Why President Obama's strong words on climate change matter, despite his weak record

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Carol Hills: Two degrees Celsius, about three Fahrenheit. That's what the best science tells us is how much we can let the world warm before climate change turns from "serious" to "catastrophic." The problem is, we're headed for a world much hotter than that by the end of this century, and here's the thing: All the current climate change policies combined, the world over, won't keep us in that safe range, including President Obama's new crackdown on power plant emissions. So what do we have to do to keep from passing that two degree threshold? Journalist Mark Hertsgaard has been covering climate change policy for years, and in his latest piece for Bloomberg Business Week, he reports that President Obama seems to know the answer to that critical question, even if his own policies come nowhere close to achieving it. Mark, what are the presidential tea leaves that you've been reading? Mark Hertsgaard: Well, the president gave an interview to Showtime Television's climate series, "The Years of Living Dangerously." And in this interview, he was asked, does he know about the latest science that says that two thirds of the world's known reserves of fossil fuels have to stay unburned if we're to limit the temperature rise to two degrees C? And President Obama said yes, that he accepted that. The reporter, Thomas Friedman, followed up and said, quote, "So we can't burn it all?" And Obama said, "We're not going to be able to burn it all." Unquote. And I think those ten words from President Obama really constitute one of the most stunning statements ever made by a United States president, because it essentially turns on its head - not just mister Obama's energy policy - but the energy policy that the United States has been following for many decades, which is to do as much oil drilling, and natural gas exploitation, and coal mining as possible. Hills: But I haven't seen much of a response anywhere, particularly in the White House, beyond the comment he made. I mean, what does it matter that he said this in the interviewer? Hertsgaard: I think it always matters what the President of the United States says. Now, as I said in my story in Business Week and in a recent story in Harper's Magazine, Obama's own policies go completely in the other direction here. But let's not lose sight of the international aspect of this. The United States is legally bound by the Copenhagen Accord that mister Obama signed and championed at the last climate summit. The United States is legally bound to do what it can to keep temperatures to two degrees C. And I think President Obama is clearly looking forward to the next round of international climate negotiations. We're supposed to be signing a treaty in Paris in 2015, so I think Obama is mindful of that, and probably trying to create the political space so that he can pursue policies that are more in line with that. Hills: But he's also a lame duck president. Why would he suddenly exert all this energy on climate change if it hasn't happened up until now? Hertsgaard: It's taken him six years, I think, to realize that he should not have been going the legislative route on this. He spent much of his first year in office trying to push the Cap and Trade Bill, which was doomed, push it through Congress. When in fact, he has had - in his presidential authority, from the day he took office - the power to deal with climate change, and in fact, the obligation to deal with it under the United States Clean Air Act. So I think Obama sees this as part of his legacy. He's talked repeatedly about his feelings as a father, that this is one of the most important problems facing the United States and the world going forward. Hills: I'm still gonna be a skeptic here, because we've got huge... You know, the whole world is exploding, huge global economy. I just don't see any indication that there's gonna be anything serious that's gonna take place. What would you need to do to stop the world from burning all those fossil fuels? What are the alternatives you would have to really put in place? Hertsgaard: You know, Germany. Let's start with Germany and California. These are two of the world's most vibrant, and innovative, and successful economies. Germany has pledged and is well on the way to getting rid of its reliance on not just fossil fuels, but also nuclear power. Here in California, where I live, Governor Jerry Brown has pledged to make the state carbon-free by 2050, and is an imposing a lot of policies to do that. You know, meanwhile, one of my favorite examples here is solar power. 15 years ago, very few people had cell phones globally. Now, pretty much everyone has one. Solar power is now growing faster than that, and it's not just in Germany in California. But we have got to bring government policies into line with that two degrees Celsius goal, and that's where we need to see more people speaking like President Obama, and above all, putting in place the policies that could make that happen. Hills: Mark Hertsgaard covers climate change for the Nation, Harper's, and Bloomberg Business Week, among others. Mark, thanks so much for speaking with us. Hertsgaard: My pleasure.