The Road to Cancun, Part 3: There’s Something About Connie

Connie Hedegaard is the European Commissioner for Climate Action

The EU’s top climate official is the Mick Jagger of eurocrats. Connie Hedegaard has a reputation for being whip smart, politically savvy and intensely passionate about the need to move forward on dealing with climate change.

And when the Danish reporter-turned-politician-turned climate evangelist appeared before a press briefing in Brussels yesterday, she didn’t disappoint …

Perhaps it had something to do with the state we were in before she arrived. We’d just finished sitting through an hour-long presentation by an earnest but less-than-compelling French mid-level transport official who detailed what his agency is doing to make European transportation more climate friendly.

Halfway in, my eyelids were growing heavy and my mind started sliding into that weird dreamland at the edge of sleep. I don’t think I audibly snored, but I can’t say for sure.

Then Connie Hedegaard took the podium and came out swinging.

“Two days ago we got the news that since last October and up till now, it has been the 12 hottest months ever recorded in the time of all weather climate recording in world history … This is a very, very urgent issue.”

Less than 90 seconds into her presentation, Hedegaard was chiding the assembled journalists that it was their responsibility when writing on climate issues to look beyond the normal “he said/she said” reporting.

“It is extremely important that you convey what we know to people, the scientific evidence,” she said. “Because in the end, those of us who are politicians cannot do much unless there is a basic understanding among citizens why it’s important to deal with these sort of things.”

Hedegaard spoke and fielded questions for more than an hour, without notes or Powerpoint slides. Among the highlights …

* The failure of last year’s global climate conference in Copenhagen to produce a major agreement was a big disappointment, especially the last-minute maneuvering that saw the US and China, the world’s two biggest carbon polluters – and the two big countries that have most resisted a climate treaty – go behind closed doors and hash out a temporary accord without Europe in the room.

*Nonetheless, Copenhagen was not, as many feel, a total loss. The agreements to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees centigrade, the pledges on carbon reductions, the pact to fund the efforts of developing countries to leapfrog over dirty industrial development into a clean tech future …  These can all be built on in the next conference in Cancun in late November.

* Everyone needs to approach Cancun with a pragmatic mindset, ready to compromise and build a consensus that can move the ball down the field.

* Notwithstanding the end run the Yanks and the Chinese did around Europe last year, Europe is still relevant to efforts to reach a global climate change solution. Let’s not forget, the EU is meeting its targets under the Kyoto accords, the EU alone has passed and is implementing far-reaching economy-wide carbon-reduction policies while everybody else is still arguing about who’s willing to do what. We’re not the reason things aren’t progressing better; it’s not our fault.

* Expectations for Cancun: there will not be a final treaty emerging from this conference. But if progress in Copenhagen is used as the starting point for further negotiations, AND if the developed countries make good on their pledge of aid to the emerging economies, AND if the political will can be found in Beijing and Washington D.C., a final agreement might be possible in South Africa in 2011, barely a year before the Kyoto accords expire.

I asked Hedegaard if – given the huge disappointment many felt when the much-ballyhooed Copenhagen meeting failed to deliver – she was merely being realistic by setting the bar lower for Cancun, or whether perhaps she was also managing expectations to avoid a similar let-down this coming December.

“I wish it was just tactical,” she said. “I wish that I had in my back pocket a much more ambitious agreement and you should all know that it’s just for tactics, we’re downplaying expectations … no. It’s not so that the rest of the world is just about to over-fulfill all our dreams. It’s not that good. There’s a lot of hard work to be done in order for Cancun to deliver.”

Click here to hear the entire answer …

I also asked her – given the huge impact of the US Senate’s failure to more forward on climate legislation – what she could see happening in the near future that might have the US playing a positive role in the climate negotiations going forward.

“I could say I’ll be able to give you a better answer once I know the results of the midterm elections,” she said. Hearing in August that the Kerry-Lieberman energy bill was dead definitely ruined her day.

“As long as the US is not ready to commit more than is the case without Senate legislation, then it makes it very easy for others to hide behind the back of the US, and that is basically the problem. We would have been in a different psychological, political situation had the Senate (passed the energy bill), a bit more momentum leading up to Cancun.”

Nonetheless,” Hedegaard insists, “The lack of American legislation does not mean we cannot make an ambitious package in Cancun.”

Click here to hear the exchange …

The conference in Brussels I’m attending is wrapping up today (Wednesday). There’s a lot that went on I haven’t have time to get into just yet. In the coming  weeks, I’ll be unpacking some of what I discovered here, as I try to better understand what’s being done in this international effort to put the brakes on global climate change.


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