Upon arriving at an international conference on global warming in Bali this week, a key U.S. representative sheepishly promised not to get in the way of aggressive new measures to collectively limit greenhouse gases.
"We're not here to be a roadblock," U.S. climate negotiator Harlan Watson told reporters on the island-nation. "We're committed to a successful conclusion, and we're going to work very constructively to make that happen."
Despite that assurance, Watson's statement is a rueful admission that our country — still one of the top producers of those heat-trapping gases — has effectively impeded progress in the past. Unfortunately, that hasn't changed much.
Delegates from about 190 nations are in Bali for the next two weeks to begin forging a new consensus on one of the most profound challenges of our generation: how to reduce rising levels of carbon dioxide from human activities. Scientists have concluded that higher concentrations of atmospheric CO2, mainly from burning of fossil fuels for energy, are playing havoc with the global climate and could threaten life as we know it.
The goal of conferees is to craft a workable plan of action that will eventually replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that pledged 36 signatories to lower their carbon emissions over time. That treaty, which the U.S. Senate never ratified, is scheduled to expire in 2012.
The challenge is urgent. Floods, species extinctions, extreme droughts and melting glaciers are evidence of dramatic climate changes already under way. The symptoms could get worse unless prompt steps are taken within the next decade or sooner to reverse course.
The major sticking point, at least for the United States, has always been accepting mandatory caps on smokestack and tailpipe emissions that have been identified as the worst culprits. The Bush administration and influential American lawmakers have long claimed that binding limits on greenhouse gases would unduly burden the American economy.
The White House has also resisted mandatory caps on the grounds that China and India, which have also emerged as major sources of CO2, have steadfastly rejected them as well. However, any new global climate treaty must include even more stringent carbon controls if it is to have an effect long term.
The administration is correct to insist that every industrialized nation participate in any climate change treaty going forward. Last year, for the first time in modern history, China's rapidly expanding economy produced more carbon dioxide emissions than the United States; India isn't far behind. (In per capita terms, though, the United States still far outpaces China and India.)
However, waiting for other nations to clean up their act before we do likewise is irresponsible and borders on juvenile. It's the equivalent of a petulant teenager complaining that he should be allowed to play in moving traffic because his peers can get away with it.
The world is right to expect leadership on this issue from our country, which accounts for 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. But if delegates are waiting for the Bush administration to assume that role, they need to look elsewhere.
Congress is working on a bipartisan climate change bill that could include mandatory limits on carbon, but prospects for its passage are hard to predict. Frustrated by inaction in Washington, various state and local governments, universities, private companies and average citizens from coast to coast have begun to tackle climate issues on their own initiative.
For example, California is unilaterally trying to force automakers to raise their fuel efficiency standards, while states in the Northeast have formed a coalition focused on reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants. In a recent Supreme Court ruling, justices admonished the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to regulate carbon dioxide emissions as an air pollutant.
Even America's corporate interests, whom the White House insists it's trying to protect from onerous carbon regulations, are growing impatient.
In an announcement timed to coincide with the start of the Bali conference, 33 of the nation's top corporations have called for an immediate construction moratorium on coal plants and other steps to mitigate the effects of global warming.
Another encouraging development occurred last week when the newly elected prime minister of Australia, the only other westernized nation opposed to Kyoto, quickly signed the agreement.
But short of a last-minute change of heart — and policy — by the Bush administration, Americans may have to wait until the next election before their government fully joins the world community in addressing global warming.