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Environmentalists Aren't Happy With Obama's UN Climate Speech

Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images

At the United Nations on Tuesday, countries around the world showcased just what they are willing to do to fight climate change. President Barack Obama's speech was heavy on rhetoric but light on ambition—an acknowledgment, perhaps, of the limits imposed by Republican opposition at home. While many environmental groups nonetheless applauded Obama, some were far from happy.

Kumi Naidoo, international executive director for Greenpeace, said in an interview that if this is all the U.S. and China has to offer, then maybe a global climate deal is already out of reach, well before the formal negotiations have even started. “We have been consistent in saying that both developing and developed countries must provide leadership," Naidoo says. "And to be very blunt about it, if China and the U.S., in the next six months, don’t step forward with decisive leadership, with specific targets, with much more ambition in emissions reductions level, I fear that actually we won’t get a deal in Paris.”

Obama, Naidoo argues, would need to break from an agenda that's still largely promoting fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, even if he promotes renewables, too. And the White House still touts its efforts to expand domestic oil and gas production. Indeed, just weeks after the administration's major announcement to cap emissions on power plants, the White House released an agenda promoting an "All-of-the-Above Energy Strategy." "For the first time in nearly two decades, the U.S. produced more oil domestically than it imported from foreign sources. And the U.S. is now the number-one natural gas producer in the world," it said. 

"What we would want to see is the U.S. government saying what the science is saying—that emissions should peak," Naidoo says, arguing that leaders punted on this issue at a climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. 

Bill McKibben, co-founder of, said in a statement that Obama's "boasts about his climate efforts ring hollow in the face of America passing Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’ s largest oil and gas producer. We hope that when ‘next year’ comes and he proposes actual targets they’ll start to reverse the trend. But hope is not all we’ll do–the movement to weaken the fossil fuel industry continues apace.” Heather Coleman, climate change policy manager of Oxfam America, was also skeptical. “It was a good speech, but there was nothing revolutionary put forward,” Coleman said, according to Politico's Andrew Restuccia.  

Climate scientists have repeatedly told us that emissions must peak, probably yesterday, if we really want to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius—a level at which they expect the impacts of global warming to still be manageable. Instead of peaking, we're seeing the opposite trend. A Global Carbon Project report shows emissions are rising as fast as ever, up by 2.3 percent last year because of growth in three countries: the U.S., China, and India.