- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2009

NEW YORK | President Obama warned world leaders of an “irreversible catastrophe” if they fail to address climate change in time, but it was China’s leader who upstaged his American counterpart Tuesday by presenting the most detailed proposal.

Chinese President Hu Jintao unveiled an ambitious plan that included planting enough trees to cover an area the size of Norway, expanding China’s use of nuclear energy and pledging to generate 15 percent of the country’s energy needs from renewable sources within a decade. Mr. Obama’s energy reform package remains stalled behind two other major domestic initiatives in Congress.

“Out of a sense of responsibility to its own people and people across the world, China has taken and will continue to take determined and practical steps to tackle this challenge,” Mr. Hu told a special U.N. summit on climate change.

The offer from China - one of the world’s largest polluters - included a promise to make a notable reduction to the growth rate of its carbon pollution as measured against economic growth, among other efforts. However, Mr. Hu cautioned that developing nations should not be asked to shoulder more than they can bear in the battle against climate change.

Todd Stern, Mr. Obama’s special envoy for climate change, said the Chinese plan sounded good but the significance of the final reductions remains to be seen.

Chinese leaders will be able to implement their proposal even as the Obama administration struggles to win congressional approval for the comparable U.S. program.

Leading environmentalists welcomed the offer by China, which has been criticized for rising pollution levels as its economy booms.

Former Vice President Al Gore hailed Mr. Hu’s proposal.

“I think the glass is very much half-full with China,” Mr. Gore said.

Mr. Obama’s speech on climate change kicked off a long day in New York navigating different elements of a complex diplomatic agenda that includes Middle East peace, nonproliferation and global development.

Although Mr. Obama’s speech was received politely, even enthusiastically in some quarters, observers said Mr. Obama’s first U.N. summit as president was unlikely to yield major policy accomplishments.

Perhaps the most poignant evidence of this was Mr. Obama’s photo session with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, which produced the familiar image of a trilateral handshake that has become, in its various incarnations, a potent symbol of diplomatic talk without tangible progress over the decades.

Mr. Obama gets a second chance to sway world leaders Wednesday when he addresses the opening day of the annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly, but diplomatic expectations are again not high.

“I don’t expect him to emerge with any startling initiatives. I don’t think we’ll see a big breakthrough on the Middle East. I don’t think the Iranian or North Korean threats will go away,” said Edward Luck, director of the Center on International Organization at Columbia University.

Mr. Luck said Mr. Obama’s New York trip would prove more valuable for the personal interactions he has with other foreign leaders such as Mr. Hu, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the heads of Middle Eastern and African states.

“He still has to introduce himself to the world,” Mr. Luck said. “To sit down and speak eye to eye with the man, that’s important. Most of them are just seeing him for the first time.”

Mr. Obama held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, prodding both countries to make progress on the path to peace.

At the beginning of a meeting with the two men in an ornate conference room at a Manhattan hotel, Mr. Obama said talks on Palestinian-Israeli “final status” negotiations “must begin and begin soon,” stressing the need for a “sense of urgency.”

“My message to these two leaders is clear: Despite all the obstacles, despite all the history, despite all the mistrust, we have to find a way forward …,” Mr. Obama said. “We cannot continue the same pattern of taking tentative steps forward and then stepping back.”

The White House insisted, as have many earlier U.S. administrations, that the moment is ripe for an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

“There is here a unique opportunity at this moment in time that may pass if there is further delay,” said George Mitchell, Mr. Obama’s envoy to the peace talks.

But Mr. Mitchell, a Maine Democrat and former U.S. Senate majority leader, also acknowledged that “there are many obstacles” to even restarting talks. When asked about an Israeli offer to freeze settlements for six to nine months, first reported by The Washington Times on Tuesday, Mr. Mitchell said there was no agreement on the issue.

The day began for Mr. Obama with a warm welcome at the United Nations, an institution that endured a rocky relationship with President George W. Bush. He received an enormous ovation when he entered the chamber, which was packed with representatives from 192 member states and leaders of major U.N. agencies, funds and programs, and nongovernmental organizations.

The president was not alone in calling for urgency on the topic of climate change. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who convened the special gathering on climate change, scolded the General Assembly, saying the nations must act.

“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.

China’s dramatic offer sparked new hope for environmental groups that have said Mr. Obama needs to show more leadership in advance of the meeting in Copenhagen in December, when nations will negotiate for a global treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

“The major missing piece now is action from the United States,” said Jennifer Morgan, director of the World Resources Institute. “The world needs [Mr. Obama] to put the words into action and work with the Senate to ensure passage of a strong climate bill.”

The House has passed its version of Mr. Obama’s climate change bill, but few expect major action on Capitol Hill on the issue in the coming months.

Mr. Ban 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.

Mr. Obama glossed over the delay in action on Capitol Hill, choosing instead to praise members of the House for passing a version of the bill in July. He did not mention that the bill faces many more legislative hurdles, or that some Senate leaders have already said the debate will be delayed until next year.

The president said his plans for a summit later this week in Pittsburgh will include working with representatives from the world’s 20 largest economies to phase out fossil-fuel subsidies.

Mr. Obama pointed out that he already has had several top-level meetings around the globe and said he has put climate change “at the top of our diplomatic agenda” in meetings with China, Brazil, India, Mexico, Africa and Europe.

Matthew Mosk and Betsy Pisik contributed to this report.

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