NPR logo Obama: 'Unprecedented Breakthrough' On Climate But Not Enough

Obama: 'Unprecedented Breakthrough' On Climate But Not Enough

After hours of negotiations at the Copenhagen climate talks, President Barack Obama didn't come away with a binding deal with other nations, particularly China, to decrease greenhouse gases.

But it was fairly clear even before the talks began two weeks ago, such an agreement would be elusive. And with the apparent tensions between the U.S. and China that emerged during the talks, any hope for an agreement with real teeth got even slimmer.

Still, the world leaders did apparently reach an agreement which Obama called "meaningful" and "unprecedented" when he talked with reporters after he left the last negotiating session and prepared to return to Washington early to beat the expected East Coast snow storm. (That Obama was leaving the global warming talks early because of a snow storm is one of life's ironies.)

One major achievement, according to Obama, was that developing nations, for the first time, agreed to goals on carbon-gas emissions. But the goals aren't binding. The agreement reached Friday was between the U.S., China, India, Brazil and South Africa. The other nations at the conference were scheduled to vote on it after Obama's departure.

Meanwhile, richer nations agreed to help poorer ones pay for the changes they need to reduce their emissions.

Obama also tried to pre-empt criticism that the agreement wasn't binding on the participating 193 nations.

While a binding agreement would be preferable, he noted that too much could be made of such agreements. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was binding but was largely ignored by the nations that signed that pact.

Obama said:

"I actually think it's necessary for us to get to such a treaty and I am supportive of such efforts. But this is a classic example of a situation where if we just waited for that then we would not make any progress and in fact I think there might be such frustration and cynicism that rather than taking one step forward we ended up taking two steps back."

Aware that he would be pilloried by environmentalists for coming home with what many will consider a fairly weak agreement, Obama sent the message that he shared their concerns.

Another Obama excerpt:

But I want to be very clear that ultimately this issue is going to be dictated by the science, and the science indicates that we're going to have to take more aggressive steps in the future. Our hope is that by investing in clean energy, in research, in development, in innovation, that in the same way that the Clean Air Act ended up spurring all kinds of innovations that solved the acid rain problem at a much cheaper and much more rapid pace than we expected, that by beginning to make progress and getting the wheels of innovation moving, that we are in fact going to be in a position to solve this problem.