Obama: Climate Action Is America’s Duty

As the House gears up vote against his climate agenda, Obama says America will act.

President Obama speaks during a news conference at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Centre in Paris on Tuesday. Obama discussed the COP21 climate-change summit, and the threat of terrorism from the Islamic State. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Even as House Republicans gear up to vote against a key piece of his climate-change agenda, President Obama sent a message to his critics from Paris: Look around.

At a press conference at the U.N. climate talks, Obama said that the sheer volume of world leaders at the event showed how seriously the rest of the world was tackling the problem. Centering on a theme of “leadership,” he said that America had a duty to act on the issue—and that the next president, regardless of party, would have to follow suit.

“Your credibility and America’s ability to influence events depends on taking seriously what other countries care about,” he said. “I think the next president of the United States is going to need to think this is really important.”

The Republican presidential candidates have roundly come out against climate-change action, threatening to undo emissions regulations immediately upon taking office. But the climate agenda also faces a more immediate threat.

House Republicans are set to vote Tuesday on a pair of resolutions to overturn carbon-emission rules on new and existing power plants, although the Senate-passed measures face a sure veto. Republicans have also been threatening to withhold U.S. contributions to the Green Climate Fund, a U.N. program to help developing countries that are facing danger from climate change.

Republicans are clamoring for a chance to vote down any climate deal reached in Paris and are hoping that such a deal is treated as a legally-binding treaty that requires the Senate’s consent. Obama said that parts of a deal should be “legally binding,” but that individual pledges should not, which would avert the need for Senate approval.

Obama also expressed confidence that the U.S. would be able to meet its climate commitments, including a $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund.

The president said that money for climate assistance was already “embedded in many programs” (and contributions to U.N. climate funds have been going on since the George W. Bush administration) and told reporters that international assistance would not dry up. Such assistance, he said, was part of America’s role in the world.

“This is part of American leadership. This is part of the debate we have to have in the U.S. more frequently,” Obama said. “Too often in Washington, American leadership is defined by whether or not we’re sending troops somewhere.”

Calling himself “optimistic” in the world’s ability to tackle not only climate change, but the threat from the Islamic State, Obama drew a link to another world crisis that had been averted just a year ago.

“We went, what, a month, month and a half, where people were pretty sure Ebola was going to kill us all,” he said. “Nobody asks me about it anymore.

“It's not easy,” he continued. “It takes time, and when you're in the midst of it, it's frightening. But it's solvable.”

Dealing with that crisis, he said, which last fall threw the country into a frenzy, prepared him for the challenges the world faces today—especially the dual threats of terrorism and climate change. The latter, he said, “is an economic and security imperative that we have to tackle now.”

And, addressing Americans skeptical of the U.S. focus on climate change in the wake of deadly terrorist attacks, Obama expressed confidence in the country’s ability to juggle multiple threats.

“Great nations can handle a lot at once.”