Take the slices. Ask for the loaf again tomorrow

"I don’t believe in this carbon dioxide stuff," said my seatmate on the flight to the climate talks in Cancun, Mexico.

His family member said she hadn’t heard of it, "but I probably will."

Much of the world remains only dimly aware of the stakes here, although global warming threatens sweeping changes for us all.

"Probably nothing will happen," is heard from many who do follow the negotiations from a distance.

Jonathan Pershing, the lead U.S. negotiator, addressed the cynics in a recent briefing at the Moon Palace near the beach here, where negotiations go on around the clock.

"The problem is enormous. The fact that we don’t have a Congress right now that will pass legislation does not change the administration’s commitment," he maintained.

There is no indication that China, India, and Brazil will agree to legally binding pledges. Absent that, "We are dead sure that there wouldn’t be any support in the U.S. for it."

"But don’t say if we don’t get legal, we won’t get anything. Instead go for politically binding, and keep working on the legal," Pershing said. "Take those slices and ask for the loaf again tomorrow."

The previous climate talks in Copenhagen last December expressed a goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade, and reported that 1.5 degrees might be needed to prevent widespread damage.

"Can you get to 2 degrees?" Pershing asked rhetorically. "Yes. It’s a stretch."

"It is not clear to me that you can meet the goal of 1.5 degrees without significant geoengineering, and there is a lot of controversy about that within the scientific community," he said.

A gap between even limiting warming to the 2-degree goal and existing commitments by nations has been identified by the United Nations Environment Programme. It’s big — bigger than the combined emissions of China and Russia, according to ECO, the daily newspaper published here by observers from non-governmental organizations.

"At best, the gap ‘only’ equals all cars, trucks and buses in the world, or the combined emissions of the 27 EU member states," said today’s story, which was headlined "The Elephant Gap" because of its size: 9 gigatons (billion tons) of global warming emissions. Loopholes on the table in Cancun would widen the gap, not shrink it.

Don’t give up on the talks yet, Pershing advised NGOs and industry representatives at back-to-back briefings tonight, because you have a major influence on their outcome.

"To almost all of the other countries in the world, this is a huge problem," he said.

At the last talks, "I think that almost every country in the world calibrated their effort against what the U.S. was going to do." This time, "Everybody’s kind of looking at this and dancing around about what they’re going to do and not going to do." He said they’re asking, if the United States didn’t pass legislation as it promised in Copenhagen, what will it do?

"And you represent a voice that can help tell people that we are committed, and are making investments going forward," Pershing told business and industry leaders.

To the NGOs, he said, "The commitment you demonstrate, and your willingness to go out there and say we’re going to work on this, goes a long way to getting people to work with us."

On the other hand, he said, "You guys represent the expectations of the world, and if you go around telling people that it’s not possible…"

By Peter L. Kelley, AWEA Vice President for Public Affairs, www.aweablog.org/