A Lost Opportunity for Environmental Leadership

U.S. Must Lead the Charge on Climate Change

As the world’s most powerful country—and biggest polluter—the United States must lead the fight against global warming.

“The planet has a fever,” Al Gore said in his testimony before Congress last Wednesday. “If your baby has a fever, you go the doctor…You take action.” Gore’s message to Congress was simple: human activity is causing global warming; failure to combat it carries great risks; and significant cuts in the emissions that cause global warming will only be enacted if the United States leads the charge. Another discussion on climate change will take place today as the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality hears testimony on how to engage developing countries in efforts to combat it.

The United States is in an extraordinary position to lead the fight against global warming. As one of the world’s richest and most powerful countries, the United States has substantial leverage at its disposal to encourage other countries to follow its policy prescriptions. And there isn’t a better way the United States could make use of its heft than by encouraging developing nations to make efforts to cut emissions. Not only will developing countries be impacted most severely by climate change, but these countries are also some of the worst environmental offenders. China and India were big contributors to a 15-percent increase in global greenhouse gas emissions between 1992 and 2002, according to a World Bank report released last year. It is critical that developing countries be brought into the climate regime as early as possible.

But the United States can’t lead the fight against global warming until we knock out one of our worst enemies: ourselves.

China and India’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions may be increasing, but the United States is still the worst polluter in the world—the source of about a quarter of all emissions. At the same time, the United States under the Bush administration has been one of the countries least willing to enact measures to combat warming. We lag far behind other rich countries in working to cut down greenhouse gases, most notably because President Bush failed to ratify the international Kyoto treaty that puts a mandatory limit on emissions.

Today’s congressional climate-change hearing will bring up the specter of lost opportunities for U.S. leadership in fighting global warming. A hearing that took place yesterday offered a glimpse of what some countries are doing to face the issue—and the course of action the U.S. government should take. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee heard testimony on the European Union’s emissions trading scheme, which requires companies that exceed their allowed emissions to buy other firms’ unused emissions permits.

The Center for American Progress has called for the United States to implement a national cap-and-trade program similar to the European Union’s scheme. An effective U.S. cap-and-trade plan would include the immediate creation of a national cap on emissions and a market for trading credits; economy-wide implementation that protects early adopters and provides opportunities for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and agriculture and forestry industries to participate; and the potential for integration into international carbon credit trading markets in the future. Furthermore, an effective U.S. program would provide for mechanisms by which U.S. companies can meet their emissions reductions by investing in the capacity of developing countries to adopt lower-polluting technologies.

If the United States were to follow the European Union’s example and undertake such a program, it would bring immeasurable gains in the fight against global warming. Not only would U.S. emissions decrease, but the United States could then use the power of its own good example in addition to its other forms of influence to encourage developing nations to cut their own emissions.

The planet has a fever: in just the last century, the planet’s temperature has already increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, leading to rising sea levels, a decrease in snow coverage, retreating glaciers and sea ice, and increasing instances and severity of droughts. It’s time for the U.S. government to take action to prevent further warming and use its unique position of power and influence to lead other countries to do the same.

For more on CAP’s recommendations on combating climate change, please see:

An upcoming event on climate change:

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