When U.S. President George W. Bush urged the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases to follow his administration’s lead in confronting climate change at the end of September, listeners could easily view the speech as a lot of hot air about a lot of hot air. After all, during most of President Bush’s time in office, he has consistently cast doubt on any human role in global warming and rejected the international Kyoto Protocol on reducing such emissions as an unacceptable drag on economic development. But even if the president’s newfound interest in cutting greenhouse gas releases is directed at voters who will elect his replacement next year, his change in attitude—though long overdue and still maddeningly provisional—could at least mark the start of a genuine solution to this looming problem.

The world’s nations will soon meet in December on the Indonesian island of Bali to prepare the ground for a fully inclusive successor to the Kyoto treaty, one with enforceable limits on greenhouse gas discharges. If President Bush and the leaders of other Kyoto nonparticipants can finally bring themselves to act responsibly enough to truly face the threat, substantive progress could be made.

A window of opportunity for avoiding the worst effects of climate change still hangs open, but that window is fast slamming shut. Most scientists believe that we must restrict rises in the average global temperature to less than two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. But the business-as-usual track currently followed by the U.S. could take Earth’s atmosphere to more than twice that increase by 2100, so any delay just makes the task harder.

Beyond the increasingly obvious damage to the natural world, climate change threatens to reverse the last two centuries of human advancement within our lifetime. A greater incidence of storms, floods, droughts and extreme climate swings could close the existing poverty trap on millions of the globe’s most vulnerable people. For publicizing such perils, former vice president Al Gore, in his film An Inconvenient Truth, and the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have recently been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Our planet needs effective political leadership. To have a realistic chance of avoiding dangerous atmospheric warming, scientists say, developed nations need to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. A voluntary set of so-called aspirational goals negotiated on a country-by-country basis, such as those advocated by the present U.S. administration, simply will not do the trick. And without binding international restrictions, reluctant developing countries, already responsible for half the world’s total greenhouse gas production, will continue to hold back.

Nearly one out of two Americans now believes that global warming is either already having dangerous impacts on people around the world or will in the next decade—a 20 percentage point increase since 2004, according to a recent survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change, Gallup and the ClearVision Institute. Further, 40 percent say that a presidential candidate’s position on the issue will strongly influence how they vote. President Bush has clearly taken notice, but that newly acquired awareness has so far failed to translate into meaningful action.

Three steps need to be taken. Industrialized nations first must make deep, early and mandatory cuts in emissions. For the U.S., that ought to mean instituting carbon taxes, which would be the most straightforward way to create incentives while avoiding unfair partisan favoritism. But given that most legislators regard carbon taxes as political suicide, the government should establish a national cap-and-trade market. In such a system, international negotiators would set a countrywide cap on carbon releases, and carbon emission credits representing the total under that limit would be auctioned off to emitters, who could then trade the credits on the open market to meet their individual obligations at the lowest cost. Even the American business community is starting to come around to the idea of such restrictions as it begins to envision the huge boost they would provide to the domestic banking and green technology industries. The article on page 70, “Making Carbon Markets Work,” by David G. Victor and Danny Cullenward, discusses both these options and how they could be implemented fairly and effectively.

Second, all nations should invest significantly more in new technology—especially in the development of carbon capture and storage methods—to stabilize the amount of climate-warming gases in the atmosphere. Government action on this front will be necessary because even well-intentioned efforts by private industry are bound to fall short.

Last, rich countries should establish a Marshall Plan–like program to help finance the transfer of the low-carbon technologies that developing countries need to grow their economies while emitting fewer greenhouse gases. Instead of targets for cuts, developing countries should be given incentives to lower atmospheric releases, perhaps by rewarding them with energy development aid when emissions fall below certain levels.

Talk is cheap. It’s time for politicians to stop spewing hot air and start enacting hard limits on dangerous emissions.