PARIS — President Obama struck an an ominous tone Monday as he sought to rally world leaders at an international climate summit here, declaring that “no nation large or small, wealthy or poor, is immune” to ravages of global warming. He urged the leaders to take action even if the benefits were not evident for generations.
Obama, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., warned that “there is such a thing as being too late.”
Two weeks after terrorist attacks rocked this city and shocked the world, Obama described the gathering of world leaders as “an act of defiance” and asked: “What greater rejection of those who would tear down our world than marshaling our best efforts to save it?”
Obama has already marshalled most of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters behind substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, but over the next dozen days international climate negotiators must still nail down the details of an agreement that would strengthen existing commitments and introduce a way for countries to review and expand their commitments in the near future.
The negotiations have been slowed by delegates from developing countries who believe that, for all of Obama’s efforts, the United States should do even more to help them grapple with the effects of climate change and lower global emissions.
Obama said that “the United States not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.” But he stressed that all nations must act “right now.”
With so many world leaders present, the summit also opened chances for top-level dialogue on other fronts.
Sideline talks included a meeting between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Syria’s nearly five-year civil war and peace efforts in Ukraine between the Western-supported government and Moscow-backed rebels.
The two leaders agreed to relaunch talks to halt the fighting in Syria, but the two sides remain far apart on some key issues, and no clear progress appeared to have been made in Paris.
Russia says its military intervention in Syria seeks to cripple the Islamic State — a mutual enemy of Washington and its allies. But Moscow has heavily targeted rebel factions seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a key Russian partner. In Paris, Obama repeated U.S. demands that Assad must eventually step down as part of any political transition.
Obama kicked off his day at the Paris gathering with a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, hailing their mutual work on climate change but urging greater Chinese cooperation on cybercrime and “maritime” issues that include China’s military construction on disputed reefs in the South China Sea.
Putting China first on the schedule was an indication of China’s central role on global issues such as climate change.
It was just a year ago that Obama and Xi vowed to set definite limits on greenhouse gas emissions, laying the foundation for other countries to follow suit. On Monday, Obama said: “Our leadership on this issue has been absolutely vital.”
Other highlights of Obama’s day here included a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose government has been pressing for more financing and technology transfer. American officials expressed frustration that Modi had not pledged to do more to avoid sharp increases in coal-fired electricity to help the 240 million Indians who lack electricity. They hoped to make progress today and tomorrow.
Obama also attended the formal unveiling of an initiative to boost research and development spending on new technologies, led by Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Bill Gates and 27 other private investors. In addition, 19 countries have vowed to double their research and development spending. The administration promoted the initiative as one that would promote “innovation.”
Obama expressed belief that a breakthrough was needed in addition to current technologies, something some critics say is too optimistic. “We don’t know exactly what’s going to work best but we know if we put our best minds behind it and put our dollars behind it we’ll discover what works,” Obama said.
Some countries believe solutions lie closer. A group of countries — France, Canada, Chile, Ethiopia, Germany and Mexico — proposed putting a worldwide price on carbon to discourage the use of carbon intensive fuels, such as coal.
The chances of getting such a proposal through the GOP-controlled Congress, however, are remote. It is also unclear whether Congress will provide the additional research dollars Obama pledged as part of the Gates “innovation” initiative.
The summit will also feature a goal, heavily promoted by India and including 121 countries, of a massive investment in solar power in countries with the greatest amounts of sunlight.
“We have broken the old arguments for inaction,” Obama said at the plenary session on Monday. “We have proved that strong economic growth and stable investment no longer have to conflict with one another.”
Obama is one of about 150 world leaders at the Paris summit — formally known as the 21st Conference of Participants. Those leaders also delivered speeches.
“A political moment like this may not come again,” said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. “We have never faced such a test. But neither have we encountered such great opportunity.”
In the wake of terrorist attacks that left 130 dead just two weeks ago, the conference, taking place in a conference center located at an old airport Le Bourget, has become a major security headache, and traffic has been blocked in Paris until Tuesday.
After arriving in Paris on Sunday, Obama’s motorcade glided along the Seine through largely deserted streets before stopping in front of Le Bataclan, the concert hall where scores of people were killed in the terrorist attacks Nov. 13.
Flanked by French President François Hollande and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Obama placed a white rose on the street in front of the concert hall, making a small addition to the mound of flowers and candles there. After standing for a minute of silence with his hands folded before him, Obama walked away, briefly placing a hand on the shoulders of Hollande and Hidalgo.
Obama hopes to use his two days at the summit as a way of celebrating achievements made over the past several months, as well as negotiating with countries such as India.
The United States announced it will contribute $51.2 million to a $248 million Least Developed Countries Fund to help the world’s poorest countries adapt to climate change. Germany is the largest of 11 donors to the fund.
“We know the truth — that many nations have contributed little to climate change but will be the first to feel its most destructive effects,” Obama said.
But American officials said they would resist calls by many small island states and other countries vulnerable to climate change effects that developed nations pay reparations or damages due to their historic emissions. Those nations also favor setting a goal of limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius instead of 2 degrees. Obama will meet with leaders of island nations Tuesday.
Other countries used the conference to announce new details. Norway, Germany and Britain said they would provide $1 billion a year until 2020 in payments for verified emissions reductions from forests and land use in other countries.