Copenhagen, A Review

Our View: Progress Is Made In Climate Change Talks, But Not Enough To Celebrate

December 23, 2009

Heaping praise on the "breakthrough" achieved at climate change talks in Copenhagen, as President Barack Obama did last week, may seem an awkward overstatement at best, but it's just as wrong to mischaracterize the United Nations conference as an outright failure. Rather, it achieved modest progress and represents a hopeful step toward the kind of binding global agreement that is alleged to be the goal of all involved.

Is anyone shocked that the meeting did not produce an ironclad deal? There are any number of circumstances that made this virtually impossible (a fact that became apparent weeks ago), not the least of which is the U.S. Senate's failure to support a serious commitment to reducing greenhouse gases produced in this country.

At least the interim agreement that came out of Denmark roughly outlines the path that participants will need to follow in the months ahead if they are to reach a broader agreement. And even that would not have happened had Mr. Obama not personally injected himself into the talks at the 11th hour and held a reluctant China's feet to the fire.

That kind of U.S leadership has been so absent from the world stage these last eight years that the president's performance should raise hopes even more than the promised "climate aid" for developing nations - a fund that could rise from $30 billion to $100 billion by 2020 - or the commitment by the Chinese to submit to a verification system, although both are vital.

Such slow, steady progress neither excites environmentalists nor outrages those who deny climate change science. But it does appear to be typical of the Obama recipe for change: one part hopeful rhetoric, one part incremental movement in the quest for consensus through compromise.

Admittedly, there is an urgency to the Earth's warming that does not suit the excruciatingly plodding nature of international negotiations, especially when there are 193 countries participating. More will have to be accomplished by focused talks among the top 20 polluting nations, as they account for some 85 percent of greenhouse gases produced worldwide.

But, as Mr. Obama conceded last week, the road ahead is going to be hard, very hard. It will require nations to invest substantially more in energy alternatives and to accept that the real cost of burning fossil fuels is far greater in the long run than their current price reflects.

Now that health care reform is finally making its way out of the Senate, it is time for the president to put a greater emphasis on approving a cap-and-trade program and other reforms to achieve that promised 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions within the decade. The legislation's passage may come too late for the conference, but it is not too late to spare the world some of the harshest consequences of global warming.

Here in Maryland, the potential effects of climate change could prove dire, indeed. Water temperatures in the Chesapeake Bay have already risen markedly in the past half-century, and our coastal communities face a serious threat of flooding as the Atlantic Ocean rises an anticipated two to four feet before the century ends - or it could prove far worse.

We cannot afford to be satisfied with vague promises of reductions and long-range targets that probably aren't sufficient anyway. The world needs a sustained commitment, a continued sense of urgency and a willingness to accept what the best science has revealed. Copenhagen may have moved the world one step closer to tackling climate change, but there are many such steps to go.

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