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At UN summit, Obama promises action on climate

Senate delay may hinder global pact

By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / September 23, 2009

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UNITED NATIONS - President Obama pledged yesterday to take significant action to combat the threat of global warming, warning that the world is running out of time to stop “irreversible catastrophe,’’ but despite his urgent tone Obama was unable to provide a timetable because sweeping climate change legislation is stalled in Washington.

Obama, speaking before 100 world leaders assembled for a climate change summit in New York, alluded to the political difficulties he and advocates are facing to get a bill limiting carbon emissions through the Senate.

“All of us will face doubts and difficulties in our own capitals,’’ he said. “Difficulty is no excuse for inaction.’’

The Obama administration has vowed to reach a sweeping new global climate agreement in December in Copenhagen, but international talks toward such an agreement have sputtered because of inaction by the United States, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

European and Asian officials have expressed frustration in recent days that the Obama administration, bogged down with its top domestic priority, a health care bill, has not done more to pass its climate change plan.

“We are dangerously close to a deadlock,’’ Sweden’s prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, told heads of state yesterday at the United Nations. Noting that the Copenhagen summit is only 76 days away, he said: “Now is one of those moments when our responsibilities must be extended beyond the election cycles.’’

Mohamed Nasheed, president of Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean that is at risk of being submerged under rising seas, told the assembled group that rousing speeches are not enough to save his country.

“The sympathy fades, the words cool, and then we carry on business as usual,’’ he said. “We continue to shout even though, deep down, we know that you are not really listening.’’

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who has been leading the effort to pass climate change legislation, said the bill would be introduced in the next 10 days. Kerry has been attempting to persuade his colleagues of the measure’s merits, but it is opposed even by some Democrats because of the “cap-and-trade’’ system of pollution permits the bill would create. Opponents say the system, which would set permit prices through an auction, would stifle the US economy.

“Everybody is waiting for the United States of America to move on this,’’ said Kerry, who has held weekly strategy meetings since April on the issue and met individually with dozens of senators. Kerry said he is optimistic that it will pass, but acknowledged there is no guarantee.

“I think we are going to have a majority of the United States Senate that want to do this,’’ he said. “I don’t know yet whether we will get the 60 votes we need, which is critical. The president has been focused on health care. As we go down the road, the president has assured me he will be personally involved.’’

The House passed a sweeping climate change bill in June. In the Senate, 34 senators are on record opposing the bill or leaning against it, and 21 are on the fence, according to Environment & Energy Daily.

Some senators say the United States should not pass legislation until China, the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, takes action. The United States and China account for roughly 40 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

So the Obama administration has been conducting difficult, behind-the-scenes negotiations with Chinese leaders at the same time they are courting US politicians from coal-and-manufacturing states in the Midwest and South.

“The Obama administration is in the middle of a multidimensional political and diplomatic chess game, simultaneously trying to conclude an international agreement and to get the Senate to move forward on our domestic legislation,’’ said Edward Markey, a Massachusetts congressman who coauthored the House climate change bill and traveled to China to encourage Chinese leaders to take similar measures.

Yesterday, at the summit, Chinese president Hu Jintao pledged to increase China’s use of nonfossil fuels to about 15 percent of its total energy consumption by 2020 and to plant 100 million acres of forest, the equivalent of California. He also pledged to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product by a “notable’’ amount, but provided no specific targets.

China’s pledges come in stark contrast to their refusal, as recently as a year ago, to limit carbon emissions.

Kerry called the Chinese pledges “important’’ and said they would help convince US senators to vote in favor of action on global warming.