President Obama at Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (Transcript)

The President speaks and takes questions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. December 18, 2009







President Obama

Let me start with a statement and then I’ll take a couple of questions. Today we’ve made meaningful and unprecedented — made a meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough here in Copenhagen.

For the first time in history all major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change. Let me first recount what our approach was throughout the year and coming into this conference.

To begin with, we’ve reaffirmed America’s commitment to transform our energy economy at home. We’ve made historic investments in renewable energy that have already put people back to work. We’ve raised our fuel efficiency standards. And we have renewed American leadership in international climate negotiations.

Most importantly, we remain committed to comprehensive legislation that will create millions of new American jobs, power new industry, and enhance our national security by reducing our dependence on foreign oil. That effort at home serves as a foundation for our leadership around the world.

Because of the actions we’re taking we came here to Copenhagen with an ambitious target to reduce our emissions. We agreed to join an international effort to provide financing to help developing countries, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, adapt to climate change.

And we reaffirmed the necessity of listing our national actions and commitments in a transparent way. These three components — transparency, mitigation and finance — form the basis of the common approach that the United States and our partners embraced here in Copenhagen. Throughout the day we worked with many countries to establish a new consensus around these three points, a consensus that will serve as a foundation for global action to confront the threat of climate change for years to come. This success would have not been possible without the hard work of many countries and many leaders — and I have to add that because of weather constraints in Washington I am leaving before the final vote, but we feel confident that we are moving in the direction of a significant accord.

In addition to our close allies who did so much to advance this effort, I worked throughout the day with Prime Minister Meles of Ethiopia, who was representing Africa, as well as Premier Wen of China, Prime Minister Singh of India, President Lula of Brazil, and President Zuma of South Africa, to achieve what I believe will be an important milestone.

Earlier this evening I had a meeting with the last four leaders I mentioned – from China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. And that’s where we agreed to list our national actions and commitments, to provide information on the implementation of these actions through national communications, with international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines.

We agreed to set a mitigation target to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, and importantly, to take action to meet this objective consistent with science. Taken together these actions will help us begin to meet our responsibilities to leave our children and our grandchildren a cleaner and safer planet.

Now, this progress did not come easily, and we know that this progress alone is not enough. Going forward, we’re going to have to build on the momentum that we’ve established here in Copenhagen to ensure that international action to significantly reduce emissions is sustained and sufficient over time. We’ve come a long way, but we have much further to go.

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To continue moving forward we must draw on the effort that allowed us to succeed here today — engagement among nations that represent a baseline of mutual interest and mutual respect. Climate change threatens us all; therefore, we must bridge old divides and build new partnerships to meet this great challenge of our time. That’s what we’ve begun to do here today.

For energy holds out not just the perils of a warming climate, but also the promise of a more peaceful and prosperous tomorrow. If America leads in developing clean energy, we will lead in growing our economy, in putting our people back to work, and in leaving a stronger and more secure country to our children. And around the world, energy is an issue that demands our leadership. The time has come for us to get off the sidelines and to shape the future that we seek. That’s why I came to Copenhagen today, and that’s why I’m committed to working in common effort with countries from around the globe. That’s also why I believe what we have achieved in Copenhagen will not be the end but rather the beginning, the beginning of a new era of international action.

So with that, let me just take a couple of questions, and I’m going to start with Jeff Mason.

Question-and-answer Session

Jeff Mason: Thank you, Mr. President. Can you give a little bit more detail about how the transparency issue will work, how countries will show or prove that they’re doing what they say they’ll do on emissions curbs? And can you speak also more specifically about cutting emissions? There’s no mention of that in your statement or in what we’ve heard so far, specifically about the agreement.

President Obama: Well, on the second question first, the way this agreement is structured, each nation will be putting concrete commitments into an appendix to the document, and so will lay out very specifically what each country’s intentions are. Those commitments will then be subject to a international consultation and analysis, similar to, for example, what takes place when the WTO is examining progress or lack of progress that countries are making on various commitments. It will not be legally binding, but what it will do is allow for each country to show to the world what they’re doing, and there will be a sense on the part of each country that we’re in this together, and we’ll know who is meeting and who’s not meeting the mutual obligations that have been set forth.

With respect to the emissions targets that are going to be set, we know that they will not be by themselves sufficient to get to where we need to get by 2050. So that’s why I say that this is going to be a first step. And there are going to be those who are going to — who are going to look at the national commitments, tally them up and say, you know, the science dictates that even more needs to be done. The challenge here was that for a lot of countries, particularly those emerging countries that are still in different stages of development, this is going to be the first time in which even voluntarily they offered up mitigation targets. And I think that it was important to essentially get that shift in orientation moving, that’s what I think will end up being most significant about this accord.

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From the perspective of the United States, I’ve set forth goals that are reflected in legislation that came out of the House that are being discussed on a bipartisan basis in the Senate. And although we will not be legally bound by anything that took place here today, we will I think have reaffirmed our commitment to meet those targets. And we’re going to meet those targets, as I said before, not simply because the science demands it, but also because I think it offers us enormous economic opportunity down the road.

Jeff Mason: And the first part of the question, about the transparency issue?

President Obama: Well, as I said, there is a specific —

Jeff Mason: (inaudible)

President Obama: Exactly. There is the annexing combined with a process where essentially they are presenting to the world — subject to international consultation and then analysis — exactly what are these steps. So if I make a claim that I’m reducing greenhouse gases because I’ve changed mileage standards on cars, there will be a process whereby people will be able to take a look and say, is that in fact in effect? Jennifer Loven.

Jennifer Loven: Thank you, sir. You’ve talked to, in your remarks earlier today, about other nations needing to accept less than perfect in their view. Can you talk about what you gave up and where you might have shifted the U.S. position to get to this point? And also, if this was so hard to get to, just what you have today, how do you feel confident about getting to a legally binding agreement in a year?

President Obama: I think it is going to be very hard and it’s going to take some time. Let me sort of provide the context for what I saw when I arrived. And I think it’s important to be able to stand in the shoes of all the different parties involved here. In some ways the United States was coming with a somewhat clean slate, because we had been on the sidelines in many of these negotiations over several years. Essentially you have a situation where the Kyoto Protocol and some of the subsequent accords called on the developed countries who were signatories to engage in some significant mitigation actions and also to help developing countries. And there were very few, if any, obligations on the part of the developing countries.

Now, in some cases, for countries that are extremely poor, still agrarian and so forth, they’re just not significant contributors to greenhouse gases. But what’s happened obviously since 1992 is that you’ve got emerging countries like China and India and Brazil that have seen enormous economic growth and industrialization. So we know that moving forward it’s going to be necessary if we’re going to meet those targets for some changes to take place among those countries. It’s not enough just for the developed countries to make changes. Those countries are going to have to make some changes, as well — not of the same pace, not in the same way, but they’re going to have to do something to assure that whatever carbon we’re taking out of the environment is not just simply dumped in by other parties.

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