msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/17/2008 6:41:29 PM ET 2008-11-17T23:41:29

He wasn't expected to make an appearance, let alone a splash, but President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday delivered a videotaped message to a climate change summit convened by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, vowing quick action to curb emissions and engage in international talks.

"You can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations, and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change," he told hundreds of scientists, executives, governors and even foreign officials gathered in Los Angeles.

President George W. Bush has refused to formally participate in the U.N.-hosted negotiations, instead sending observers in recent years. He has also refused mandatory curbs on emissions, instead focusing on technological solutions.

But Obama said he felt the United States must adopt mandatory curbs and join the U.N. process. "Few challenges facing America — and the world — are more urgent than combating climate change," he said.

"Climate change and our dependence on foreign oil, if left unaddressed, will continue to weaken our economy and threaten our national security," he told the two-day summit. "My presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process."

Obama reiterated his campaign promise of a system to cap and trade greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. "We will establish strong annual targets that set us on a course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce them an additional 80 percent by 2050," he said.

And he said his goal of $15 billion a year in incentives to get private capital moving towards clean energy technologies would produce five million green jobs "that pay well and can't be outsourced."

Leaders in the Democratic-controlled Congress have indicated that they aren't likely to act until 2010 on a bill to limit the heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming. But Obama could begin to tackle global warming without Congress through administrative actions.

"Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all," Obama concluded. "Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious."

Under a cap-and-trade program, the government would establish a ceiling on the amount of carbon dioxide that can be released into the air from burning fossil fuels. A utility or industrial plant would have to purchase emission allowances for every ton of pollution released. Anyone who exceeds the cap must either make pollution reductions or buy additional allowances, while those who cut emissions below the cap would be able to sell allowances. Initially the cap would be relatively high and then be lowered gradually to achieve the targeted pollution reductions.

Obama favors auctioning off all of the allowances and using the proceeds to invest in energy efficiency and alternative, non-fossil energy that does not add to global warming. Others argue the allowances should be provided for free to reduce the economic costs and then be freely bought and sold in the market place.

U.N. talks focus on new treaty
Schwarzenegger called the summit ahead of U.N. talks next month to work on the framework for a new climate treaty.

Schwarzenegger's credentials as an advocate for reducing greenhouse gas emissions were bolstered worldwide when he signed California's landmark emissions law in 2006. He also has been critical of what he sees as a lack of meaningful action on climate change from the Bush administration.

The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said temperatures worldwide could increase between 4 degrees and 11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 unless nations reduce their emissions.

Division remains over how much countries should be required to cut, especially as the world grapples with a financial crisis. Italy and several Eastern European nations have argued that the costs of cutting emissions are too much for their industries to bear during the economic downturn.

Schwarzenegger has maintained that forcing utilities and businesses to cut emissions will promote innovation. He says that will boost California's economy by fueling a boom in green technology and saving money on electricity and fuel bills.

The California summit will help local governments and businesses learn how to begin taking steps to combat climate change, said Richard Kinley, deputy executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

"For me, it is extremely important to give governments the confidence they can go forward and adopt ambitious policies and targets knowing there is a foundation that can deliver the results," Kinley said.

A study released last week by the University of California, Berkeley estimates that California alone could face as much as $23 billion a year in property damage caused by wildfires, rising sea levels and extreme weather events over the next century if nothing is done to combat climate change.

The law Schwarzenegger signed two years ago will require California's major polluters to cut their emissions by about a third by 2020. While the law has been widely embraced by environmentalists and green-technology firms, California regulators are just beginning the difficult process of implementing it and industry groups have warned that it could send jobs out of state.

State Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, a Republican from San Luis Obispo, said it will be challenging for the governments represented at this week's summit to mandate emission cuts.

"It's critically important we find solutions to global warming that don't hurt the economy (and) that we incentivize new jobs that allow new technologies to be developed as quickly as possible," said Blakeslee. "But pursuing these environmental goals needs to be balanced with the other challenges that we face."

Carbon offsets at conference
Schwarzenegger's summit is funded entirely by businesses and nonprofit groups. It will feature sessions intended to show how energy-intensive industries such as cement and steel manufacturing can reduce their energy use.

Various touches at the conference reflect its earth-friendly theme. Attendees' room keys, name badges, lunch boxes and coffee cups will be made of recycled material.

The Schwarzenegger administration has arranged for the carbon emissions associated with the conference to be offset by sending money to environmental causes around the world.

An analysis by The Associated Press revealed that the air travel alone of the 1,400 invitees would discharge more than 2,554 metric tons of carbon dioxide — a so-called carbon footprint equivalent to that produced from 424 cars driven for a year. The governor's office said about half the invitees are expected to attend.

International negotiators have a December 2009 deadline to complete the next global warming treaty. It intends to cut in half the amount of carbon dioxide discharged into the atmosphere from transportation, industry and power generation by mid-century.

The agreement would succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012 and does not include the U.S. or China — the world's largest emitters.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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