Obama calls climate change an "imperative" despite terror threat

Last Updated Dec 1, 2015 10:45 AM EST

President Obama said Tuesday that climate change is "an economic and security imperative that we have to tackle now," as he justified why world leaders went ahead with a summit on the issue just weeks after a major terror attack in Paris.

"The reason is because this one trend, climate change, affects all trends," Mr. Obama said, arguing that failing to address the problem will force the world to devote more economic and military resources to the problem later on. "Great nations can handle a lot at once."

The president spoke to reporters at the conclusion of his two-day visit to the COP21 climate conference in Paris. He said he has "high hopes" that the 195 nations gathered there will be able to accomplish a lot in the coming weeks.

"All of this will be hard. Getting 200 nations to agree on anything is hard. And I'm sure there will be moments over the next two weeks where progress seems stymied, and everyone rushes to write that we are doomed. But I'm convinced we are going to get big things done here," he said.

Ahead of the conference, 181 nations announced pledges to combat man-made carbon dioxide pollution. Although those pledges will not be legally binding, negotiators hope to make some provisions of an agreement enforceable.

Mr. Obama told reporters that at least parts of any agreement reached in Paris should be legally binding, such as periodic reviews of the carbon-cutting targets and any measures to ensure transparency.

He fielded a number of questions from reporters about his ability to ensure the U.S. follows through on its pledge to cut carbon emissions between 26 and 28 percent by 2025. As Mr. Obama met with world leaders in Paris, Republicans back home have publicly declared their intent to undermine his efforts. In particular, they are targeting his Clean Power Plan, which aims to help the U.S. achieve its carbon emissions reductions by forcing existing power plants to slash their emissions by more than 30 percent by 2050.

A Republican successor could easily revoke the regulations in the Clean Power Plan, even if it survives an ongoing court challenge.

"I'm anticipating a Democrat succeeding me. I'm confident in the wisdom of the American people on that front," Mr. Obama said.

The president is offering to help poor, reluctant countries like India to convert to clean energy and urging business leaders like Microsoft founder Bill Gates to also pick up the tab.

There are two big impediments to a deal: getting countries to shoulder the expense of converting to cleaner energy and convincing Republicans to fund it. White House officials think they can overcome both and argue that other countries won't cut back on pollution unless America does so first, CBS News Correspondent Margaret Brennan reports.

He tried to portray the Republicans as out of step with world leaders and even their opponents abroad, who "are not arguing about is whether the science of climate change is real," he said.

Overall, though, his message after the first two days of the climate summit - which will continue for another two weeks - was one of optimism.

"I actually think we're going to solve this thing," he said, noting that many people would not have predicted so many world leaders would gather to work on finding a solution so soon. "We have to push away fear and have confidence that human innovation, our values, our judgment, our solidarity, it will win out and I guess I've been at this long enough where I have some cause for confidence.

The president also addressed the recent shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. After noting the steps the U.S. takes to prevent terror attacks, he added, "We have the power to do more to prevent what is just a regular process of gun homicides."

The shooting has started a debate about whether the rhetoric of those who oppose abortion contributes to violence. Mr. Obama said, "it's fair to have a legitimate, honest debate about abortion," but added, "How we talk about it, factually, accurately and not demonizing organizations like Planned Parenthood I think is important."

The conference has also been partially overshadowed by tensions after a Turkish fighter jet downed a Russian warplane it said violated Turkey's air space. Mr. Obama said he used a meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan Thursday morning to discuss ways to "deescalate tensions and find a diplomatic path to resolve this issue," but he also said the U.S. supports Turkey's right to defend itself and its airspace.

"We all have a common enemy and that is ISIL. And I want to make sure we remain focused on that threat and the resolution in Syria," he said Tuesday.

The president also met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sideline of the climate talks where he offered his regrets for the loss of the Rusisan pilot and crew member. Mr. Obama also continues to press Russia to stop supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad and step up its actions in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) but said it would take time.

"I don't expect that you're' going to see a 180-degree turn on their strategy over the next several weeks," the president said. "They have invested for years now in keeping Assad in power. Their presence there is predicated on propping him up. That's going to take some time for them to change how they think about the issue."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.