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Activists hope storm-struck US will deliver at Doha climate talks

Andrew Burton / Reuters

A U.S. flag is seen hanging in the Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens, New York Nov. 11 in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.

During a year with a monster storm and scorching heat waves, Americans have experienced the kind of freakish weather that many scientists say will occur more often on a warming planet.

And as a re-elected president talks about global warming again, climate activists are cautiously optimistic that the U.S. will be more than a disinterested bystander when the U.N. climate talks resume Monday with a two-week conference in Qatar.

"I think there will be expectations from countries to hear a new voice from the United States," said Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate and energy program at the World Resources Institute in Washington.

The climate officials and environment ministers meeting in the Qatari capital of Doha will not come up with an answer to the global temperature rise that is already melting Arctic sea ice and permafrost, raising and acidifying the seas, and shifting rainfall patterns, which has an impact on floods and droughts.

They will focus on side issues, like extending the Kyoto protocol — an expiring emissions pact with a dwindling number of members — and ramping up climate financing for poor nations.

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They will also try to structure the talks for a new global climate deal that is supposed to be adopted in 2015, a process in which American leadership is considered crucial.

Many were disappointed that Obama didn't put more emphasis on climate change during his first term. He took some steps to rein in emissions of heat-trapping gases, such as sharply increasing fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. But a climate bill that would have capped U.S. emissions stalled in the Senate.

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"We need the U.S. to engage even more," European Union Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard told The Associated Press. "Because that can change the dynamic of the talks."

The world tried to move forward without the U.S. after the Bush Administration abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 pact limiting greenhouse emissions from industrialized nations that expires this year.

The concentration of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide has jumped 20 percent since 2000, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil, according to a U.N. report released this week.

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Obama raised hopes of a more robust U.S. role in the talks when he called for a national "conversation" on climate change after winning re-election. The issue had been virtually absent in the presidential campaigning until Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast.

A signal that Washington has faith in the international process would go a long way, analysts said.

For thousands of years, permafrost has trapped Siberia's carbon-rich soil, a compost of Ice Age plant and animal remains. But global warming is melting the permafrost and exposing the soil, causing highly flammable methane to seep out. NBC's Jim Maceda reports.

Thawing Arctic permafrost is releasing methane

"The perception of many negotiators and countries is that the U.S. is not really interested in increasing action on climate change in general," said Bill Hare, senior scientist at Climate Analytics, a non-profit organization based in Berlin.

For example, Hare said, the U.S. could stop "talking down" the stated goal of the U.N. talks to keep the temperature rise below 2 degrees C (3.6 F) compared to pre-industrial levels.

Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy on climate change, caused alarm among climate activists in August when he said that "insisting on a structure that would guarantee such a goal will only lead to deadlock." He later clarified that the U.S. still supports the 2-degree target, but favors a more flexible way to reach it than dividing up carbon rights to the atmosphere.

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Countries adopted the 2-degree target in 2009, reasoning that a warming world is a dangerous world, with flooding of coastal cities and island nations, disruptions to agriculture and drinking water, and the spread of diseases and the extinction of species.

A recent World Bank report found the world is on track toward 4 degrees C (6.2 F) of warming, which would entail "extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise."

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