U.S. must take responsibility to lead

When world war brought devastation upon the global community in the early 20th century, for example, America led in the creation of the United Nations to facilitate a forum for multilateral diplomacy, development and defense. When countries required financial institutions capable of substantial asset management and loan guarantees in the mid-20th century, America led in the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. When international trade burgeoned in the late 20th century, America led the way in fashioning free trade agreements and promoting free markets.

Irrespective of the controversial nature of, and the inevitable partisanship over the UN Security Council, IMF structural adjustment programs, or free market philosophy, the point is, America was there at the founding. Yet, when it comes to an international climate agreement, we have been recalcitrant leaders at the Bali and Poznan climate talks, and now possibly post-Copenhagen. The world is waiting, with a particularly watchful eye from the developing world, which will be hit hardest by the adverse impacts of climate change.

With the White House recently committing to emissions cuts of 17 percent by 2020 (from 2005 levels), 30 percent by 2025, 42 percent by 2030 and 83 percent by 2050, President Barack Obama is recognizing the uniqueness of this moment and is making an important appearance in Copenhagen, setting the precedent for American support and leadership. Obama’s opt-in approach comes on the heels of the House of Representatives’ climate bill that, albeit not perfect, mainstreams the idea that we must act now to prevent climate change. It is also comes in concert with China’s commitment to climate action, after many confidence-building measures with a previously recalcitrant country.

Now in the hands of the Senate, climate legislation must not get sidelined by either party politics or by oil, gas and coal industry interests.

Why?  Because if we as a country fail to lead now, we put ourselves at increased environmental risk, we ensure that other leading polluters like China and India will follow suit by failing to act, and we forgo a financial opportunity to build a green economy that simultaneously reduces our reliance on insecure oil-rich states.

Perhaps the full Senate needs to witness the benefits of leadership, something Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) have long understood. Fair enough. Take Obama’s November trip to China.  Keep in mind that while China is the world’s largest national polluter, the U.S. still pollutes at a rate four to five times higher per capita. So while the U.S. rightly points out that China must act in tandem on climate change — as many members of Congress have been doing passionately and not always diplomatically — China somewhat justifiably expects the U.S., one of the highest per capita emitters, to lead first. As a result of Obama’s confidence-building efforts, both presidents — Hu Jintao and Obama — announced in November an array of pragmatic approaches to partner on clean energy and energy efficiency initiatives.

In China, Obama’s leadership is meaningful. Not a day after Obama announced his plans to attend Copenhagen, China followed suit by announcing that Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, would also attend.  Additionally, China pledged its first specific carbon commitment, promising to cut its carbon intensity, which is the measure of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP, by 40 percent to 45 percent compared to 2005 levels. This is something. Yes, more needs to be done, but this is more progress than any previous president has brokered in talks with the mainland. And the message is making its way across Asia to Delhi. This fall, India, which is the world’s fourth-highest national emitter of greenhouse gases, announced plans to generate 20GW of solar power by 2020, which could equate to 75 percent of the world’s solar energy.

Obama’s leadership is rippling through the subcontinent.

This is what leadership looks like. If we lead, we not only shift market forces toward clean and green energy, making it easier for developing countries to follow suit, but we shift the moral argument in favor of climate action, making it very difficult for other big global emitters to remain recalcitrant. It is now time for the Senate to step up and seize this moment to offer truly visionary leadership, one that will define the future not only of this country, but every other one as well. What an opportunity.
Honda is a member of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition.