COP21: Obama goes centre stage in search of green legacy

‘This is happening. We’re not turning back,’ US leader tells climate change conference

US president Barack Obama leaves the stage after a news conference at the conclusion of his visit to Paris, for COP21. Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

US president Barack Obama leaves the stage after a news conference at the conclusion of his visit to Paris, for COP21. Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters


President Barack Obama’s prominent role during the first two days of the COP21 UN climate change conference will help to consolidate his legacy as a “green” president.

“This is happening. We’re not turning back,” Mr Obama said at his closing press conference on Tuesday.

“I actually think we’re going to solve this thing. If you had said to people as recently as two years ago that we’d have 180 countries showing up in Paris with pretty ambitious targets for carbon reduction, most people would have said you’re crazy, that’s a pipe dream. And yet, here we are.”

It was all a question of US leadership. In Beijing in November 2014, largely because of the measures he had taken domestically, Mr Obama said he was able to persuade President Xi Jinping to make a joint declaration that the world’s two biggest polluters would dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

“And once we were able to get China involved, that gave confidence to other countries,” Mr Obama continued, drawing a direct link between the US-Chinese initiative and the willingness of 184 countries to propose emissions reductions plans at COP21.

Fighting climate change was “part of American leadership”, he said. “For some reason, too often in Washington, American leadership is defined by whether or not we’re sending troops somewhere.” Mr Obama’s last meeting in Paris was with the leaders of Pacific island nations that could be obliterated by rising oceans.

Alluding to his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, Mr Obama said: “I am an island boy. I understand both the beauty but also the fragility . . . These nations are not the most populous nations, they don’t have big armies . . . but they have a right to dignity and sense of place . . . and their voice is vital in making sure that the climate agreement that emerges here in Paris in not just serving the interests of the most powerful.”

Clean power

Mr Obama’s energy policies have been bitterly opposed by Republicans, who accuse him of using the Environmental Protection Agency to circumvent Republican-controlled Congress.

In an opinion piece published by the Washington Post on the eve of COP21, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell warned Mr Obama’s international negotiating partners to beware “because commitments the president makes there would rest on a house of cards of his own making . . . His successor could do away with [an agreement] in a few months’ time.”

Republicans are also trying to block the Obama administration’s $3 billion contribution to the $100 billion fund to help developing countries adapt to climate change. Mr Obama was asked what will happen to the accord that is likely to be reached in Paris if a Republican wins next year’s US election.

The president joked that he anticipates a Democrat will succeed him, saying, “I’m confident in the wisdom of the American people on that front”. But “even if somebody from a different party succeeded me” they would realise that the rest of the world “is taking climate change really seriously” and understand how important the issue is to US influence throughout the world.

Citing an opinion poll that showed two-thirds of Americans want the US to sign any agreement addressing climate change in a serious way, Mr Obama said “politics inside the United States is changing, as well.” The impossibility of getting Congress to ratify a climate change treaty has created tension with the French hosts of COP21.

Paris accord

John KerryFinancial Times

In Paris, Messrs Obama and Hollande seem to have found middle ground. Diplomats from both countries now say the accord could contain both legally binding and voluntary provisions. Surveillance of the decarbonisation process and periodic reviews would be legally binding, Mr Obama said.

“There’s a single transparency mechanism that all countries are adhering to, and . . . those are legally binding,” he said.