss how best to address global warming.

The most significant of the Obama administration's new environmental policies is an executive order requiring that federal agencies factor in environmental sustainability when they design new international development programs. The White House had hinted on Monday that the president would be making policy announcements at the Climate Summit.

"We will do our part and we will help developing nations do theirs," said Obama during his speech before the United Nations General Assembly. "But we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every nation, developed and developing alike. Nobody gets a pass."

Not long after the president's speech, Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli also addressed the General Assembly. In his speech, he emphasized China's commitment to addressing climate change, but shied away from making any firm pledges beyond a token financial contribution to the United Nations for "advancing South-South cooperation on climate change." South-South cooperation is a term used to describe assistance shared between developing countries.

But Vice Premier Gaoli also emphasized that countries bore "common but differentiated responsibilities," a phrase usually meant to indicate that wealthier, developed nations need to act on climate change first. China's stance is that "emerging, developing economies do not have historic responsibility for emissions, and therefore its the rich countries that need to step up," said Heather Coleman, OxFam America's climate change policy manager.

"Their goal here is to uphold this principle that developed countries like the U.S. and in Europe have to move first and furthest, and that's what they're signalling," she said.

As for President Obama's new executive order, Coleman described it as "a good step, but not revolutionary."

"I think President Obama's speech has strong rhetoric," she said. "I think he hit the right notes. I think, though, that we need to remember that we need to meet the level of ambition that was agreed to in the Copenhagen Accord, to keep climate change below two degrees Celsius. And we're nowhere near that in the commitments the U.S. has made, and in what's on the table."

No binding treaties will be drafted at Tuesday's summit, and no one expects any countries to make major commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Instead, the stated purpose of the Climate Summit is to provide a space where international luminaries can share ideas and familiarize themselves with the threat posed by man-made environmental change. The hope is that this summit will help motivate global leaders to craft an effective and legally binding treaty when they convene in Paris next year for the UN Climate Change Conference.

"I'm asking you to lead," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during his opening remarks to summit attendees. "We must cut emissions. Scientists say they must peak by 2020 and decline sharply thereafter. By the end of this century, we must be carbon neutral."

Other speakers during the opening ceremony included former vice president Al Gore, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, and movie star Leonardo DiCaprio. Mayor de Blasio said that mitigating climate change was especially important to major coastal metropolises such as New York, which are vulnerable to global warming-induced extreme weather events.

"Two years ago, Hurricane Sandy left 44 dead in our city," he said. "The storms to come will be far more lethal. We are not presented with options. We have only one choice: Urgent, daring action."

Tuesday's summit was preceded by two days of environmentalist change protests in New York and around the world, including the single largest climate change rally in history. Ban Ki-moon walked in that march, and told reporters he was "overwhelmed" by the popular support for climate change mitigation that he witnessed there.

"I hope this voice will be truly reflected to the leaders when they meet on September 23. Climate change is [a] defining issue of our time and there is no time to lose," he said. "If we do not take action now, we will have to pay much more."

The People's Climate March, as Sunday's event was called, was at least in part intended to show attendees of Tuesday's climate summit that the popular will exists for political leaders to enact substantive reductions to carbon emissions. Following President Obama's speech on Tuesday, founder and leading People's Climate March organizer Bill McKibben said that the White House is still not doing enough to avert catastrophe.

"If the president really wants collective ambition, he's got to show a little more can do spirit from the world's leading economy," said McKibben in a statement. "Today's boasts about his climate efforts ring hollow in the face of America passing Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world's largest oil and gas producer."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., walked in the People's Climate March and urged attendees of the Climate Summit to pay attention.

"Environmental organization, unions, faith groups, social justice groups, schools, businesses, government leaders and grassroots organizers will all send a message that world leaders need to hear at the United Nations on Tuesday and that the Congress needs to hear when it returns to Washington, D.C. in November," he said in a statement.

The pressure appears to have already yielded at least one substantive policy change. On Monday, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) announced that it would cease investing in the fossil fuel industry.