The global climate negotiations scheduled to take place at the end of this year in Paris are not a time for empty rhetoric or half-hearted commitments to cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions, President Obama reminded the world Monday evening. On the contrary, he stressed, “This year, in Paris, has to be the year that the world finally reached an agreement to protect the one planet that we’ve got -- while we still can."
Speaking at a meeting of Arctic Circle nations in Anchorage, Alaska, Obama outlined the science behind his urgent call for climate action, and stressed that failure, this time, is not an option. “On this issue, of all issues, there is such a thing as being too late," he said. "That moment is almost upon us."
The warning rings frighteningly true, as time is indeed running out not just for an Obama climate deal, but for any climate deal. As talks began last year in Lima, Peru for a draft of the agreement intended to be signed and sealed this December in Paris, experts reminded the delegates that the world has already used up nearly two-thirds of its carbon budget -- the amount of carbon we can continue to pour into the atmosphere while still having a chance at keeping warming below two degrees Celsius. It's a limit, some experts contend, that we've already in effect blown past. Yet with the day of reckoning nearing, negotiations aren't where they should be, to say the least: fewer than 60 countries, representing just 61 percent of the world's emissions, have submitted their goals for cutting back, many of which are considered to be not nearly ambitious enough. In June, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon complained that talks were moving "at a snail's pace."
Obama emphasized that the U.S. is on track to meet its submitted goal -- a 26 to 28 percent decrease in emissions from 2005 levels by 2025 -- thanks in large part to the finalization of the EPA's new regulations for coal-fired power plants. There is, unfortunately, still reason to doubt the sincerity of the president's commitment to the radical action he says is needed. Obama continues to press the fact that climate change is not only real -- deniers, he scoffed, are "on their own shrinking island" -- but a crisis that we're experiencing right now, a point driven home by his decision to speak from Alaska, where the impacts of climate change are already taking a significant toll. Yet at the same time, his administration has allowed Shell to go ahead and drill for oil in the Arctic, a decision that to many feels irreconcilable with his insistence that the world must address the key causes of climate change as quickly as possible -- not to mention the contention, among experts, that our best hope of preventing climate catastrophe requires us to leave all of the Arctic's oil and gas reserves in the ground.
"I am not trying to suggest that there are not going to be difficult transitions that we all have to make," Obama conceded. Still, he said, "This is within our power. This is a solvable problem if we start now.”