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The climate-change conundrum

/ Source: National Journal

There's a conundrum at the core of the sharpening debate over climate change.

It may be impossible to build consensus for mandatory American reductions in the carbon emissions linked to global warming without progress toward an international agreement on the problem. But it may be impossible to complete an international agreement unless the United States first imposes mandatory reductions on itself.

In this country, opponents of compulsory limits on carbon emissions cite the refusal of China and India to accept such requirements. China, India, and other emerging economies justify their resistance by pointing to President Bush's rejection of mandatory American cuts. The standoff has left experts expecting little progress this year in the United Nations negotiations aimed at crafting a successor to the Kyoto climate agreement by December 2009. "The rest of the world is pretty clearly waiting for the change in administrations," says Reid Detchon, executive director for energy and climate at the private U.N. Foundation.

Could the U.S. act before Bush leaves office? In late March, the Environmental Protection Agency said it would seek extended public comments before responding to last year's Supreme Court decision directing it to regulate carbon emissions unless it can provide a compelling reason not to. That virtually guarantees that Bush's administration will end without regulatory action against global warming.

But Congress is stirring. The Senate is moving toward a June vote on legislation sponsored by John Warner, R-Va., and Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., that would require U.S. greenhouse-gas emission reductions of about 25 percent by 2020 and 66 percent by 2050.

The bill faces opposition from the Right, which considers it a recipe for higher energy prices, and ambivalence from the Left: Environmentalists want deeper cuts (both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have proposed 80 percent reductions by 2050) and also want to charge businesses for all of their greenhouse-gas emissions (not just some of them, as the bill specifies). The legislation probably won't become law. Even if the sponsors can attract the 60 votes necessary to break a Senate filibuster, and pass a companion bill in the House, there's little chance they can amass the two-thirds majorities that would be necessary to override a virtually certain Bush veto. But a simple majority vote in the Senate for mandatory carbon reductions would generate momentum for action after Bush: No such legislation has attracted more than 43 Senate votes before.

Both at home and abroad, then, 2008 looks like a stepping-stone toward critical climate decisions in 2009. That's why this week's announcement by former Vice President Gore could prove so significant.

Gore revealed that his Alliance for Climate Protection will launch an unprecedented three-year, $300 million campaign to build public support for action on global warming through television ads, grassroots organizing, and initiatives on its website ( The effort won't endorse specific legislation. "It's aimed more at changing the whole tenor of the debate," Gore told National Journal. If it succeeds, Gore argues, it will create "an appropriate sense of [public] urgency" that will intensify pressure on Washington. He hopes to recruit 10 million activists.

But Gore also recognizes that domestic action on climate change is more likely if it's accompanied by progress abroad. So in his new campaign, he is trying to enlarge the constituency for emission limits in other countries. He has already trained activists in India to deliver a global-warming slide show based on his documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, and he is optimistic that he will receive permission to conduct a training session in China. He is exploring buying ads in both of those countries.

Building an effective global movement against global warming is obviously a long-term proposition. In the meantime, Gore believes that the key to international agreement is for the U.S. to first impose mandatory limits on itself. "The No. 1 objection that China, India, and other developed countries have put forward is that the U.S. has been the biggest contributor so far to this problem ... and we are doing nothing," he said. "When the U.S. flips on this, then all the other possibilities open up." Still, concessions from China and India during the U.N. talks would remove a major barrier to congressional action. On this issue, not only the consequences but the politics inextricably bind together the world.