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Connie Hedegaard, EU Climate Commissioner: Obama Must Act On Global Warming Rhetoric

03/01/2013 01:02 pm ET

WASHINGTON -- Connie Hedegaard recalled being "puzzled" during recent trips to the U.S. by a loud and proud anti-science movement that dismissed global warming. Such denial is hardly heard back in her home country of Denmark, nor is it given any credence by 97 percent of the world's climate scientists.

But the European Union's climate commissioner said she was heartened by President Barack Obama's "very clear paragraph on the science" during his State of the Union speech last month, which came punctuated by an urgent call to action.

"We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence," said Obama. "Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it's too late."

Between meetings with U.S. officials and global organizations in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Hedegaard shared with The Huffington Post the cautious optimism she and the European climate community share about Obama's heightened attention to global warming, a shift previewed in his January inaugural address. She also shared her thoughts on what it will take to trust his rhetoric and, more broadly, to thwart climate catastrophe.

"Very good. Good that now you can talk about climate science," she said of her general outlook on the U.S.'s position. "Good that you can now you use 'the word' again. It's good that we see a will to deal with these things domestically. But let's see the specific actions."

The climate change community knows disappointment. Hopes were high during Obama's 2008 campaign and his first year in office. But then came what was widely seen as foot-dragging on the issue: a lack of domestic climate legislation and a failure to reach a global deal at the 2009 United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen.

Excuses abounded, and generally involved how more immediate issues, such as unemployment and an ailing economy, were perceived as being at odds with long-term climate action. There has also been plenty of finger-pointing. Hedegaard noted one long-standing attitude in the U.S.: "'Why should we do something when the Chinese are not doing something?'"

Obama reflected on China's progress in renewable energy in his State of the Union speech, advancing the argument that the U.S. can't afford not to make a similar effort.

"That is very different from what we've heard in recent years," said Hedegaard.

As HuffPost has reported, China is meanwhile shipping solar panels to the U.S.

Hedegaard is hopeful that Obama's words from his bully pulpit have been heard by more than just the choir, and that Americans, if nothing else, have been convinced by their own experiences with recent devastating droughts and storms.

"It seems more and more people in U.S. realize that climate change is not some sort of a distant theoretical threat, but is something that already affects us and also affects our economy," she said.

According to one recent poll, 73 percent of Americans agree that global warming is affecting extreme weather events in the U.S. Other polls continue to show a nation split over questions of whether climate change is real, whether humans play a major role in it, and what can be done. Indeed, the U.S. has a ways to go to match Europe's acknowledgment of the science, concern for the problem and progress in battling it.

The average annual carbon dioxide emissions per capita in the U.S. is more than double that of Europe: 17.4 tons versus 7.3 tons.

Perhaps the most visible difference between the U.S. and Europe, according to Hedegaard, is the latter's "acceptance that it is all right to put a price on energy and resources if you want people to use less energy and less resources."

Whatever decisions the U.S. makes domestically with regard to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, natural gas production or a carbon tax, Hedegaard emphasized her hope that the country also thinks and acts globally.

One of the first tests of whether there is a "difference between Obama 1 and Obama 2" in that regard, she said, will be the country's involvement in the global regulation of aviation emissions. Talks are currently ongoing, set to conclude in the fall.

The game goes both ways. China's push for renewables may be prompting the U.S. to follow suit, but U.S. inaction on global treaties could still give China an easy out. "It's hard to see how you would expect China or India or others to accept a global way of doing this if the Americans are not," said Hedegaard.

Overcoming that reluctance and getting the world to agree has been a long-standing problem, as was evident at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference.

"We didn't get the agreement that the world deserved," said Hedegaard, who hosted the meeting on behalf of her country. But she added that it was far from a complete loss. She credits the summit for "a worldwide mobilization that has its impacts still today," including major cities and businesses that now have climate action plans.

World leaders also agreed at Copenhagen that the increase in global temperatures should be kept below 2 degrees Celsius to prevent dangerous effects to the climate system. The world, however, is on track to surpass that threshold. Hedegaard suggested we've failed to deliver on the means to achieve the goal.

"We can bail out banks, we can bail out member states, but you cannot bail out climate," she said. "If we just say we must extract all the fossil fuels that we can find in the world, then it's clear that it will not be possible to stay below the 2 degrees."

"Nobody is doing enough," added Hedegaard. "Europe is not doing enough, the U.S. is not doing enough, China is not doing enough -- all of us will have to do more."

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