CANCUN, Mexico -- During a brief appearance at the U.N. climate discussions today, Energy Secretary Steven Chu sounded more like a visiting professor than a senior administration official from a world power.
The Nobel physicist treated a packed conference room at the 16th Conference of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change to a lecture on why the ratios of two different kinds of atmospheric carbon dioxide indicate that human activities, not natural processes, are responsible for rising global temperatures.
"It has our fingerprints all over it," he said.
Chu then discussed federal funding for research. He addressed genetically altered grass blades that contain microbes similar to those that exist inside the stomachs of a cow that make it easier to break down cellulose to produce biofuels, efforts to cut the manufacturing costs and improve the efficiency of lithium-ion batteries, and artificial phosphorescents for transportation fuel.
"It is actually possible to transcend nature, especially if you have materials that nature doesn't have," he said.
Chu also highlighted the Obama administration's success in brokering a deal to increase fuel efficiency requirements for cars and trucks, and the Energy Department's issuance of efficiency standards for appliances.
Chu did not even touch on the subject that many in attendance care most about: how President Obama plans to make good on his pledge at last year's U.N. summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, that the United States would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent in the next 10 years.
The Senate has failed to pass a climate change bill since Copenhagen, and with Republicans set to take control of the House next year, it seems less likely than ever that Obama's target can be achieved, at least through legislative means.
Furthermore, while Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and others visited Copenhagen last year, Chu is among just three high-ranking administration officials set to attend Cancun.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley are set to arrive at the conference later this week.