This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
Barack Obama demonstrated a surprising potential for bipartisan leadership in Norway Thursday when he forcefully defended America in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.
Next stop, Copenhagen. He’ll have to milk that gift for all it’s worth to eventually get a serious climate-change treaty through the Senate.
The Copenhagen climate conference now in progress will not produce a binding agreement on greenhouse gas reduction; with any luck, it will produce a framework of means and ends the world can buy into.
At times like this, “international community” looks like an oxymoron. Different nations often have conflicting interests, even in addressing a common problem.
While many leaders of both wealthy and developing nations want to avert a potentially disastrous climate shift, for example, they’re having a hard time agreeing on how much claim the poor have on subsidies from the rich. The poor argue that the industrialized countries did most of the human-driven damage to the atmosphere over the last couple centuries, so developing countries ought to be cut more slack on carbon emissions and be given billions of dollars to jump-start their own clean industries.
Leaders of wealthier nations largely agree in principle – but disagree over the size of the checks. The stickiest disputes will hopefully get solved before the Copenhagen ends this week.
But the fun only begins then.
An international climate accord will stand or fall by the United States, the world’s second biggest producer of greenhouse gases, behind China. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol wound up crippled after the U.S. Senate refused to ratify it – in part because it cut so much slack to China, India and other developing nations that it couldn’t be sold to the American public.
The respective obligations of rich and poor countries will be an issue this time around, too. But the more fundamental problem is credibility. The U.S. public been has been growing more aware of the scientific evidence for climate change and its implications. But Americans have always been skeptical of what they see as big government schemes, especially ones that come with international strings attached. When the scheme comes with a price tag – as this will – skepticism rises.
Attempts to create a sense of crisis have not gone over well in this country; advocates have often undercut themselves with overstatements and scare tactics.
Americans must be persuaded that while global warming may be incremental and gradual, it is nevertheless real and gravely dangerous. The argument must acknowledge the honest scientific disputes – but point out that the bulk of the jury has long since accepted the preponderance of evidence and rendered its verdict.
Most important, the argument must persuade the great American center – and some Republican senators – that action is necessary. The deal hasn’t been closed yet with the public. If there’s anyone but Obama capable of closing it, he or she is nowhere in sight.