The Copenhagen Disaccord
But the United States cannot easily stand in judgment of such foot-dragging. Citing domestic constraints, the Obama administration has pledged to cut US emissions by a mere 4 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, well short of the 25 to 40 percent cuts the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says are required to (perhaps) limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. China offers its own domestic justifications: with 150 million Chinese living in poverty, economic development must be the top priority, and that for now means more fossil fuels. Some independent experts also refute Lynas's claim that China's commitment to reduce its carbon intensity is a mere PR move. "[That commitment] is a very big deal," says Mark Levine of the China Energy Group at the University of California, Berkeley, who has collaborated with China for the past twenty years to improve energy efficiency. "If other emerging economies were to do likewise, it would cut projected global emissions by 2050 in half."
One root of the US-China disagreement concerns the historical responsibility for climate change. Developing countries have long argued that it is not fair to expect them to slash their emissions when millions of their people live in poverty. After all, it is the historic emissions of rich industrial nations that caused global warming in the first place. The planet has only so much "atmospheric space"--the capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. With global temperatures having risen 0.8 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and with another 0.6 "in the pipeline" because of the long life span of carbon dioxide, much of the atmospheric space has already been occupied.
This distribution of atmospheric space is the apparent basis of China's objection to the 80 percent target for developed countries and to a related proposal for 50 percent reductions in global emissions by 2050. "If you agree to 2C and a global 50 percent reduction and then accept [the developed countries' 80 percent reductions by 2050], it has the effect of locking in your own future emissions," says a China expert who requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing professional relationships. "That would allow China much lower per capita emissions than those of the US and other developed countries."
Lynas rejects such arguments as a recipe for disaster. "The historical responsibility argument makes sense in one way only: as an argument for adaptation financing," he wrote in an e-mail. (One of the few bright spots in the Copenhagen Accord was a pledge to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor countries cope with climate change, though it is unclear whether the money will materialize.) But such historical responsibility, insists Lynas, "is not an argument for others to pollute just as much....That is the logic of 'mutually assured destruction'--where human concepts of equity triumph over the necessity for planetary survival."
The world's leverage over China would doubtless increase if the other climate superpower was moving more aggressively. The Obama administration, Congressional Democrats and many mainstream environmental groups are pinning their hopes on the climate legislation that passed the House last summer and, in somewhat different form, awaits Senate action this spring. More radical environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have criticized the bill as woefully weak--not just on its emissions targets but because it would cancel the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Instead, the bill would rely on a cap-and-trade system, which critics complain is fatally compromised by its giveaways of the vast majority of pollution permits.
The most persuasive defense of the climate bill comes from Joe Romm, an assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration who blogs at ClimateProgress.org. Romm points out that the legislation's "lame" 2020 targets get much tougher after 2020 and hit 80 percent by 2050. "If you put in place a shrinking cap on emissions, that will inevitably raise the price of carbon, and that will be transformational," says Romm. He sees legislation as superior to EPA regulation, in part because he suspects that industry lawsuits would cripple EPA action, at least regarding existing power plants and other pollution sources. "I would love to keep EPA authority," Romm says, "but it makes no sense for progressives to take down this bill [on those grounds]. Once you've set up the economy-wide shrinking cap, the only thing you get from EPA authority is easy regulation of new--though not existing--coal-fired plants. But if the climate bill passes, no one is going to build those plants anyway."
"Contrary to what we keep hearing, Obama's hands are not tied by the tragically weak cap-and-trade bills," says Kassie Siegel, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, whose report "Yes, He Can" outlines the case for unleashing the EPA. "Extremely deep emissions reductions are feasible with today's on-the-shelf technology.... Moreover, the Clean Air Act is a 'technology forcing' statute, so the EPA is supposed to do what's necessary to protect the public health, even if [that] appears impossible with current technology." As for potential lawsuits thwarting the EPA's effectiveness, Siegel replies, "Sure, industry can bring lawsuits, but that doesn't mean they will win, and there is nothing to stop them from suing over a cap and trade system either. Of course we want climate legislation too. But that legislation must build on the foundation of highly successful environmental law we already have, not roll it back."
Romm responds that canceling EPA authority is the price Republicans and wavering Democrats demand for backing climate legislation. "That's a price I'm willing to pay," he adds.
So, tough choices, tough challenges, tough timetables. As we grapple with them, we must above all reject the temptation of despair, which only warps thought and paralyzes action. The fight against climate change has reached a decisive moment. We must seize it with all our hearts.