Before heading home from the U.N. climate change conference in Paris on Tuesday, President Barack Obama spoke on the progress made at COP21 thus far and his optimism that a global deal will be made before the summit ends on Dec. 11. Obama, speaking with reporters, stressed the importance of combating climate change, calling it an "economic and security imperative that we have to tackle now." He also called for a legally-binding agreement, boosting the case of negotiators working for a tough deal.
Throughout his remarks and in response to questions, Obama reiterated how much had already been accomplished toward sealing a deal. He said even two years ago most experts would have thought an agreement to be impossible, but that recent changes like lower solar energy prices and growing political consensus have made it attainable. He said that concrete steps taken by the United States had set the stage for a successive agreement, pointing to his administration's moves to limit carbon emissions in the country and the agreement reached with China to do the same last fall.
Obama said that one of the big advantages of this year's summit is that the attendees have already committed to carbon-reduction goals. He said that 180 other nations had followed in the U.S.' wake of announcing national targets. "No one expected 180 nations would arrive at the summit with their carbon reduction targets on paper," he said. Some 184 countries — responsible for 98 percent of global emissions — have submitted their national targets to the U.N. "I think we're actually going to solve this thing," Obama said.
Obama spelled out what he will see as a successful agreement. He said that he wants to see ambitious targets that work to build a low-carbon, global economy over the course of the century, but that each country will put forward its own targets. At the same time Obama said they will need to be legally binding and enforceable with transparent, periodic reviews. The legally-enforceable part has been a tricky aspect, given Senate Republicans opposition to a deal. They would have to vote for a treaty, the traditional way to create an international agreement.
Obama also stressed that the goal is to have a framework that would allow for future improvements. For example, as technology improves, the goals could be increased to make even more progress in lowering temperatures. He said the global community needs to help developing nations leapfrog the carbon economy and move to generating green electricity from the get-go, skipping the step of coal power plants and the burning of fossil fuels to meet their energy needs. He also stressed helping countries most affected by climate change needed to be paramount.
Taking questions, Obama was asked several times about the risk of a Republican winning the presidency in 2016 and the implication for a climate deal. He downplayed the possibility, but also suggested a difference between how Republican candidates are acting on the campaign trail and the policies would carry out.
"With respect to my successor, let me first say, I anticipate a Democrat succeeding me. I'm confident in the wisdom of the American people on that front," he said. But were the Republican candidate to come out ahead, Obama said world leaders, who are united in the fight against climate change, would put on enough pressure on the future president to stay the course.
Whether Republicans can try to dismantle his legacy won't be known for more than a year. In the meantime, Obama is right. The first step is finalizing the climate agreement.