Why the World Needs U.S. Climate Action

Panel of global climate policy leaders explain why the United States must lead on climate change and clean technology

“If we look at the Indian scene and look at the actions being taken by state and central governments, it’s a little bit difficult to understand why it is so difficult to get strong legislation passed domestically in the United States,” said Arabinda Misrah, director of the Climate Change Division at The Energy Resources Institute in India, at a CAP panel discussion on Thursday.

Misrah was joined by climate experts from around the world, who described continuing and ambitious efforts to reduce carbon emissions in Europe and the developing world and expressed confusion and dismay at the U.S. Senate’s inability to move such legislation forward. The panel agreed that convincing action from Congress is necessary to persuade governments and private actors worldwide that significantly reducing emissions is both necessary and possible.

CAP Senior Fellow Andrew Light moderated the panel, which was cosponsored by the Global Climate Network. The Global Climate Network consists of nine think tanks around the world, including CAP, that cooperate on addressing issues related to clean energy and global warming.

Light cited the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s report released earlier this summer on the climate legislation proposed by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT). The agency analysis showed that one scenario would provide a 50 percent chance of stabilizing global temperature increases at 2° C by the end of the century—and that’s only if the countries in the Group of 8 fulfill their commitments to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and the major carbon polluters in the developing world don’t begin aggressively reducing their emissions until 2050.

“I don’t like those odds. I don’t like a coin toss on my children’s future,” Light said. But, he added, the analysis reveals how much developed countries can accomplish to prevent climate change—if the United States steps up.

Panelists agreed that countries around the world look to the United States for leadership in reducing emissions. Jiahua Pan, executive director of the Research Centre for Sustainable Development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, explained that many of his compatriots doubt whether they can achieve continued economic growth as well as significant reductions in emissions without U.S. action. “If you would do a little more, that would be an encouragement for the Chinese to do a little more. If you would do much better, that would give the Chinese confidence that they can improve their standard of living without increasing carbon emissions,” he said.

China has already taken determined and ambitious steps to create a clean energy infrastructure. The country shut down inefficient coal-fired power plants with a total capacity of 60 gigawatts—the size of the entire U.K. electricity system. But, said Pan, if the United States proves unable to significantly reduce its emissions, it would reinforce the lack of confidence among many Chinese that further reductions are possible alongside continued industrialization and urbanization.

American inaction has also created uncertainty about U.S. intentions internationally. Marie Parramon, a sustainability legal specialist at the South African nonprofit IMBEWU, explained that her country’s government was preparing to levy a tax on carbon dioxide emissions and that many in the South African private sector are convinced that reducing emissions is necessary to maintain competitiveness in the long term. But the United States’ failure to create a carbon market or finance the development of clean energy technology is creating anxiety. South Africans in government and in the private sector are growing hesitant to continue with their efforts on climate change, said Parramon.

“Just by having you on board in a much more clear position will create momentum on the national level and the international level,” she told the audience at CAP. When asked whether other actions could build confidence, such as EPA regulation of carbon dioxide, action by state governments, or regional efforts such as the Northeast Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Misrah responded that these could send a positive message but would lack the substance of resolute action in Washington. Domestic and local governments in developing countries can only do so much without expertise and financial instruments from the international community, he said.

Andrew Pendleton, senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research in the United Kingdom, said that developing clean energy technology and infrastructure is in the United States’ economic interests—concerns about international confidence and finance aside. “Climate friendly technology is going to be the next wave of economic development—that’s the belief in Europe,” he said.

He summarized European actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which he characterized as motivated more by their desire to make their economies more competitive internationally than by concerns about global warming. “If I was sitting where you are sitting and looking at Europe, I would maybe be thinking, ‘if we don’t do this for climate reasons, let’s think of some other reasons to do it,” Pendleton said.

But Americans’ own conception of their country and its role in the world could trump diplomatic and economic considerations, suggested Misrah. “It’s more from a sense of morality, more from a sense of maintaining credibility in its international commitments, that America needs to come up with strong legislation,” he said, drawing nods from members of the audience.

Featured Speakers:
Jiahua Pan, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Arabinda Mishra, The Energy and Resources Institute, India
Andrew Pendleton, Institute for Public Policy Research, United Kingdom
Marie Parramon, IMBEWU Sustainability Legal Specialists, South Africa

Moderated by:
Andrew Light, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress

Location

Center for American Progress, 1333 H St. NW, 10th Floor, Washington, DC , 20005

Additional information

A light lunch will be served at 11:30 a.m.