Obama in UN Climate Summit speech should talk about climate change impacts and the risks of inaction

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The UN Summit on Climate Change on September 22 confronts President Obama with the challenge and the great opportunity to give his first substantive speech on climate change, before both a domestic and an international audience.  President Obama should speak not only of the urgent need for greenhouse gas mitigation, but also of the measures that must be taken domestically and internationally to prepare for the impacts of climate disruption—including how the US intends to aid the most vulnerable nations in adaptation. 

Post by Rick Piltz and Alexa Jay

The UN Summit on Climate Change will be webcast on the UN website starting at 9:00 a.m. New York time (GMT -4) on September 22.

The Summit is a prelude to the December UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, at which the successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol will be negotiated, and is intended to galvanize political support for a far-reaching global climate deal.

White House messaging thus far has framed energy policy reform as a pathway to economic recovery and development, reducing US dependence on foreign oil, and a clean energy future.  What has been largely missing is a high-level appeal for action on global climate disruption that also emphasizes the risks of inaction and is couched in the science of climate change.  We hope to hear a strong message from the President about the potentially disastrous consequences we face if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated and if we fail to prepare for changes that are already underway and projected to intensify.

Climate legislation has taken a back seat to health care reform in the US Senate, raising concerns that the US will be unable to lead the way to a major global climate deal in Copenhagen.  As world leaders look for a signal of US commitment to forging a robust international agreement, it falls to President Obama to demonstrate that the US leadership has the political will to look beyond the tangle of current domestic politics and bring a serious commitment and a global perspective to the table.

A key factor in the treaty negotiations is the role of the developed vis-à-vis developing countries in the assumption of mitigation and adaptation responsibilities.  Thus far, mutual suspicion about the depth and level of commitment on either side has bogged down attempts to form a consensus or extract emissions commitments from the major players.

As it stands, the onus is on the developed world to make deep cuts in emissions while providing a finance package for the developing countries that will bear the brunt of climate change impacts.  Poorer nations have asked the developed world to commit 1% of its annual GDP to the effort, a proposal that would be a very hard sell to US taxpayers.  In turn, political forces in the US have expressed unwillingness to commit to emissions cuts if major developing polluters are not also on board. 

We look to President Obama to speak not only of the urgent need for greenhouse gas mitigation, but also of the measures that must be taken domestically and internationally to prepare for the impacts of climate disruption—including how the US intends to aid the most vulnerable nations in adaptation.  At present, the US itself lacks a federal adaptation strategy, and faces escalating costs of inaction in both monetary and human terms.
 
President Obama should forthrightly communicate the scale and gravity of projected climate disruption and its physical, economic, and geopolitical implications for the nation and the world.  He has both the challenge and the great opportunity tomorrow to exercise political leadership in the international arena, as well as to lead the American public, by connecting climate science understanding to its policy implications. The US has a major role to play in achieving a global climate deal in Copenhagen, and has much to gain by coming to the table with a strong message of urgency and commitment to the task at hand. 

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