Leaders of the world's two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, the United States and China, laid out plans in the past week to reduce their impact on the planet. But these two giants on the global scene also suggested two won'ts: They won't be bound to action by other nations and they won't hurt their own economies.
Even with those caveats, the fact that the Bush administration and China's top governing body, the State Council, acted just before the G-8 summit of industrial leaders this week is a healthy sign.
They now recognize their interests, and perhaps the welfare of all nations – especially poor ones – are at stake. They should be welcomed for joining the effort to save the global "commons" that is the atmosphere and oceans.
China's 62-page plan, issued Monday, notes how extreme weather, such as melting glaciers, will "have immense impact on socio-economic development." President Bush didn't go that far in his language last week, but he did call for the top 15 polluting nations to agree on long-term – and nonbinding – carbon-emission goals by the end of 2008.
Step by step – and sometimes backward step – each individual, village, city, and national government must take ownership of this challenge.
For Europe, agreeing to Kyoto's 2012 targets was the easy part, but the Continent has fumbled in managing the treaty's cap-and-trade system. Either by ineptitude or corruption, the caps on pollution were made too loose while the trading of pollution credits has resulted in many dubious projects for mitigating emissions.
This has diminished the European Union's moral credibility on global warming and cast a cloud over negotiations for a new United Nations treaty on climate change that start in December.
In the US, more action is happening at the state and local levels than in Washington. In the House, the ruling Democrats under pressure from lobbyists appear to be delaying tough moves on CO2 emissions until next year or later. This despite one poll that finds two-thirds of Americans want to take action now even if stricter regulations will cost businesses more.
Beijing, too, faces resistance from local officials who have long been rewarded for maximizing economic growth. Targets set in 2001 on energy efficiency are faltering. Only the top Chinese leaders seem to understand that sustainable development will require that China not contribute to global warming. This long-term view will take time to seep down, but it could be one of the main legacies of President Hu Jintao.
These latest steps by China and the US come a decade after the 1997 Kyoto treaty – which they didn't join. Even now, they want to avoid obligating themselves to a new United Nations treaty. They put more faith in promoting efficient technology and renewable energy sources than in mandates to reduce CO2 or a tax on carbon use.
As evidence of global warming's impact becomes irrefutable, the wide disparity between voluntary and involuntary action may lessen. Each nation may then more easily see its own good in the greater good. Most nations may be eager to join a global campaign and to bear the necessary burdens.