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Experts say Obama's U.N. speech a 'right direction' on climate change

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Obama at the UN
President Barack Obama addresses the Summit on Climate Change at the United Nations Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009.
AP Photo/Konishi Taro, Japan Pool

In his first speech before the United Nations, President Obama said the U.S. has done more to deal with climate change during the eight months of his presidency than it ever had before.

"We understand the gravity of the climate threat, we are determined to act, and we will meet our responsibility to future generations," Obama said.

A business leader and an environmental expert in Minnesota, who are paying close attention to the climate change discussions this week, say they mostly like what they're hearing.  

Though they come at the issue from different perspectives, they both say the talks show the potential for positive change.   

But Obama hasn't committed to specific greenhouse gas reductions, and offered no dollar amount to help poor nations cope with climate change.

China promised to plant enough forest to cover an area the size of Norway, and said it will get 15 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources within a decade.  China also committed to improving energy efficiency, and reducing the growth of its carbon pollution even as its economy continues to grow.

The U.S. and China combined account for about 40 percent of the world's greenhouse gas pollution, about 20 percent from each.

Though neither country made specific commitments, this is a big step for both nations, because both had refused to act until just a few months ago.

"We understand the gravity of the climate threat, we are determined to act, and we will meet our responsibility to future generations."

China said the developed nations should act first because they caused most of the problem, and many members of Congress had no interest in acting until it was clear China would agree to change as well.  

J. Drake Hamilton, a Science Policy advisor at Fresh Energy, a Minnesota nonprofit that promotes legislation on climate change, said she credits China and Japan with taking steps that can end the chicken-and-egg problem.  

"China put forth goals, Japan put forth goals that say that they're going to put binding targets on the table, and that leaves the door wide open for President Obama to commit the U.S. to similar action," Hamilton said.

But President Obama can't act alone.  The House passed a climate bill in June; the big question is whether the Senate can even talk about it before next year, because it's so busy with the health care issue.   

Hamilton said the Senate can act before a December meeting in Copenhagen that's planned to come up with a new world agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol.   

"I think what's going to drive the action at the U.S. Senate is if more and more members of Congress really understand that what's at stake is the potential for a clean energy economy and the economic opportunities it's going to bring," Hamilton said.

She said China is motivated and ready to jump into new technologies that will bring energy efficiency and renewables to a waiting world market.  She said that's a market U.S. companies should be going after, but what they need is clear policy from Washington to favor low-carbon technologies.  

Mike Robertson, an environmental consultant with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and an expert on Minnesota's various attempts at climate change legislation, said businesses recognize that governments will have to deal with climate change, and they're eager to know what the rules will be. He said they'd like some degree of certainty after years of inaction.

"On the other hand, they're very concerned about what the cost might be," Robertson said. "How much are their energy costs going to increase, will they be able to compete, will this international agreement allow everybody to pay the same costs, and therefore the competition will be maintained?" 

So far, Robertson said the cost of energy is the biggest issue for most Minnesota businesses.  Historically, energy has been cheap in the state, and that's given companies here a competitive advantage in the global market.  But, he said Minnesota's rules on efficiency and renewables have been driving energy costs up.

"So there is concern about that and whether they can maintain that advantage against some other economies," he said.

The Minnesota Chamber's position has always been that climate change needs to be addressed on a national and international level, so Robertson said the talk at the U.N. yesterday, and the G-20 meetings in Pittsburgh later this week, are steps in the right direction.