If you missed President Obama's speech today at the United National Climate Change Summit, it's worth your time. It wasn't Obama's longest speech -- it clocked in at about 12 minutes -- but it showed the president really stepping up on the issue of leadership and global warming.
Obliquely referencing the weekend's enormous demonstrations, which too much of the political world chose to ignore, Obama said
, "The alarm bells keep ringing. Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call."
"In each of our countries, there are interests that will be resistant to action. And in each country, there is a suspicion that if we act and other countries don't that we will be at an economic disadvantage. But we have to lead. That is what the United Nations and this General Assembly is about. [...] "Yes, this is hard. But there should be no question that the United States of America is stepping up to the plate. We recognize our role in creating this problem; we embrace our responsibility to combat it. We will do our part, and we will help developing nations do theirs. 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."
There was a time in the recent past in which the world might scoff at such rhetoric from a U.S. leader, but Obama actually has a compelling story to tell about his efforts. Congress, often dominated by climate deniers and those who refuse to consider action, may be content with inaction, but away from Capitol Hill, the United States has taken constructive steps the president pointed to with some pride.
This includes real investments in clean energy, strides in renewables, and vastly improved energy and fuel efficiency. "[A]ll told, these advances have helped create jobs, grow our economy, and drive our carbon pollution to its lowest levels in nearly two decades -- proving that there does not have to be a conflict between a sound environment and strong economic growth," he told world leaders. "Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution by more than any other nation on Earth. But we have to do more."
The prospects of ambitious cooperative action from the coming United Nations climate talks — which Obama called for — are impaired by the familiar divide between rich and poor nations, in which the former talk a good game but do little while the latter are the ones who bear the brunt of ongoing failure. One key thing Obama can do on this front will come later, when the United States proposes its own carbon reduction targets as part of these talks. "Putting out an ambitious goal is really important and builds on the major steps the Obama administration is already taking to cut carbon pollution," Tiernan Sittenfeld, a vice president at the League of Conservation Voters, tells me. "What we're willing to do sets an example for other countries."
The prospect of a new climate treaty is out of the question -- given the state of Republican politics, the United States has effectively entered a post-treaty era -- but as we discussed
in August, White House officials have some ideas on how to work around this problem.