Obama: global emissions must never rise again

by | Mar 4, 2009

Obama: We Need Global Emissions to Peak Now

Extracts From Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs

President Barack Obama
Delivered in person before a joint session of Congress
May 25, 2009

[With apologies to JFK’s ‘man on the moon‘ speech.]

The Constitution imposes upon me the obligation to “from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union.” While this has traditionally been interpreted as an annual affair, this tradition has been broken in extraordinary times.

These are extraordinary times. And we face extraordinary challenges… [The President’s discussion of economic, security and resource threats has been cut from this transcript.]

…Finally, if we are to win the battle to secure our shared future, then we must act decisively to stabilize the world’s climate. Otherwise, we will begin to suffer the consequences of our folly within a generation – not just at home, but across the world, as we struggle to sustain security and prosperity on an increasingly crowded planet.

Since early in my term, serious efforts to tackle climate change here in America have begun. We have examined where we are strong, and where we are not, where we may succeed and where we may not. Now it is time to lead the world in a great new enterprise, one which will hold the key to our future on earth.

I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the international decisions or marshaled the international resources required for such leadership. We have never before specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.

I therefore believe we should set these global and national goals.

First, I believe that the world should commit itself to achieving the goal of stopping the inexorable rise in greenhouse gas emissions that is doing so much to put our planet in peril. I don’t believe we should aim to achieve this goal in 2020 or 2030 or 2050 – but right now in 2009, making this year the high water mark for mankind’s global experiment with the global climate.

Second, once we have bought emissions to a standstill, we should aim to force them down year by year – slowly at first, but at an ever increasing pace, triggering a radical transformation that brings us to a near zero carbon world by mid-century.

This will be no easy task, but the experts tell me that it can be done. Already, as a result of the economic pain they are feeling, countries are beginning to shut down their dirtiest and least efficient factories and power plants.

Now it is time to start rebuilding. In London last month, I attended a summit with leaders of the world’s most important economies, including our allies in Europe, as well as the fast growing countries of China, India and Brazil. We agreed to take urgent action together, with each country agreeing to invest in the clean industries of the future. This is not just a new deal for America, but a green new deal for the world.

It may surprise you to learn that, at this time of climate crisis, global investment in new energy sources is at its lowest level for decades. At the London Summit, we agreed to change that, beginning a process that will boost the global economy, while placing the world on a path to much cleaner and more sustainable recovery.

We propose additional funds for energy efficiency in homes, offices and factories in all countries, but especially in America, where our economy is currently less efficient in its energy use that any other rich country. Simply by matching the fuel efficiency in our cars that others have achieved, we will cut by a fifth our expensive reliance on imported oil.

We also plan to join with others in ensuring that, as they grow, developing poorer countries do not make the same mistakes as us. We will help push them onto a cleaner trajectory, ensuring they have the space to prosper, while winning new markets for American innovation and technologies.

A green stimulus will win us valuable time, keeping emissions under control over the next few years. But on its own it will not enough.

That is why I am setting a third, national goal, asking Congress to legislate this year to create a carbon market and to set binding targets that will see US emissions reduced by a quarter by 2020, and by 80% or more by 2050.

This will prepare me with the tools I need to gain a fair deal for America at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December. There I will ensure that every country takes its rightful share of the burden of securing the stable climate that we, our children, and their children will depend upon.

Some countries will have to do more than others – with the United States, Europe, and Japan collectively responsible for setting the standard others will follow. But every country must play its part. Only by acting in unison can we all achieve our most important goals.

Let it be clear – and this is a judgment which the Members of the Congress must finally make – let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action – a course which will last for many years and carry heavy costs, but bring substantial rewards. If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment we might as well not have tried at all.

Now this is a choice which this country and the world must make. It is a most important decision that we make as a nation. I believe we should be brave enough to draw a firm line under the excesses of the past – and say, enough is enough. Global emissions must never rise again. This year is the year that we start to bring our climate problem under control.

This decision demands a major international commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our efforts to work with other countries. It means we cannot afford to divisions between nations – we must act together to achieve this task.

New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems alone. They could in fact, aggravate them further – unless every scientist, every engineer, every businessman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this world has a low carbon future, and that we will all work together to achieve it. 

[Photo courtesy flickr user by Barack Obama.  For the case for an immediate cap on global emissions see here.]


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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