Obama on climate action: “Were going to have to make some tough decisions and take concrete actions if we are going to deal with a potentially cataclysmic disaster”

President Obama was asked a question today on global warming at his press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel:

Q:  And another political issue, if I may. Madam Chancellor, climate change. Germany, Europe are putting concrete targets on the agenda, concrete reduction targets. Will America in the post-Kyoto process be willing to commit itself to concrete reduction targets? Or are you pursuing a different kind of approach, Mr. President, similar to you predecessor in office?

Obama:  In terms of climate change, ultimately the world is going to need targets that it can meet. It can’t be general, vague approaches. We’re going to have to make some tough decisions and take concrete actions if we are going to deal with a potentially cataclysmic disaster. And we are seeing progress in Congress around energy legislation that would set up for the first time in the United States a cap and trade system. That process is moving forward in ways that I think if you had asked political experts two or three months ago would have seemed impossible.

So I’m actually more optimistic than I was about America being able to take leadership on this issue, joining Europe, which over the last several years has been ahead of us on this issue.

As I told Chancellor Merkel, unless the United States and Europe, with our large carbon footprints, per capita carbon footprints, are willing to take some decisive steps, it’s going to be very difficult for us to persuade countries that on a per capita basis at least are still much less wealthy, like China or India, to take the steps that they’re going to need to take in controlling carbon emissions.

So we are very committed to working together and hopeful that we can arrive in Copenhagen having displayed that commitment in concrete ways.

Obama understands that the rich countries must act first — as we agreed in the Rio Treaty of 1992 negotiated by Bush’s father and ratified by the Senate unanimously:

Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.

But he also understands we need to get some sort of a deal with China before Copenhagen, which is why he has had his top climate, energy, and science experts negotiating with the Chinese for many months (see “Exclusive: Have China and the U.S. been holding secret talks aimed at a climate deal this fall?“)

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15 Responses to Obama on climate action: “Were going to have to make some tough decisions and take concrete actions if we are going to deal with a potentially cataclysmic disaster”

  1. Leland Palmer says:

    He really does seem to “get it”, that we’re looking at cataclysmic disaster unless we radically change course.

    Whether he “gets it” sufficiently to stop the disaster remains to be seen, but he does seem sincere.

    It’s good to hear a political leader talk rationally about the problem.

    But what if what is scientifically mandatory is politically impossible?

    Still, it’s progress.

  2. Peter Bellin says:

    I also believe he ‘gets it’, and believes it.

    The real question is can he promote action strongly enough against fervent opposition to achieve real progress. The political action will in part depend on our doing our part, in communicating to our direct political leaders that strong action on climate change is of prime importance.

    The deniers have activists as well, and they will work hard to promote their view that we really need to ‘drill, baby, drill’.

  3. Dan Zimmerman says:

    The new admin is not much different than the old. Obama has been a supporter of coal and other fossil fuels since day one….

    [JR: Gotta delete the rest of this comment. I just don’t publish pure unadulterated disinformation here. Seriously. If you think this administration is not much different than the old one on energy and climate, you must have been living in a cave for the last four months.]

  4. JeandeBegles says:

    The main point for me in the Obama statement is implicitly that the target is the same CO2 quota per capita.
    This moral principle can be the base of a comprehensive, sensible and fair agreement, as designed in the Contraction and Convergence scheme.
    This can be the base of financial compensation between countries according to their CO2 per capita level.

  5. Rick Covert says:


    What do you make of Obama’s EPA permitting 42 of 48 mountain top removal sites? Is this some kind of real politik move? If so I can’t possibly imagine what Obama hopes to gain by that when even West Virginia’s natives are up in arms against mountain top removal.

  6. paulm says:

    Whether he “gets it” sufficiently to stop the disaster remains to be seen, but he does seem sincere.

    You mean slow and reduce the disaster. For some disaster has arrived. For the rest of us its round the corner – 2C is disaster and we will have to prepare for this.

  7. Alan Durning says:


    A question unrelated to this string.

    Waxman-Markey includes a reserve price for auctioned permits of $10 per ton–a provision that effectively sets a price floor (at least, for auctioned permits). I’ve blogged about reserve prices as the way that we can get some of the benefits of a carbon tax and cap and trade combined (particularly in the context of British Columbia, which I’ve been following closely).

    [Aside: BC’s carbon tax is scheduled to go to $15/ton next month. It started at $10 last July and rises by $5 each year until the price is $30. Future governments will decide whether to keep raising it. Interestingly, BC has also committed to joining WCI and doing cap and trade. Integrating these two policies has interested me.]

    The problem is, of course, that auctioned permits are only 15% of W-M’s total in the first years. This creates a potential distortion: when/if the market-clearing price for allowances is below $10/ton (and especially if offsets are available for under $10/ton), it’s possible that the auctioned permits won’t find any buyers.

    But I haven’t read the fine print. It occurs to me that Waxman’s legal minds must have thought of this. It’s such an obvious flaw. Did they require that, for example, public entities (such as state governments, USAID, etc.) receiving free allowances sell them through whatever authority auctions the 15%?

  8. Gail says:

    Peter Bellin said:

    “The political action will in part depend on our doing our part, in communicating to our direct political leaders that strong action on climate change is of prime importance.”

    This is Obama’s strategy in general I think. He takes a moderate stance in order to position himself to be the ultimate mediator, and then lets events and public opinion push him to where he really wants to be. He’s doing it with health care, which is such a disaster that practically everyone except the worst wingnuts is demanding fundamental change, even groups that ardently opposed universal health care in the past.

    He’s going to let violent weather events, scientists, and enlightened voters put the pressure on politicians for him, and then he’ll step up with the plans to convert to clean energy and fund research to mitigate.

    He’s smart enough to know what is at stake and that a certain amount of disaster is a given. He’s also got children and surely wants them to grow up in a world that is not torn apart by resource wars.

    In that answer he managed to synopsize every important point in the issue. Just, brilliant.

  9. Peter Wood says:


    I was unaware that Waxman-Markey had a price floor. This news has made my day! I looked up what the bill had to day, and the reserve price also will increase by 5% above the CPI per year:

    Section 791 (d) RESERVE AUCTION PRICE.—The minimum reserve auction price shall be $10 for auctions occurring in 2012. The minimum reserve price for auctions occurring in years after 2012 shall be the minimum reserve auction price for the previous year increased by 5 percent plus the rate of inflation (as measured by the Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers).

    This sends a strong long term signal to investors. I would have liked a higher reserve price, but people will think twice about investing in new coal plants when they know that the carbon price will be at least $39 in 2040, $63 in 2050, and $100 in 2060.

    I haven’t read the fine print yet either. Because only 15% of permits are auctioned, the permit price could go below the reserve price. A reserve price introduces what I would call a pseudo price floor. I don’t think it is a problem if not all permits are auctioned, one of the justifications for price floors is that they allow emissions to be lower than the cap.

    [JR: Read the fine print. Anyone who gets a free allowance can have their permits auctioned by EPA. The floor price is real.]

    That is interesting about British Columbia. By having firms pay an extra fee (the tax) on top of the permit price, the carbon price becomes equal to the sum of permit price and the tax. The tax is the price floor. This approach is what I would call a true price floor. I have blogged on this approach here.

    Also, it is very encouraging to hear Obama talking about per-capita emissions.

  10. Phil Eisner says:

    At least at the political top, the U.S. is urging action on global warming. I expect we will get a cap and trade law, probably watered down by amendments from powerful coal states. We are pretty much assured of decent auto mpg regulations far into the future as long as oil prices rise. And I am sanguine about energy R&D spending. However I seriously question whether that is enough to overcome developing nations emissions. India and Indonesia will be real problems. China is still an open question because one half of China is still undeveloped. As it develops, CO2 emissions will expand rapidly, I suspect, despite China’s fine words and progress in its eastern capitalist zone.

  11. MikeN says:

    China’s CO2 emissions are expanding rapidly, though for some reason all the data sets online are from 2004. China is the number one emitter already, with increases each year about equal to an England or France.

  12. Reference: “Market-Based Greenhouse Gas Control: Selected Proposals in the 111th Congress.” by the Congressional Research Service.
    Page 1. The President’s goals are a 14% reduction in CO2 production from 2005 by 2020 and 83% reduction in CO2 production from 2005 by 2050. These are not reductions in the total CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere. They are further increases above the 430 ppm equivalent we already have.

  13. What I read above is that Obama is doing what FDR did IF FDR allowed the attack on Pearl Harbor to happen on purpose. The supposition is that FDR had to get the American people sufficiently angry to take the necessary action. So you are supposing that Obama is going to allow some major climate disaster to happen so that the goals for CO2 production cuts can be moved closer in time and strengthened.

    The problem is that we are not dealing with a defeatable human enemy like Japan. We are dealing with Mother Nature. Nature always wins. We are not fighting for our political system versus another political system. We are fighting for our survival as a species. The cost of failure in WW2 would have been the loss of a political system for a century. The cost of failure against global warming is infinite and forever.

    It is unclear whether or not we have already doomed ourselves. Positive natural feedbacks have already kicked in. Allowing the equivalent of an attack on Pearl Harbor is just too risky.

  14. has a petition to sign to strengthen H.R. 2454. You can sign it at

  15. Peter Wood says:

    Thanks for the comment Joe. I guess you are referring to Section 792 of the Act, which states that entities holding emission allowances may request that they be auctioned under Section 791.

    The main difficulty that I see with the reserve price approach to a price floor is compatibility with international trading. Suppose that a program such as the EU ETS qualifies for international emissions allowances (which it should under Section 728). What happens if the EU permit price becomes less than the minimum reserve price? This would most probably drive the market price for US permits down to near the EU price. It should add some stability to the EU price though.