This Earth Day, supporters of political action on energy policy are trying to keep pace with the threat of devastating climate change. Back from recess, a handful of congressional committees are holding hearings as I type, about the scale of American response to the threat, and just what we’ll have to show for ourselves at the United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark this December. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding hearings all week, culminating in additional testmony from former Vice President and climate activist Al Gore—because, as much as our car-driving and leaving-the-lights-on seems like a domestic policy issue, the scope of climate change requires an international focus. Less than nine months before Copenhagen, chairman John Kerry's opening statement calls 2009 a "make or break" year:
The clock is ticking on the best chance the countries of the world will have to marshal an effective global response.
All policymakers involved in this process need to realize that if we aim too low, America and the global community will fail to do what is necessary to meet this challenge. It’s that simple.
Yikes. So what are we doing? Kerry continued:
Our essential challenge in crafting a global deal is how we give life to the guiding principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”— which was codified by the UN and ratified by the Senate in 1992. This largely boils down to a debate over how much action is required from the United States, and how much from China. While much has changed in the past 17 years, we are still struggling to answer this fundamental question. The difference is that in the meantime, China’s economy has nearly quintupled, and in 2007 China surpassed America as the world’s largest emitter. While China is implementing policies to address its energy use – in some cases more ambitious than our own– their emissions trajectory continues to pose a grave risk to the global climate.
This means that China is going to have to pony up—and other populous developing countries like Brazil, India, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia and South Africa are going to have to be major partners. While China may be hard to convince (especially if the US fails to put a price on carbon before December), there is a serious argument for these poorer nations stepping up to the plate:
…The most dire impacts of climate change will likely be felt by those who did the least to bring it about and who are least capable of managing its impacts. Just last week, a study in Science warned that climate change may exacerbate “mega-droughts” in West Africa. We must agree on a global mechanism to support poor countries as they struggle to relocate their citizens and reorient their agriculture patterns and resource use in response to a warming planet.
Hear, hear. Indeed, a recent NEW YORK TIMES piece on developing world environmental challenges noted that soot from rudimentary stoves and cooking fires in the global south are big emitters of the "black carbon" that is causing global warming. And kerosene lamps, while not necessarily major emitters, are responsible for burning dozens of children worldwide. These nations—our partners in crime, really—are going to need help, and financial, technological and moral support as they make these seismic social changes. The best case scenario is that these vulnerable nations—though still industrializing—will listen to reason, climb on board with the US plan of diplomatic action and thereby pressure China into working with us on strict limits for emissions.
Though nothing is guaranteed. Kerry, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special climate envoy Todd Stern have a world of work cut out for them as the debate on international action rages on. Here's hoping that congress can help them out with real steps forward before Copenhagen.
Also: Check out Kerry's piece on browning the green movement today on THE ROOT.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.