President Obama said his second-term climate agenda will position the United States as an international leader that pushes large polluters like China and India to curb their greenhouse gas emissions.
The U.S. emits the second-most greenhouse gases in the world, behind China and ahead of India. Republicans who have criticized Obama's climate push have noted that U.S. action alone cannot avert some of the catastrophic conditions climate scientists say will come if global temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius by century's end.
Obama acknowledged that in an interview with The New Yorker, but said that taking the lead will give the U.S. leverage in negotiations with China and India.
"[M]y goal has been to make sure that the United States can genuinely assert leadership in this issue internationally, that we are considered part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And if we are at the table in that conversation with some credibility, then it gives us the opportunity to challenge and engage the Chinese and the Indians, as long as we take into account the fact that they’ve still got, between the two of them, over a billion people in dire poverty," Obama said in the interview, a transcript of which was published Thursday.
India and China have long proven a roadblock in international climate negotiations, arguing that emissions reductions targets would keep millions of their residents in poverty. As such, those nations were exempted from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. Senate unanimously rejected because they argued it would handicap U.S. economic competitiveness.
Obama stressed that the U.S. must "give them some help," and emphasized "clean-coal technology" — a label that includes carbon capture and carbon sequestration, a system that traps emissions and stores them underground.
The proposed Environmental Protection Agency emissions rules for new power plants relies heavily on that technology, as it would require new coal-fired facilities to install such systems. But Republicans and industry say the technology is too costly to install at commercial scale, and they argue that it won't be ready by the time the EPA rule is finalized.
The Obama administration has insisted the technology will be ready. And China could be in a position to help, as the two nations have engaged in a collaborative effort to develop the technology. That's key for China as well, as it's planning to add dozens of coal-fired power plants in the coming years.
"[I]f we can figure out a carbon-capture mechanism that is sufficiently advanced and works, then we are helping ourselves, because the Chinese and the Indians are going to build some coal plants, and even if we don’t build another coal plant in this country, there are going to be a lot of coal plants around the world that are built. And we have a huge investment in trying to figure out how we can help them do it more cleanly," Obama said.