Maurice Strong, Secretary General of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, liked to joke that when world leaders gather for a major international convocation only two outcomes are possible: success . . . and real success. With the Obama Administration’s negotiating team likely to go to Copenhagen in December empty-handed, the prospects for real success in tackling climate change this year are dimming.
The United States is in the driver’s seat in this negotiation. In particular, if the US negotiators were to arrive in Copenhagen with a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions locked in through legislation, then other nations, including the major developing countries such as China and India, would find themselves pressed to commit to emissions controls as well.
If the Congress fails to act - as now appears likely - the United
States will cede its climate change leadership role, making any
substantial progress nearly impossible.
For Copenhagen to produce a “Beyond Kyoto” climate change agreement, the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility,” on which almost all past successful international environmental cooperation has been grounded, must be revived. The idea of “common” responsibility means that every nation must be part of the solution. No country can be allowed to sit on the sidelines.
“Differentiated” responsibility means that what is expected in terms of policy and resource commitments will vary depending on a nation’s level of development. The United States, Europe, and other wealthy nations will need to make major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years while the big emerging economies must agree to reduce the rate of growth in their emissions. For example, China, rather than having its emissions rise 40 - 50% in the next decade, might be asked to limit this growth to 20-25%.
But if the United States isn’t willing to sign up to shoulder its share of the burden, the effort to mobilize a worldwide response to climate change cannot move forward. Outside Europe, there is little interest in taking action until the United States addresses its own emissions. More generally, the recent history of international environmental policy cooperation suggests that real success depends on not just US participation but US leadership.
Scientists tell us that the climate clock is ticking. We may have already passed the point where significant damage from global warming and the associated sea level rise, changed rainfall patterns, disruptions to agriculture, and increased intensity of hurricanes - is unavoidable. Simply put, the price for lost US leadership at this moment is very high.
Dan Esty is the Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale University and author of the recent award-winning book, Green to Gold. He served on the US negotiating team that produced the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change.