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U.S. must step up on climate change

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Kai Ryssdal: The United Nations is moving ahead on greenhouse gas emissions, with or without the United States. The UN is working on a new global warming treaty that’s set to be formalized in Copenhagen this December. Commentator Dan Esty says Congress not getting its act together and passing a U.S. climate change bill before that would just be a cop out.

DAN ESTY: The Obama administration’s negotiating team is likely to arrive in Copenhagen empty-handed. That means the prospects for real success in tackling climate change this year is all but dead.

If the U.S. committed to its own legislation slashing greenhouse gas emissions, then other nations, including China and India, would find themselves pressed to commit to emissions controls as well.

But without legislation, the United States cedes its leadership role in Copenhagen this December, making substantial progress on a new global treaty impossible.

For Copenhagen to lead to a meaningful global accord, the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” must be revived. Every nation must be part of the solution. No country can be allowed to sit on the sidelines.

Of course, policies and resource commitments will vary depending on a nation’s level of development. The United States, Europe, and other wealthy countries will have to make major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years, while the big emerging economies like China have to agree to limit the rate of growth in their emissions.

But if the United States isn’t willing to sign up to shoulder its share of the burden, the effort to mobilize a worldwide response to climate change cannot move forward.

Outside Europe, where an emissions control system is now in place, there is little interest in taking action until the United States addresses its own emissions. And the Europeans are growing tired of carrying the load alone.

Recent environmental history suggests that real success in global-scale issues depends on not just U.S. participation but U.S. leadership.

Scientists tell us that the climate clock is ticking. We may have already passed the point where significant damage from global warming and the associated sea level rise, changed rainfall patterns, disruptions to agriculture, and increased intensity of hurricanes, is unavoidable.

Simply put, the absence of U.S. leadership leaves the planet in peril. But that seems to be where we are headed.

RYSSDAL: Dan Esty is a professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale University. He was on the U.S. negotiating team that produced the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That’s the one before the Kyoto protocols.

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