President Obama has spoken recently about pursuing a national conversation on climate change. The punch delivered by Hurricane Sandy has provided a spur, reflecting, among other things, the threat of rising seas and intensifying storms. The just-concluded climate talks in Doha, Qatar, also should serve as an incentive, the participating countries still waiting for Washington to take the lead in driving the essential international response to global warming.
The two weeks of discussions ended with an extension of the 15-year-old Kyoto Protocol, a treaty never ratified by the United States and now covering just 15 percent of global greenhouse emissions. Even Japan and Canada have balked. Yet there was agreement among the 200 countries at the meeting in Doha that negotiations proceed during the next three years with the goal of reaching a new accord designed to take effect in 2020.
If past is prologue, there is much room for skepticism about the effort. The hard questions surfaced again. What must developed countries do to aid poor nations in pursuing energy alternatives and adapting to the new realities of climate change, say, the need to erect barriers against flood waters? How much should major developing countries, such as China and India, contribute to curbing their rapidly rising emissions?
The answers are not easily crafted. Still, it hardly requires a great leap to see that significant progress will not be made without Washington playing a leading role, the Obama White House getting past the troubles with the failed cap-and-trade legislation of three years ago and engaging the subject in new ways. A Washington taking concrete steps would provide the leverage to move others.
Give the president credit on a couple of fronts. The new fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks will bring reductions in carbon emissions. It matters that strict emissions limits have been set for new power plants that are built.
Yet a larger opportunity is near, as the country looks to put its fiscal house in order and strengthen the foundation for economic growth and prosperity. The Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution has proposed a modest carbon tax, half of the revenue for deficit reduction, the rest for research and development of clean energy. The carbon tax follows the strong logic of putting a price on something worth discouraging.
The Natural Resources Defense Council has proposed a flexible framework for limiting carbon emissions. Restrictions would be aligned with the power sources in each state, Ohio given a measure of relief for its heavier use of coal. Whatever the actual details, here are ways to think more creatively and constructively, for Washington to act at home and lead globally on climate change.