by Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, October 5, 2009
Last week at the United Nations, at what was billed as the highest-level meeting on climate change ever, there was general agreement about the approaching disaster. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that rising temperatures would “increase pressure on water, food, and land; reverse years of development gains; exacerbate poverty; destabilize fragile states; and topple governments.” President Oscar Arias Sánchez, of Costa Rica, described the session as taking place “on the brink of a precipice for our planet.” President Nicolas Sarkozy, of France, stated, “We are the very last generation that can take action.”
“If things go business as usual, we will not live,” President Mohamed Nasheed, of the low-lying Maldives, told the assembled delegates. “We will die. Our country will not exist.”
President Obama, too, was apocalyptic. “We risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe,” he said in the first of three U.N. addresses. He went on to list the various steps that his Administration has taken—setting new automobile-efficiency standards, investing billions of dollars in weatherizing homes and office buildings, establishing reporting rules for the nation’s largest greenhouse-gas emitters. “The developed nations that caused much of the damage to our climate over the last century still have a responsibility to lead,” he said, before adding, unconvincingly, “And we will continue to do so.”
What would it take for the United States actually to show leadership, instead of just talking about it? First, it would have to impose binding emissions limits of the sort that it has spent the last two decades evading. The Europeans, who are already operating under such constraints, have pledged to cut their emissions by 20% by 2020, and have said that they would agree to a 30% cut if other nations followed suit.
The new Japanese Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has committed his country to cutting its emissions by twenty-five per cent. In the United States, a bill that would reduce emissions by seventeen per cent narrowly passed the House in June, only to become bogged down in the Senate; it is unclear if the bill will reach the Senate floor this year, or, if so, whether it has the votes to pass. (The United States is using a baseline year of 2005, while the Europeans and the Japanese are using 1990, which means that the proposed American cuts are significantly more modest than they sound.)
There is no reason to doubt Obama’s sincerity about climate change. In addition to the actions he mentioned at the U.N., his Administration has, most significantly, classified carbon dioxide as a pollutant, a move that could eventually lead to its regulation under the Clean Air Act. And the President is clearly frustrated by the stalemate in the Senate. But at this late date sincerity is not enough. When the President proposed that Congress take up a climate bill along with health-care legislation and, on top of that, regulatory reform, he made an enormous gamble. This gamble, at some point, could have been called bold; increasingly, it just seems naïve.
For the world to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference,” the United States is, finally, going to have to live up to the commitments it made under the Framework Convention. And, in order for this to happen, Obama is going to have to move climate change to the top of his agenda—quickly. As the President himself put it last week, “The time we have to reverse this tide is running out.”