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US defends 'enormous' climate efforts at UN talks

Monday - 11/26/2012, 2:40pm  ET

FILE - In this Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2012 file photo, conference flags are displayed ahead of the Doha Climate Change Conference, in Doha, Qatar. As nearly 200 countries meet in oil-and-gas rich Qatar for annual talks on curbing climate change, one of the main challenges will be raising hundreds of billions of dollars to help poor nations adapt to a warming world that may damage their health, agriculture and economies. (AP Photo/Osama Faisal, File)

KARL RITTER
Associated Press

DOHA, Qatar (AP) -- The U.S. defended its track record on fighting climate change on Monday at U.N. talks, saying it's making "enormous" efforts to slow global warming and help the poor nations most affected by it.

Other countries have accused Washington of hampering the climate talks ever since the Bush administration abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 treaty limiting emissions of heat-trapping gases by industrialized countries. As negotiators met for a two-week session in oil and gas-rich Qatar, U.S. delegate Jonathan Pershing suggested America deserves more credit.

"Those who don't follow what the U.S. is doing may not be informed of the scale and extent of the effort, but it's enormous," Pershing said.

He noted that the Obama administration has taken a series of steps, including sharply increasing fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and made good on promises of climate financing for poor countries. A climate bill that would have capped emissions stalled in the Senate.

"It doesn't mean enough is being done," Pershing said. "It's clear the global community, and that includes us, has to do more if we are going to succeed at avoiding the damages projected in a warming world."

The two-decade-old U.N. talks have not fulfilled their main purpose: reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are warming the planet.

The goal is to keep the global temperature rise under 2 degrees C (3.6 F), compared to pre-industrial times.

Efforts taken so far to rein in emissions, reduce deforestation and promote clean technology are not getting the job done. A recent projection by the World Bank showed temperatures are expected to increase by up to 4 degrees C (7.2 F) by 2100.

Scientists warn that dangerous warming effects could include flooding of coastal cities and island nations, disruptions to agriculture and drinking water, the spread of diseases and the extinction of species.

Attempts to forge a new climate treaty failed in Copenhagen three years ago, but countries agreed last year to try again, giving themselves a deadline of 2015 to adopt a new pact.

Several issues need to be resolved by then, including how to spread the burden of emissions cuts between rich and poor countries. That's unlikely to be decided in the current talks in the Qatari capital of Doha, where negotiators from nearly 200 countries are focusing on extending the Kyoto Protocol, and trying to raise billions of dollars to help developing countries adapt to a shifting climate.

"We owe it to our people, the global citizenry. We owe it to our children to give them a safer future than what they are currently facing," said South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who led last year's talks in Durban, South Africa.

The U.N. process is often criticized, even ridiculed, both by climate activists who say the talks are too slow and by those who challenge the scientific near-consensus that the global temperature rise is at least partly caused by human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil.

The concentration of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide has jumped 20 percent since 2000, according to a U.N. report released last week. The report also showed that there is a growing gap between what governments are doing to curb emissions and what needs to be done to protect the world from potentially dangerous levels of warming.

"Climate change is no longer some distant threat for the future, but is with us today," said Greenpeace climate campaigner Martin Kaiser, who was also at the Doha talks. "At the end of a year that has seen the impacts of climate change devastate homes and families around the world, the need for action is obvious and urgent."

Many scientists say that extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Sandy's onslaught on the U.S. East Coast, will become more frequent as the Earth warms, although it is impossible to attribute individual weather events to climate change.

The Kyoto Protocol is seen as the most important climate agreement reached in the U.N. process so far. It expires this year, so negotiators in Doha will try to extend it as a stopgap measure until a wider deal can be reached.

The problem is that only the European Union and a handful of other countries -- that together are responsible for than 15 percent of global emissions -- are willing to set emissions targets for a second commitment period of Kyoto.

The U.S. rejected the Kyoto accord because it didn't impose binding commitments on major developing countries such as India and China, which is now the world's top carbon emitter.

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