Op-Ed: The Climate Challenge Begins at Home

Opinion Editorial
The Climate Challenge Begins at Home

The Washington Post


Now that the rest of the world has resolved to move ahead with the Kyoto global warming treaty, pressure is mounting on the Bush administration to get back in the game.

The administration, surprised that other nations struck agreement last month in Bonn despite U.S. rejection of the treaty, does not yet know how it intends to approach the next round of talks this fall in Marrakech. The advice from Capitol Hill, however, has been clear and remarkably bipartisan. Voting 19-0, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has urged the administration to return to the negotiating table and to bring with it a new proposal for a retooled Kyoto accord or some other “binding” climate treaty.

In the long run, certainly, no strategy against climate change can succeed unless it secures binding commitments from all countries that are major emitters of greenhouse gases — a roster, as we all know, led by the United States. But pushing the administration to offer up its vision of a Kyoto alternative is probably not the way to get there. While that may have made sense before the July meeting in Bonn, it is too late now to devise a quick diplomatic fix. Instead, the administration should focus its efforts on the more immediate challenge: launching a national strategy to rein in America’s soaring greenhouse gas emissions.

Right now it is more critical that we take concrete steps at home to curb emissions than figure out how to reengage the United States in the broader international effort. The sooner we succeed at the former, in fact, the easier it will be to achieve the latter.

As it happens, prospects are suddenly better than ever for getting legislation through Congress to at least begin laying the foundation for genuine emissions reduction. Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto pact not only galvanized international support for the treaty; it sparked a new dynamic on the Hill, where both parties now seem eager to show they’re serious about global warming.

Democrat Robert Byrd, of coal-producing West Virginia, and Republican Ted Stevens, of oil-producing Alaska, won quick committee passage for a bill that boosts funding for technology research and gives the administration one year to develop a strategy to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. That, incidentally, is the far-reaching goal of the 1992 Rio climate treaty signed by the first President Bush and ratified by the Senate.

Meanwhile, Dianne Feinstein and Olympia Snowe are leading a bipartisan drive in the Senate to improve the fuel efficiency of SUVs; and Jim Jeffords is using his new perch as chairman of the Senate environment committee to move legislation that would cut carbon emissions from power plants.

Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman have just teamed up behind an even more ambitious proposal, called “cap-and-trade.” Their idea is to set a nationwide cap on emissions and, by letting companies buy and sell emissions credits, allow the market to find the most cost-effective ways to meet it.

“Cap-and-trade” may well be the best way to go. It meets two key tests of an effective, affordable strategy: It sets a binding target, or series of targets, that signals markets to invest in cleaner, more efficient technologies; and it gives companies the flexibility and incentive to cut emissions at the lowest possible cost.

Constructing a workable economy-wide system cannot be done overnight, which is why it is important to start now. McCain and Lieberman say they will meet soon with industry leaders to hear their views on what can be achieved and when, an important first step in designing a system that works for both the environment and the economy.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of immediate steps we can take. For starters, we should require all major emitters to accurately track and disclose their annual greenhouse gas releases. We should create tax credits for new technology development and diffusion, and negotiate arrangements with industry to reduce emissions before mandatory targets are set. And we must ensure that future regulation does not penalize companies that take the lead by acting now.

Achieving the long-term emission cuts needed to avert climate disaster is a monumental undertaking. Our challenge, ultimately, is to wean the global economy from fossil fuels through a second industrial revolution that delivers cleaner alternatives. Fostering better technology is the key, and, given the right signals, the marketplace will do just that. It is government’s job to send the right signals.

That has yet to happen here in the United States. American leadership on climate change has been continually undermined by our failure to get our own house in order. Having now abandoned the Kyoto treaty, the United States can return credibly to the negotiating table only when it has shown it is serious about cutting emissions.

We must chart a path that in time will make the United States a full partner in the international effort against climate change. That path begins at home.

Eileen Claussen is president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Elliot Diringer is the center’s director of international strategies.