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America: Step up on climate change

Global warming is the nuclear issue of our age.

By Helena Cobban / December 31, 2007


2007 was the year that global warming became a defining issue in world politics. The science behind it has become firmer than ever. People around the world tell pollsters they judge climate change to be a very serious – sometimes immediate – challenge, and a strong majority say they are ready to make lifestyle changes to reduce warming.

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Nearly all the world's governments started acting on this issue a long time ago. They have been working together under the 1999 Kyoto Protocol to reduce the world's total emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs).

But where is the United States? The Bush administration has been a notable laggard on the climate question. Only recently and reluctantly has it started to shift from a long-held policy of working with a Washington-dominated "coalition of the willing" toward considering binding international agreements under United Nations auspices.

The years 2008 and 2009 will be crucial in environmental diplomacy. American citizens and our government should push the present momentum even further, working energetically and in good faith with the rest of the international community to tackle the challenge of global warming.

At the UN's mid-December Climate Change Conference in Bali, which launched the negotiations for a follow-on after Kyoto's 2012 expiration, two events underlined the problems with the go-it-alone posture the US had maintained until then. First, Australia's newly elected Labor Party prime minister presented the gathering with his country's ratification of Kyoto, leaving the US the only significant country remaining outside the agreement.

Then, in Bali's last, tension-filled hours, US Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky was openly booed by other participants when she said the US would reject the action plan the 187 other delegations had painstakingly negotiated in the preceding days.

The representative of tiny Papua New Guinea stood up and publicly chided Ms. Dobriansky. Five minutes later, Dobriansky announced that the US would, after all, accept the plan. That announcement was greeted by well-deserved cheers.

But peoples and governments around the world had taken note of the humiliating moments. We can safely expect they will be watching America's performance on the climate issue very closely in the important years ahead.

US policy on environmental issues matters a lot – to us, our grandchildren, and the world. It matters first because we are probably still the world's highest emitter of GHGs (though China is rapidly catching up). Americans make up fewer than 5 percent of the world's people, but we contribute more than 20 percent of the world's emissions of the key GHG, carbon dioxide.