Dire warning on climate

President Obama on Tuesday delivered a call to arms against climate change at the United Nations, telling 125 leaders that they are “the last generation” with the power to prevent a global catastrophe.

Even as the world copes with the deadly Ebola virus spreading through Africa and the scourge of terrorism in the Middle East, Obama asserted that climate change represents the defining challenge of the century. 


“For all the immediate challenges we gather to address this week,” Obama said, “there is one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate.”

The president used the speech to unveil a new set of tools that the U.S. will provide to vulnerable countries to help them bulk up their defenses against devastating weather conditions brought about by global warming. The assistance will include scientific data and advanced technology — though Obama did not commit any U.S. dollars to a fund meant to help poor countries.

Obama also signed an executive order on Tuesday that directs every federal agency to consider climate resilience to drought, wildfires, floods and other extreme weather when crafting international development programs and investing overseas.

“No nation is immune,” the president said, stressing the need for countries to work together as a “global community.”

“We cannot condemn our children and their children to a future that is beyond their capacity to repair,” Obama said. “Not when we have the means and the technological innovation and scientific imagination to begin repairing it right now.”

The U.S. aid to poor nations could help bring them to the negotiating table as Obama and other world leaders seek to seal a global accord on reducing carbon emissions next year in Paris. 

Poor countries have been hesitant to set high targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, citing the cost to their economies and the potential for reducing growth.

If a deal is reached in Paris, it would represent a significant second-term achievement for Obama. The president has made it a priority to tackle global warming largely through regulatory actions since his reelection — sometimes to the chagrin of centrist Democrats. 

Obama, who spoke days after calls for action on global warming from more than 300,000 demonstrators in New York, highlighted controversial rules he’s proposed for existing power plants that are expected to cut emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. 

The power plant rules have been a major issue in congressional races around the country, where Republicans have sought to leverage anger with Obama to win back the Senate’s majority. 

Obama described the power plant rules as the single biggest step the United States has taken to combat greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

“We recognize our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to combat it,” he said. 

He reiterated the U.S. target to reduce carbon emissions 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels, and said new post-2020 targets for cutting emissions would be announced early next year.

Ahead of Obama’s speech, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity slammed him for pushing for action. 

“President Obama knows his regulatory agenda is unpopular with the American people; even Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidWarner backing 'small carve-out' on filibuster for voting rights Senate hopefuls embrace nuking filibuster Biden fails to break GOP 'fever' MORE’s Senate will not touch it,” said AFP President Tim Phillips. “Instead, he is turning to the United Nations. The reality is, new regulations will do little for the environment, but cause real harm to economic growth and job creation.”

Experts say Obama’s pledge to help vulnerable countries battle climate change increases the odds of winning an international deal in Paris. 

“The likelihood of countries reaching a meaningful, sound climate agreement in 2015 is greater now than its been in the last 25 to 30 years,” said Robert Stavins, a professor for Harvard University’s environmental economics program. 

The administration has acknowledged that it will not be able to agree to a new, legally binding U.N. treaty on climate change, given opposition in Congress. As a result, there has been talk at the U.N., which Obama alluded to on Tuesday, of an agreement to reduce carbon emissions through public, voluntary commitments. 

“It must be ambitious,” Obama said of a prospective deal. “It must be inclusive because every country must play its part, and yes, it must be flexible because different nations have different circumstances.”

Obama would need congressional “buy-in” to provide money for a fund meant to help developing countries protect themselves from rising tides and other effects of global warming, and to get them to move to renewable energy. 

The fund was first announced in 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen. France, South Korea, Denmark and Mexico were among the nations to commit money to the fund on Tuesday. The United States did not.

“If you ask me what could happen that could blow everything up, and cause the Paris talks to collapse,” Stavins said, “it’s the $100 billion commitment that is now on the table.”

Obama attended the summit with two of his top climate deputies, Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyWhite House details environmental benefits plan for disadvantaged communities Tom Brady to Biden: '40 percent of the people still don't think we won' Clean electricity standard should be a no brainer amid extreme climate impacts MORE and senior White House adviser John Podesta, who helped trumpet the president’s climate agenda.

Obama met with Chinese leaders prior to his speech to push forward dialogue on a global treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

He will also meet later in the week with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

— This story was posted at 1:15 p.m. and updated at 2:33 p.m. and 8:58 p.m.