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More hot air on climate change from world leaders?

President Obama gave his first major speech on climate change today at the United Nations, part of a special session convened by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The reason for the session? Lack of speed in international negotiations to address climate change.

You can see the president's speech here:

In addition to reaffirming the U.S. commitment to addressing climate change, the president listed some recent accomplishments: new efficiency standards for all vehicles, billions of dollars for renewable energy development, and the nation's first mandatory greenhouse gas reporting system. He even noted a plan to work with the world's other largest economies, known as the G20, to "phase out fossil-fuel subsidies so that we can better address our climate challenge."

What the president couldn't point to was actual legislation to restrain greenhouse gas pollution. That's because the existing climate bill is stalled in the U.S. Senate and may languish until after an international deadline to agree to a new global treaty to combat climate change, due in Copenhagen this December.

"What we are seeking, after all, is not simply an agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. We seek an agreement that will allow all nations to grow and raise living standards without endangering the planet," Obama said. "If we are flexible and pragmatic, if we can resolve to work tirelessly in common effort, then we will achieve our common purpose:  a world that is safer, cleaner, and healthier than the one we found; and a future that is worthy of our children."

Mere moments later, China's president Hu Jintao promised to curb carbon intensity—a measure of greenhouse gas pollution per economic unit produced and a favorite climate metric of the Bush administration—by a "notable margin" from 2005 levels by 2020. And the country has set ambitious growth targets for energy from renewable resources, such as wind, solar and hydropower. At the same time, China will not commit to binding targets for reducing its growing greenhouse gas pollution levels—a stance known as "common but differentiated responsibilities" for developed and developing nations (and notably backed by India and other heavyweights of the developing world).

In other words, the leaders of the world's two largest emitters continued to make vague promises that, so far, have not been backed by significant actions. U.S. emissions may have come down by nearly 9 percent since 2007 but that is largely thanks to the Great Recession and only in part due "to steps that promote greater efficiency and greater use of renewable energy" as Obama put it.

After all, as the president of the Maldives noted in his speech, which was sandwiched between those from leaders of the two leading greenhouse gas polluters, he gets asked every year or two to explain the threat posed by rising sea levels thanks to climate change that his island country faces. And every time business as usual continues: "We know deep down, you aren't really listening." Can we hear him now?

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