State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Our Leaders Can Run, But They Can’t Hide

This is the first of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.

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As the nations of the world prepare to meet in Denmark, there is some well publicized noise being emitted to lower expectations for a climate treaty. The United States and China—the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, with over 40% of the world’s pollutant load–appear to be at the center of this effort at political agenda setting. They are trying to lower expectations so that any progress at all can be presented as a major victory.  They are also, along with India, planning to use the Copenhagen meeting to announce emission reduction targets that each nation is setting unilaterally.

While politics often denies and defies logic, I think that we are going to see some real action in Copenhagen. The pressure and momentum from the public, the media and other nongovernment players in Copenhagen will be enormous. While it is true that it may be too late to develop and sign a global climate treaty, it is way too late to do nothing.  When the government folks arrive, they will find themselves in the center of an onslaught. That is why we are seeing this effort to pre-empt the international agenda coming from the United States and China. While some may oppose nations acting in this way, I think it is a necessary step on the path to a global climate agreement.

There are two motors behind emerging climate policy. The first is the actual danger posed by global warming. The second is the rising cost and uncertainty in the supply of fossil fuels. A transition to a renewable energy base is not a luxury item; it is essential to our economic well being. In the global economic competition, the future will belong to those nations that learn to deliver energy with the least economic and environmental cost.  This will require companies to cut costs on materials, labor, production processes, waste management, transportation and energy itself.  These forces will continue to operate with or without a climate treaty. A climate treaty–and a climate law in the United States itself–will provide a strong signal to the public and business leaders that governments will push for a green energy economy.

In the case of the Obama administration, the failure to produce such change endangers the fragile political coalition that brought it to office. The Copenhagen conference should be seen as a giant two-week long media event pushing climate policy. It will be the climate change Olympics. President Obama and his fellow world leaders understand this fundamental fact; that is why they are coming to Copenhagen prepared to announce emission reduction targets.

It is in Obama’s interest to ride this media wave and encourage it to build. The predictable aftermath of Copenhagen will be a rise in understanding of the climate problem, and support for change at national and international levels.  As the mid-term elections approach and the Democrats continue to sink in the polls, they will need tangible results or, at a minimum, a well fought loss, to energize the first-time voters who made the difference in 2008. As I have argued before, for the Democrats to have any chance of maintaining control of Congress in 2010, they must have success with economic revival, health-care reform, and climate and energy policy—and they must link them together in a way that shows that the change we were promised is well underway.

If the main message out of Copenhagen is that the United States temporized and retreated, the Democrats will have deep problems. The president not only needs to go there and clearly articulate his own climate policies; he needs to signal a real willingness to work toward a meaningful and realistic global climate policy.

Steve Cohen

Steve Cohen is executive director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University.

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