President Obama cautioned world leaders Tuesday about the potential for an “irreversible catastrophe” if they ignore global warming, telling them at a United Nations summit on climate change that reversing the trend is still possible.
“No nation, however large or small, wealthy or poor, can escape the impact of climate change,” Mr. Obama said at the gathering in New York, arranged by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as part of the U.N. General Assembly meeting this week.
Mr. Ban had his own dire warnings for the nations but also presented a program before Mr. Obama spoke that chastised U.N. members for their failure to act on climate change.
First, two-time Academy Award nominee Djimon Hounsou gave a dramatic reading about the planet that was accompanied by a slide show showing global warming’s impact on the earth. Then, Mr. Ban introduced a group of teens who read a poem criticizing the members for being too political in the face of climate crisis.
“The true test of leadership is to take a long view … now is your moment to act,” he said.
The secretary-general said negotiations leading to the upcoming talks in Copenhagen have been “too slow” and implored U.N. representatives to offer “direct guidance” and to “accelerate the pace and strengthen the ambition” before the meeting.
“Instead of demanding concessions from others, let us ask how we can contribute,” he said, adding that industrialized countries must take the first step forward.
The teens said during the poetry reading that they wanted “less talk, more action” and blared, “Time is up,” as the representatives milled about the assembly floor.
“Will you put your political success on the line for your planet?” they asked. “You’ve been talking since before we were born; now we need to work together. It’s not a choice anymore.”
Mr. Obama said the strong attendance at the summit shows “the threat from climate change is serious, it is urgent, and it is growing,” but he pointed out that many world leaders did not attend.
Marking the president’s first General Assembly meeting, he declared a “new era” in which his administration has done more to curb pollution and promote clean energy since taking office in January “than at any other time in our history.”
He also said the United States is among those at fault for being slow to respond “or even to recognize the magnitude” of climate change.
The summit was a first step toward a meeting of global leaders in December in Copenhagen and came as U.S. lawmakers are wrestling with a sweeping climate-change bill in Congress.
Despite a stall because of the health care debate, Mr. Obama lauded House lawmakers for passing legislation and said he is looking forward to “engaging with others” as legislation goes through the Senate.
Mr. Obama outlined some of the elements from his $787 billion stimulus plan and government budget, including tax credits for hybrid-car purchases and weatherizing homes.
The president said his plans for a summit later this week in Pittsburgh with representatives from the world’s 20 largest economies include working with them to phase out fossil-fuel subsidies.
Mr. Obama pointed out he already has had several top-level meetings across the globe on the topic and said he has put climate “at the top of our diplomatic agenda” in meetings with China, Brazil, India, Mexico, Africa and Europe.
“We understand the gravity of the climate threat. We are determined to act. And we will meet our responsibility to future generations,” Mr. Obama said, adding that both industrialized and developing nations must do their part.
The president acknowledged that implementing change around the globe will be difficult but said “unease is no excuse.”
He also bemoaned “too many years of inaction and denial.”
Democrats said Mr. Obama’s tone was a sharp departure from the Bush administration’s.
The Republican National Committee planned a Tuesday afternoon conference call to respond to the speech.