Even if the United States is gradually losing its status as the world's economic, diplomatic and military superpower, there is one category in which, as of Tuesday, it has emerged as the undisputed No. 1: We are the most environmentally irresponsible nation on Earth.
For the past few years, we've been sharing the title of world's worst climate change offender with China, whose rapid rise in greenhouse gas emissions and refusal to take strong action to curb them made it as big a villain, in the eyes of the rest of the world, as the U.S. That changed at a United Nations climate summit Tuesday when the presidents of the two countries stood up to present their plans to address the problem.
China's Hu Jintao announced concrete steps to reduce his nation's carbon footprint, such as getting 15 percent of its power from non-fossil sources by 2020, planting enough forest to cover an area the size of Norway and limiting the growth of carbon emissions as a percentage of the country's gross domestic product.
President Obama, meanwhile, gave a speech that was as packed with high-flown rhetoric as it was devoid of any new proposals. U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer no doubt echoed the thoughts of many at the summit when he said that, as a result of China's dramatic policy shift, it "could well become the front-runner in the fight to address climate change. The big question mark is the U.S."
To be more specific, the big question mark is the U.S. Senate. The House last summer passed a sweeping climate change bill that, if enacted, would leave China in the dust. It would cap carbon emissions at 17 percent of 2005 levels by 2020.
It would also require the nation to get 20 percent of its power from renewable sources, or from greater energy efficiency, by that year. Yet the bill has stalled in the Senate and, without a lot more effort from Democratic leaders and the Obama administration, is unlikely to come to the floor this year. That will put the U.S. in a woefully weak position in December, when negotiators meet in Copenhagen to hammer out a global climate agreement.
Together, the U.S. and China account for about 40 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.
Beijing's plans to link pollution to economic growth are disappointing, because they will allow emissions in the rapidly developing country to keep rising. But its commitment to specific carbon limits still trumps the U.S., which has yet to set a national renewable energy standard, let alone a carbon-cutting goal.
In Washington, climate change is testing a democratic political system that has always had trouble making present sacrifices to ward off future threats. For the sake of our global status and the well-being of our children, we must pass that test.