Poor Barack Obama. Whether or not you support him, our president has been dealt a pretty tough hand. The health care bill is stalled in the Senate, the media has started caring about Afghanistan again, unemployment rates aren’t budging and there’s still that pesky issue of climate change. In the face of all of our nation’s competing concerns, the climate has been relegated to the backseat, but with President Obama’s visit to China this week and the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen just around the corner, there’s never been a better — or more urgent — time to pull the issue back into the spotlight.
According to a joint statement from the Chinese and American governments released by the White House’s Office of the Press Secretary on Tuesday, “The two sides maintain that a vigorous response is necessary and that international cooperation is indispensable in responding to this challenge.” This statement is encouraging if for nothing other than its implicit acknowledgment that the issue exists and merits their attention. Still, other world leaders, our Congress and even our president himself (by his own admission at a meeting last weekend in Singapore) remain doubtful about the likelihood of this statement translating into real and effective legislation on a national or international scale this year.
China and the U.S. have a long history of finger-pointing, and the current stalemate over the climate crisis reads like a dishearteningly immature reenactment of the age-old “I will if you will” waiting game. Obama has demonstrated his dedication to the issue by authorizing the Environmental Protection Agency to limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal-burning power plants, but Congress won’t pass any significant climate change legislation until countries like China make a similar commitment. China, in turn, wants to see the U.S. carrying its own weight — that is, bringing its emissions down closer to the rest of the world’s levels per capita — before they compromise their own growing economy.
True, the western world, especially the U.S., bears the brunt of the blame for getting us to where we are now, climate-wise. And true, while China’s emissions per capita may be much lower than America’s, it’s fast becoming the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, if it isn’t there already. But the fact remains that without immediate, substantial commitments from both nations, who together produce 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, nothing anyone else might do could possibly be enough to rein this problem back in to where it needs to be.
With the fate of our planet and the security of our people on the line, we can’t afford to hold out for the other team to make the first move, tabling the issue until Obama’s next visit to China or the United Nations’ next climate conference. During his campaign, Obama got a lot of mileage out of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous statement about “the fierce urgency of now,” but for few issues is “now” more urgent than for our climate.
Although it will still be a while before the brunt of global warming’s impact hits us — though, to be sure, when it does, it will hit hard, especially for those most poorly equipped to handle the blow — it will also take time for today’s legislation to mitigate that impact. And each new coal plant we build or wind farm we pass up on locks us into another half-century of dirty energy.
Still, Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao did come to some encouraging agreements this week. A joint clean energy research center is in the works, as are plans for greater clean energy development and higher efficiency standards, demonstrating an ostensible willingness to work together. To have any effect though, these two leaders must be held accountable and both parties must follow up with real, substantive action; this baby step must then be translated into a definite roadmap, with concrete deadlines and time limits, for the broader global community at Copenhagen this December.
Opening the dialogue is important, but we can’t afford to fool ourselves and think that it will take anything less than swift, decisive action to tackle this truly global crisis.
Samuel Huber is a freshman in Morse College.