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Obama Urges Action, Meets With Chinese Premier

BY Talea Miller  December 18, 2009 at 9:41 AM EDT

President Obama delivers remarks at the U.N. summit. (Photo by Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

In highly anticipated remarks at the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, President Obama urged prompt, courageous action, while also acknowledging any agreement would be far from perfect.

“We are running short on time,” the president said. “And at this point, the question is whether we will move forward together or split apart, whether we prefer posturing to action.”

President Obama’s remarks were delivered more than two hours later than planned, following an early-morning, emergency meeting with 19 nations, including India, Brazil and European leaders. China’s Premiere Wen Jiabao skipped the high-level meeting, sending an envoy instead.

Other heads of states, including Wen, were left milling around the hall floor in wait. If leaders thought the wait was a sign of good news, statements by Wen and Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva provided a harsh reality check before President Obama spoke.

Lula spoke forcefully, admitting his frustration over disagreements about money and demanding a continuation to the Kyoto Protocol. The hall applauded when Lula reminded the parties that the richest countries profit from practices that help cause the climate problem. He said “differentiated” responsibilities are the appropriate action, with richer nations doing more to address global warming than poorer ones. He said he is still optimistic about an agreement, but that it would take a “miracle.”

“I am not sure if some angel or some wise man will come down to this plenary and put in our minds the intelligence that we lacked up until now,” Lula said. “I don’t know if that is going to be possible.”

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Wen’s statement was less dramatic, but he asserted that China plans to proceed with its domestic goal of cutting emissions by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, and offered no increase to that cut. China has been the target of much criticism during the summit for not offering stronger carbon emissions targets and for resisting international monitoring of its actions.

Mr. Obama later met privately with Wen for nearly an hour to discuss emissions targets, financing and transparency. A senior Obama administration official told the Associated Press that the two took “a step forward,” which led them to direct aides to work on a possible agreement. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the leaders’ private talk.

President Obama outlined his own necessary formula for an accord: mitigation, transparency and financing, the same issues at the heart of the discord that drove closed-door negotiations late into the night and early morning.Those three elements, Mr. Obama said, can form “a significant accord — one that takes us farther than we have ever gone before as an international community.”

“There are those developing countries that want aid with no strings attached, and no obligations with respect to transparency. They think that the most advanced nations should pay a higher price,” the president said. “There are those advanced nations who think that developing countries either cannot absorb this assistance, or that will not be held accountable effectively, and that the world’s fastest-growing emitters should bear a greater share of the burden.”

If the summit can’t move past its issues, the president warned, “We will be back having the same stale arguments month after month, year after year.”

President Obama reiterated his pledge to cut emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and by more than 80 percent by 2050, which is in line with legislation pending in Congress. But developing countries have been clamoring for deeper emissions cuts from industrialized countries throughout the conference, and the president offered no such increase.

An early draft of a political agreement, hammered out overnight prior to President Obama’s appearance, was obtained by the Associated Press. It set no emissions targets, instead calling for continued negotiations on emission cuts through December of 2010 at the next climate conference in Mexico City. The draft also called for$30 billion in short-term aid for developing countries and $100 billion a year by 2020, as expected.

With all the build-up towards President Obama’s appearance, and the effect it might have on the proceedings, many conference attendees watching from theclosed-circuit televisions around the Bella Center were underwhelmed. Odelia Ofori, a television reporter from Uganda, said she was disappointed.

“I was expecting more commitment from him,” she said. “I was expecting him to pin down issues of more emissions, of financial commitment.”

Thomas Matagne, working with one of the parties at the meeting, said President Obama’s statement gives him little hope for a positive outcome.

“He demands transparency but wasn’t even transparent in his own speech,” Matagne said, criticizing the lack of specifics and new goals beyond previous emissions pledges. “I’m very much less optimistic after this speech.”