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Pro: China and India will eventually join U.S. in war against global warming

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Matthew R. Auer
November 28, 2009
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Should the U.S. sign an agreement to reduce CO2 emissions?

It seems like proponents for tough measures on climate change have fallen on hard times.


President Obama, who campaigned for strong American leadership to fight global warming, has backpedaled. The Senate, preoccupied with health care reform and a troubled economy, hasn’t made climate change a priority. Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada says the Senate may not vote on a climate change bill until well into 2010—long after countries meet in Copenhagen for climate talks.


Meanwhile, atmospheric temperatures over the past few years haven’t continued their steady upward climb, effectively idling Al Gore in that cherry picker he used so effectively in “An Inconvenient Truth.” Has global warming hit the back burner with barely a pilot light to keep it warm? Keep an eye on that pilot light. Those stalled atmospheric temperatures may have to do with decades-long cycles in the movement of warm and cool oceanic waters.


Recent efforts to model these cycles actually predict, with considerable accuracy, the current global temperature plateau. They also predict a continued, overall warming trend in the long-term as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere.


Meanwhile, in the policy arena, numerous retired U.S. military leaders, including Anthony Zinni, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, are calling climate change a “threat multiplier.” Among other concerns, the Pentagon is pondering the consequences of chronic failed harvests and shrinking water supplies in unstable countries such as Somalia, Sudan, Kenya and Nigeria—think: social unrest, mass migrations, breeding grounds for terrorists.


Leaders in China, India and Pakistan are mindful of these risks, too. They are among the countries most likely to suffer from water scarcity as climate change dries up mountain snowpack and disrupts the monsoon season.


Yet, China and India, the two largest greenhouse gas emitters in the developing world, steadfastly refuse to sign any agreement requiring cuts in their own emissions. So why should the United States sign an agreement that other major emitters reject?


The answer depends on the architecture of the pact that replaces the current Kyoto Protocol. Using the House of Representatives’ 2009 Waxman-Markey bill as a benchmark, the United States would agree to “Kyoto-lite”—a set of targets and a timetable that is arguably weaker than the provisions agreed to by most advanced industrialized countries in 1997. And in all likelihood, the final House-Senate compromise that lands on President Obama’s desk will be less stringent than Waxman-Markey.


The United States could justify its insistence on Kyoto-lite because in sheer volumetric terms, it may end up agreeing to reduce more greenhouse gases than any other single nation. America will also be a big contributor to a future financial/technology aid package for developing countries that need help adapting to climate change.


An international agreement requiring the United States to do what it intends to do at the domestic level anyway, with or without China and India as treaty co-signers, is better than a feeble, “lowest common denominator” agreement that gets China and India on board but requires no real action from anyone.


The United States, China and India could turn out to be climate heroes if they put their minds to it. Some tantalizing assets are in place.


In fact, China is getting smarter about how it produces and uses energy. Everything from high-tech furnaces at steel mills to newly insulated office buildings are saving energy in China.


China’s solar power and wind turbine industries compete fiercely with U.S. firms for global market share. Meanwhile, in India, Tata Motor’s peppy Nano minicar gets 65 mpg, and new alternative fuel and electric battery models are in the works.


With that kind of ingenuity and their newfound wealth, China and India, in partnership with the United States, could go a long way in fighting global warming, with or without a resounding diplomatic triumph at Copenhagen.


Matthew R. Auer is the dean of Hutton Honors College and a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Readers may write him at Indiana University, 811 East 7th Street, Bloomington, Ind. 47405.

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