Can America Make a Deal to Save the Planet?

Can America Make a Deal to Save the Planet?

Can America Make a Deal to Save the Planet?

Despite inaction over the past eight years, the United States still has a chance to reclaim a leading global role in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.


There are two clocks ticking for the god-fearing climate-conscious among us. The first counts down to Copenhagen, where on December 7 representatives from 192 countries will hammer out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol: a post-2012 global climate deal aimed at curbing greenhouse gases. The second hurtles us toward disaster, a “mankind-threatening juggernaut,” the point at which atmospheric carbon dioxide exceeds a concentration of 450 parts per million. To the extent that global warming is contingent on carbon emissions, the tipping point will be determined at the UN Framework Conference for Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen, the last stop on the Bali Roadmap toward what UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer has called “the most complex international agreement that history has ever seen.”

In less than ten months, the Danish capital will host as many as 15,000 ministers and officials whose challenge is to collaborate a shared vision for long-term cooperative climate action. Specifically, they will determine burden-sharing agreements based on “common but differentiated responsibilities,” and developed countries must pledge ambitious emissions reduction targets. The alternative business-as-usual approach, which is to do nothing, will shoot CO2 levels up to 900 ppm by 2100, causing worldwide temperatures to increase nearly 7 degrees Fahrenheit and sea levels to rise anywhere from 3 to 7 feet, nearly tripling predictions made in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report.

In fact, temperatures are accelerating at such a clip that the IPCC’s 2007 report, a gathering and distillation of thousands of peer reviews submitted by hundreds of the world’s top climate experts, was outdated upon presentation. Since then, scientists have abandoned the language of numbers and data analysis in favor of urgent calls for immediate action. There are, of course, a few odd deniers, such as William Happer, professor of physics at Princeton University, who announced last week at an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing that we are actually in a “CO2 famine” and that increased levels “will be good for mankind.” For the most part, however, the consensus is that if temperatures continue to rise as they are, we will not escape hell and high water within the next decade. And where policy is concerned, Obama is considered our last best chance to get it right. “We have only four years left for Obama to set an example to the rest of the world,” said James Hansen of the NASA Institute. “America must take the lead.”

Obama has made it clear that slowing the climate clock is a top priority for his administration. Beginning with his environment and energy cabinet picks, the “Green Dream Team,” it’s fair to say, as Representative Lloyd Doggett did at a Ways and Means committee hearing, that “this president is committed to changing the White House into a greenhouse.” And it’s no surprise that after eight years of Bush obstructionism, Obama’s willingness to engage on warming and energy matters is being seen as a “sea change” by the international community. But if he really wants to make good on his claim to a new dawn of American leadership, the United States must at least bring the framework of a federal carbon-caps legislation to the Copenhagen table. On the other hand, putting together meaningful legislation will be difficult, especially when the de facto leader of the Republican party, Rush Limbaugh, is encouraging the spread of ideas that climate change is a conspiracy cooked up by the Chinese, the “ChiComs,” to destroy the US economy.

Remarkably though, Democrats are not backing down. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi emphasized last week that building a new economy around green jobs is the “flagship issue” for the Democratic Congress. “This isn’t ‘dig a hole, fill a hole,'” she said. “It’s about doing it in a new, greener way.” Also last week, House Energy & Commerce Committee chair Henry Waxman stood by his Memorial Day deadline for climate change legislation and told reporters that his committee has already begun writing a bill, which he expects will set a national standard for renewable energy and a cap-and-trade program. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid confirmed that he has been sold on Waxman’s far-reaching megabill strategy to combine climate and energy legislation into one package. Finally, the New York Times reports that Senator Barbara Boxer is researching the use of a budget reconciliation process as a way to safeguard the bill from a Republican filibuster. These efforts are reassuring but not enough. The road to Copenhagen must come on two tracks. While Democrats should continue to push hard for a strong domestic climate bill, it’s equally important that the United States join forces with its polluting bedfellow, China, to mobilize an effective global response to the unique challenges of the twentieth century.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took a critical first step in this direction by shining a light on the need for bilateral US-China efforts to overhaul our global economy from one that’s coal-driven to one that’s low-carbon and energy efficient. Clinton’s highly publicized trip to Beijing last month meant to signal once and for all that the United States is serious about climate change. But it will take more than signals to keep the ice caps from melting. As the president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, Eileen Claussen, explained, shifting to a climate-friendly economy “is not an issue of just sitting down to work out a position in the global framework. We must consider how the US and China can cooperate, so we can both benefit and really show movement. Because if we show bilateral movement, the rest of the world will follow.” In order to guide the process, the Pew Center and the Asia Society Center released a joint project, a “Roadmap for US-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change.” It is a concrete program for sustained high-level engagement and on-the-ground action focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Because, the truth is, Claussen said, “There’s no possibility of addressing the problem if the US and China don’t do a lot relatively quickly, which is evident in the numbers alone.”

Todd Stern eloquently summarized the US position in the lead-up to Copenhagen when he accepted the position of Hillary Clinton’s special envoy for climate change:

As the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases, we can only expect to lead abroad if we are prepared to act decisively at home. Yet we can only meet the climate challenge with a response that is genuinely global.

Surely the clocks are ticking louder and faster than ever, but if the United States takes swift and aggressive action on climate change, at home and abroad, we might make it in time.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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