The world community will need to get much more serious about global warming than what it showed at the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen this month. The accord reached after two weeks of negotiations was a weak starting point for any meaningful effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Washington will need to show stronger leadership if it hopes to prod China and India to temper their industrial growth with responsible strategies for controlling pollution. Poorer states also will need assistance in making the needed investments in clean energy technologies. The Senate can help by passing a strong climate bill, which would give the Obama administration a club on the international stage.
The Copenhagen accord was a symbolic step in bringing the world's major polluters to the bargaining table, but it also showed how challenging it will be to force binding timetables for emission reductions. The accord recognizes the science behind man-made global warming and declares climate change "one of the greatest challenges of our time." It calls for controlling any increase in global temperatures, and for creating funding pools worth up to $100 billion by 2020 to help developing nations adapt to cleaner energy policies.
The accord brought China and India, which have long resisted any substantive cuts, out of their cocoons. But the price was steep. The accord is nonbinding, the timetables are meaningless and there is no way to verify whether or how nations are cutting pollution levels. The financing to help poorer nations develop cleaner technology also rests on the Senate agreeing, as the House did this summer, to tax carbon output. That legislation faces such an uphill climb that the Senate has postponed debate until 2010, an election year.
Copenhagen did inch the ball forward politically. China and India put emissions targets on the table. Developing nations acknowledged they need to grow without relying on fossil fuels. The industrial states recognized their obligation to help poorer nations deal with the ecological fallout of global warming. There is broad acceptance, at least in theory, that emissions need to be monitored under a process that is transparent and verifiable.
President Barack Obama did the right thing in hanging tough with China. The world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases has blocked progress by insisting that climate policy be treated as an issue of national sovereignty. Obama is right that any binding agreement must be subject to international review. That hard line should help pass a climate bill in the Senate — an absolute necessity to moving China and other major polluters to do their parts. The United States needs to lead by example to build political pressure before next year's climate talks in Mexico, the next step to real action on climate change.