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.
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.
Our per capita emissions rate looks even worse: It is more than twice that of the advanced economies of Japan or the European Union, more than five times that of China, and 20 times India's. Clearly, as we ask other countries to cut back their emissions, we should also be ready to credibly promise that we will be making deep reductions of our own.
America's environmental policy also matters deeply because climate change has become such a critical issue in world affairs. The world's 6 billion non-Americans, and their governments, will be carefully monitoring whether Washington participates fully in the technological and lifestyle transformation that will be required to reduce emissions in the years ahead – and whether we deal fairly with other countries as we do so.
Leaders from Europe and many other regions have expressed harsh criticisms of the Bush administration's tendency to "go it alone" on climate issues. Officials in China, India, and other low-income countries argue, not unreasonably, that their citizens also deserve the chance to have lifestyles similar to those of Americans and Europeans. They argue that concerns about climate change should not be used to deny them that chance.
If all these aspirations are to be met and the Earth's climate is to be saved, it will require far-reaching changes in how modern societies organize their economies: in how we generate power, manufacture and transport goods, design cities, farm, and use forests. No one country can on its own foster and finance the level of innovation required. Nations need to allocate the tasks and responsibilities involved in a way that is equitable, inclusive, and sustainable. The UN's big post-Bali negotiation, which will last two years, will be the main forum for this effort.
The Bush administration is now, after Dobriansky's Bali U-turn, on board with this process. In mid-December, too, Congress adopted its boldest plan to date to reduce GHG emissions – but it still did not go far enough. And in a separate provision, Congress continued its practice of giving hefty subsidies to coal and oil producers.
That's why all Americans – from the grass roots to the presidential candidates – must now intensify the national conversation about what we want our country's role to be in the global climate negotiations of 2008 and 2009.
Climate change now looks set to be the same kind of touchstone issue in global politics that nuclear weapons has been since 1945. As with nuclear weapons, the threats posed by climate change know no national boundaries. They could, in some circumstances, threaten all of human life. As with nuclear weapons, good-faith international cooperation is a must if the climate problem is to be brought under control.
The people of the rest of today's richly interconnected world will be monitoring Washington's performance carefully. How will Americans and our leaders respond?
Helena Cobban is a "Friend in Washington" with the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Her views are her own.