President Obama vowed Tuesday that the U.S. will provide leadership on global warming, then left the Paris talks and flew back to Washington to leave it to his lieutenants to try to strike a deal that he hopes will be “legally binding” on his successor.
Even as congressional leaders balked at his plans, Mr. Obama tried to assure other world leaders that the U.S. will live up to any commitments he makes during the next two weeks of negotiations. He also predicted that the next president, even a Republican, will have to bow to the world’s wishes when it comes to climate change.
“The president of the United States is going to need to think this is really important. And that’s why it’s important for us to not project what’s being said on a campaign trail but to do what’s right and make the case,” Mr. Obama told reporters who questioned his ability to bind the next Oval Office occupant.
Speaking at a press conference, Mr. Obama said the agreement that nearly 200 nations are hoping to reach in Paris should not be judged by the specific targets or financial contributions that rich countries make to a U.N. fund designed to compensate poor countries.
Instead, he said, the final agreement will be a success if it sets up a “legally binding” framework so the world community can impose and take steps to enforce stricter limits.
The United Nations has said world leaders should pledge to cut emissions enough to keep overall world temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit), but current pledges would put the globe on track for a 3 degree (5 F) surge, according to climate scientists’ estimates.
Some developing countries, particularly low-lying islands at risk of devastation from rising sea waters, have urged even stiffer targets, saying their survival depends on the rest of the world taking the right action.
Environmentalists want to boost the amount of aid in the Green Climate Fund, which is supposed to compensate developing countries for the costs of adapting to global warming and to help them generate their own energy without turning to fossil fuels.
The fund has $10 billion in pledges, though only half of the money has been signed over. The fund is supposed to reach $100 billion a year by 2020, though the commitments to sustain it have not materialized.
Mr. Obama is walking a tightrope, arguing to world leaders that he can politically and morally bind his successors to any deal they strike while being aware that sentiment is decidedly mixed back home.
His goal of a Paris deal that is legally binding is unlikely, because to be binding he probably would have to submit it in the form of a treaty. The Senate would reject such a move.
The House voted Tuesday to block Mr. Obama’s proposed rules governing emissions from power plants. Mr. Obama has vowed to veto the measure, and his veto is certain to be sustained, but the back-and-forth is meant to signal the international community that the president lacks backing at home.
“Absent approval by the Senate, any deal announced at COP21 will be little more than a press release, with no binding accountability or enforcement mechanisms in place. Such an agreement is also limited in duration as the next administration could change its pledge,” Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a white paper Tuesday.
Mr. Inhofe also flatly rejected any chance that Congress will approve the $3 billion that Mr. Obama has pledged to the climate fund.
“We’d have to appropriate money, and we’re not going to do it,” he told the Fox Business Network.
Mr. Obama was in Paris for less than 48 hours, leaving the heavy lifting to his top diplomatic, environmental and energy officials. Much of his attention was taken up by last month’s terrorist attacks in the city, and he was again peppered with questions about his strategy toward the Islamic State group, which claimed credit for the deadly shootings and bombings.