As the most industrialized nation, the United States has been the largest historical contributor to the fossil fuel emissions that have placed the planet in peril of dangerous warming. Yet the government has failed to lead the way to a national or international solution. The Clinton administration participated in the 1997 U.N. negotiations in Kyoto, Japan, for a treaty that would begin to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the developed world. But faced with tough Senate opposition, the Clinton White House never brought up the treaty for a ratification vote. President Bush rejected Kyoto early on as “fatally flawed,” but did not work to negotiate an alternative. Instead he advocated for further scientific research and emphasized that progress could be made with voluntary cutbacks. A Climate Leaders program was established, now involving 232 companies, many of which have reduced carbon emissions through energy efficiency measures — but most have set no goal at all. And the United States, which has seen no reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 2000, is on track for a 16 percent increase through 2030.
Meanwhile China, which is quickly building coal plants to power its burgeoning economy, has surpassed the United States in annual carbon dioxide emissions. Scientific evidence has mounted that global warming is causing glacial melt and the disappearance of the polar ice caps, and it may also have a role in more intense hurricanes and worsening forest fires. Since 2007 the United States has been the lone holdout among developed nations in not signing the Kyoto accord, and while U.N. talks on a successor treaty proceed, most nations were awaiting the change in administration in Washington before tackling difficult details. President Bush argued that he has taken a “rational, balanced” approach to climate change, stressing the importance of technology. In 2007 he launched separate meetings of “major economies” on the climate, parallel to the U.N. talks.
In 2008 the group agreed climate change was ”one of the great global challenges of our time,” and that worldwide emissions should be cut in half by 2050. But they developed no road map for getting to a target viewed by many as too modest. The years of inaction have been costly. The scientific consensus view, reported by the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is that the world faces widespread water and food shortages, spreading disease, and mass migration of people from low-lying areas. Said IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri last year, “What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future.”
President-Elect Obama says “the science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear,” that climate change is one of the most urgent issues facing the nation and the world. He promises a new chapter in which the United States will “engage vigorously” in negotiations to a successor treaty to Kyoto, and will work with Congress to establish national limits on greenhouse gas emissions. But his administration will have to face down strong opposition from the nation’s largest business lobbies, who argue that imposition of a climate change policy would amount to a burdensome tax on an economy that is already on its knees.
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