Fiddling While the World Burns

September 26, 2009

Maria Tomchick

The UN Summit on Climate Change came and went last week, with very little change in nations' attitudes toward capping carbon emissions. In spite of the Obama administration rhetoric that the meeting was a successful step forward, no deal was reached-no consensus on targets, no caps on emissions, and no specific goals to reduce global warming gases.

Certainly, the leaders of individual nations stood up, one-by-one, and gave self-congratulatory speeches about the small steps they were taking to regulate carbon emissions in their respective countries. Chinese president Hu Jintao expressed a willingness to set specific goals, but gave no indication what those goals would be. Each country had the same attitude: "we're willing to do something, we just don't want to be the first to commit to a specific goal." Even Japan, which has committed to specific targets, will only enact their plan if the rest of the global community follows suit. In other words: "you go first."

It's hard to argue that the country to go first should be anyone other than the US. We've been responsible for most of the carbon emissions spewed into the atmosphere up till now. If China now produces more than we do, it's only been in the past year or two that they've surpassed us. We are still the global leader, at least in perception, and if we want to kid ourselves that our actions inspire other nations to follow our lead, then we need to act with the responsibility that leadership requires.

President Obama, however, has pushed the climate crisis further down on his agenda, below the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which should be ending by now, but aren't), the healthcare reform debate (which has been slowly simmering for years and could have waited awhile longer), and the economic crisis (which he's used as a convenient excuse to put off instituting carbon caps). Sure, switching from a carbon based energy system to cleaner energy is going to have an economic impact, but it has to begin as soon as possible or the economic impact in the future will be even more dire than the current recession.

Take, for example, the UN Environment Program's latest report, released shortly after last week's climate summit. It predicts that, if all the countries in the world institute the strictest carbon limits that they've committed to so far, the planet will warm by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. That's approximately double the previous estimate done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007. In addition, the new report predicts that sea levels will rise by as much as 6 feet by 2100, instead of the 1-1/2 feet predicted by the IPCC. Such a change would be catastrophic in terms of population dislocation, salination of low-lying farmlands, and would seriously disrupt the world's climate system, bring food scarcity, and, yes, negatively impact the global economy.

So there's no excuse to stall, even for another year. The Copenhagen Summit in December is fast approaching, and world leaders are no closer to agreeing on an agenda, much less a new treaty to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol. The Obama administration should be looking at the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and telling themselves: "we will never have a better chance than this to pass binding legislation to regulate carbon emissions. Let's do it now."

Instead, in the absence of any action in Congress, state governments are taking action in court to force limits on carbon emissions. Much of the carbon emitted in industrialized countries is caused not so much by vehicle exhaust, but by the burning of coal to generate electricity. Coal is still the cheapest and easiest way for many nations, from China to the US, to power our computers and turn on our lights.

So eight states, along with New York City and three public land trusts, sued in court for the right to prosecute five power companies for creating a "public nuisance" by not reducing their carbon emissions. Last week, a two-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York ruled in favor of the states' right to sue the power companies. Notably, the two judges were not "liberal judicial activists"; one was appointed by George H.W. Bush in 1990 and the other was nominated by George W. Bush in 2003. If conservative justices can rule in favor of carbon limits, then Congress no longer has any excuse to punt on this issue.

But it's up to the Obama administration to roll up their sleeves and get started on an international treaty while simultaneously pushing for legislation in Congress. It's not enough for us to take a wait-and-see approach, or to argue that individual nation's goals are good enough to bring carbon emissions down, because those individual limits are clearly not strong enough.

If the US can propose that G-20 nations submit to an international economic plan for "more balanced growth" to be monitored by the IMF and a peer review process, then we can at least propose an international framework for balanced carbon reductions. Such a framework would not rely on a cap-and-trade scheme that allows the biggest polluters to continue their destructive ways, but would institute a global carbon tax that makes businesses pay the real costs of using dirty forms of energy. The proceeds from the carbon tax would be used to develop and implement cleaner forms of energy production.

The solution is within reach. Someone-in this case, President Obama-needs to step forward and announce a plan. Obama missed his cue when he engaged in hand-shaking and back-slapping at the UN summit instead of laying a serious proposal on the table and asking the rest of the world to make firm commitments to steep reductions. There's not much time left before the Copenhagen summit, he needs to get busy.

--Maria Tomchick