Dispatch from a desperate planet: Historic climate summit opens with plea for political will

"You can make history, or be vilified by it," Leonardo DiCaprio told global leaders at the U.N. Climate Summit

By Lindsay Abrams

Published September 23, 2014 3:00PM (EDT)

"We are not here to talk. We are here to make history." So spoke U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon Tuesday morning as he kicked off a day-long Climate Summit in New York. It's a day intended for promises and calls to action, with the hope that strong commitments from the 126 global leader present will kick-start the long, arduous process of negotiations that will culminate in Paris at the end of 2015. Officially, it doesn't count for much. Unofficially, the world's watching closely for signs that our leaders can pull themselves together in time to do what needs to be done to limit warming and reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change.

Or, as Leonardo DiCaprio, the day's "Messenger of Peace," told those assembled: "You can make history, or be vilified by it."

So far Tuesday morning, there's been some of the called for bold action (the EU pledged to cut emissions by 80 to 95 percent by 2020; France joined Germany in pledging $1 billion to the Green Climate Fund) along with bold statements (Nicolas Maduro, the president of Venezuela, channeled Naomi Klein to deliver some words against capitalism: "Only when the last tree has died, the last tree has been poisoned and the last fish caught do you realize that you cannot eat money.") But even though most leaders are having trouble staying within their 4-minute time limit, most of that time's been dedicated to rhetoric. It's also leading to some strange markers of success:

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Former Vice President Al Gore, in his own opening speech, insisted that we are "entering a period of hope," reiterating that we don't have to sacrifice the economy in order to act on climate. "All we need is political will," he said. "But political will is a renewable resource." Whether or not that's true remains to be seen: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are notable absentees. President Obama, who's slated to speak this afternoon, has a gridlocked Senate to contend with -- his plan for 2015, as the New York Times reported in August, may be to secure an international pact, instead of a formal treaty. It would allow him to bypass the Senate, but it wouldn't be the legally binding agreement that would represent the best-possible outcome.

Senior White House adviser John Podesta assured reporters that Obama intends to take the summit seriously; the president, he said, will commit to “redoubling our effort to help vulnerable populations around the world prepare for climate change impacts," along with other partnerships and initiatives. He'll probably spend a lot of time talking about what the U.S. has already done -- such as the recent EPA proposal to limit emissions from coal-fired power plants -- in the hopes that it will inspire other nations to act, but he's not planning to announce any new reduction targets past 2020.

It's worth remembering, as the day goes on, just how high the stakes are. Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reiterated the three main findings from the IPCC report: Human influence on the climate is real, and growing; we must act "quickly and decisively" to avoid the worst outcomes; and solutions are available. "It comes down to a matter of choice," he concluded. "We can continue along our existing path and face dire consequences. Or we can listen to the voice of science, and resolve to act before it's too late."

Oh, and the crowd also watched this inspirational film, narrated by Morgan Freeman:

Lindsay Abrams

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Al Gore Ban Ki-moon Climate Change Leonardo Dicaprio U.n. Climate Summit Video