Presidential contenders John McCain and Barack Obama have committed to early enactment of mandatory, economy-wide restrictions on emissions, implemented through tradable permits and designed to reduce emissions by 60 to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This goal would move the U.S. ahead of the European Union, which since 2005 has had a permit system covering only half its CO2 sources. In my judgment, if the U.S. finally takes the lead, the E.U. will quickly adopt an economy-wide approach. So will Japan, and probably Russia.
Will the Chinese, Brazilians, Indonesians and Indians join such an effort? The conventional wisdom has been “no”—that they care more about economic growth than climate change. But I believe the answer is rapidly changing to “yes.” These developing countries have figured out that the disruption of global climate is already harming them. Changes in monsoon patterns are unleashing floods and droughts and hurting agricultural productivity in China and India. The Tibetan glaciers that control water flows in the great rivers of both those countries are disappearing at an alarming rate. The rain forests in Brazil and Indonesia are drying and, increasingly, burning.
These major emitters also understand that the problem—now their problem—cannot be solved without their participation. China and India have created advisory and policy bodies at the highest levels of government to deal with climate and energy, and they are cooperating with industrial countries to create climate-friendly energy options. Brazil’s leadership has taken a newly positive stance on international measures to reduce deforestation rates and to better enforce its national deforestation laws.
The encouraging attitudes were on full display at the December 2007 meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. One spokesperson after another from developing countries averred that once the U.S. and other industrial nations start to lead, their governments will follow. Although some members of the U.S. Congress still seem to doubt this resolve, it is past time for this nation to conduct the experiment and start to lead. That is the best remaining hope for averting global climate catastrophe.
Note: This story was originally published with the title, "One Last Chance to Lead in 2009".