UNITED NATIONS — Speaking at a special climate summit at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, President Barack Obama on Tuesday unveiled a set of new initiatives to help developing countries deal with the effects of climate change and called on world leaders to reach an agreement to limit carbon emissions by the end of next year.
"We will do our part and we will help developing nations do theirs," said Obama. "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."
Even as the United States carries out airstrikes against extremist militants in Syria, the president said that climate change will "define the contours of this century" more than any other single issue.
The summit in New York, the largest-ever gathering of world leaders devoted to climate change, was convened by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with the aim of building momentum for an international treaty on greenhouse gas emissions next year. World leaders have made a number of modest pledges, but the event’s real significance was symbolic, a fact that was driven home by Leonardo DiCaprio’s prominent slot in the lineup of speakers.
"I pretend for a living, but you do not," the Hollywood actor told delegates at the summit, adding that now is the "time to answer the greatest challenge of our existence on this planet."
The leaders who skipped the ceremony were just as important as those who attended. Among those who were absent from today’s summit, which attracted more than 100 heads of state, were the leaders of China and India, the world’s first- and third-largest carbon emitters, respectively. For decades, developing countries have complained that they should not be forced to compromise their growth in order to fix a problem that was largely created by developed countries. Today, however, they are rapidly replacing developed countries as the biggest drivers of climate change, even on a per capita basis.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi both officially had scheduling conflicts — and both dispatched delegates in their place — but the message sent by their absence was hard to mistake. President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the world’s 10th-largest polluter, also did not attend.
Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, downplayed the importance of these high-level absences in a briefing with reporters. "Obviously, it’s always better to have the highest possible representation," he said, "but it is really the commitments that are made" that matter more than "who delivers them on behalf of the country."
In his speech, Obama took responsibility for America’s contribution to climate change, but drew attention to his administration’s investments in clean energy and efforts to cut emissions. The president also touted his Climate Action Plan, released last year, which calls for setting standards on how much carbon power plants can emit. Once it is implemented, he said, "this will mark the single most important and significant step the United States has ever taken to reduce our carbon emissions."
Obama also unveiled plans to help poor countries adapt to the realities of climate change, in particular with improved climate data and early-warning systems. In addition, he announced an executive order directing federal agencies to consider climate resilience when designing development programs or investment schemes.
"We recognize our role in creating this problem; we embrace our responsibility to combat it," he said. "We will do our part, and we will help developing nations do theirs."
Without offering much in the way of specifics, the president called for an ambitious, inclusive, and flexible international agreement to limit carbon emissions. "For the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate while we still can."
Obama spoke two days after a massive climate march in New York City that saw roughly 300,000 people turn out to focus the world’s attention on global warming. The spectacle, which wound through midtown Manhattan, drew a number of high-profile participants, including former Vice President Al Gore and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.