Christiana Figueres, the United Nations’ top climate change official, expressed optimism Monday that skepticism of scientific views on global warming is on the wane in the United States.
Figueres, who is steering U.N. efforts to win a new global climate pact, said that the U.S. president will be forced to confront global warming regardless of who wins in November.
“You see both trends — both understanding that the climate is changing and that it is manmade — both trends are moving in the right direction,” said Figueres, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, at a news briefing.
Figueres cited figures from recent University of Texas polling on climate views in noting, “I think in general, skepticism around climate is abating.”
She pointed to examples of climate change ranging from the Arctic, where sea ice recently hit record lows, to widespread drought in the U.S. that’s harming agriculture in arguing that skepticism is abating because “the evidence is, every day, more clear.”
Figueres spoke at a press briefing during a Washington, D.C., conference hosted by the International Emissions Trading Association.
The last major round of U.N. climate talks in late 2011 produced an agreement to create a pact with “legal force” by 2015 that would take effect in 2020, leaving a path forward for a global deal even though the hard work of crafting the specifics remains.
Figueres, asked where she sees President Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney differing in their approach to international climate negotiations, steered clear of drawing distinctions while arguing both must confront the effects of climate change.
“This country is being affected by it as well as the rest of the world, and no matter which administration is sitting in the White House, they need to face that,” she said.
“They also need to realize that this is an enormous lost opportunity to the United States, and particularly to the United States manufacturing industries, if they do not take advantage of the opportunities that are given to them with the explosion in green technologies that could be one very important way for the United States to move out of its fiscal cliff,” Figueres said.
The Democratic platform at the party’s recent national convention included support for an international emissions pact (albeit with weaker phrasing than the 2008 platform), while the GOP platform did not.
The U.S. is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol, the limited global framework that does not impose binding requirements on developing nations, including China, which is now the world’s top emitter.
Emissions-capping legislation remains frozen in the U.S. Congress, where a substantial number of GOP lawmakers have expressed doubt about the widely held scientific view that human activities are a major factor behind global warming.
But the Obama administration is moving ahead with greenhouse gas rules under its existing powers.
The U.S. has already voluntarily pledged to the U.N. to cut its emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
A decline in coal-fired power generation and other factors are already helping to curb U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from energy use in the first quarter of 2012 were the lowest in two decades for the January-March period, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
Global emissions, meanwhile, are still heading upward.
Figueres said the U.S. and other nations must go further in order to limit the eventual average global temperature rise to under 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the threshold that many scientists and advocates say is needed to avert the most dangerous climatic changes.
She said governments are “walking down the right path” and expressed optimism about the next big round of U.N. climate talks in Doha, Qatar, later this year. There is “good progress, but not enough," she said.
“We need further ambition, and above all, the science tells us that we need a higher speed,” Figueres said.