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Lonely senator says Copenhagen necessary for climate action in U.S.


COPENHAGEN—Not a lot of U.S. Senators will make the trek to the United Nations' climate summit here—a delegation led by California Sen. Barbara Boxer will stay home to focus on the ongoing health care debate while arch-contrarian Senator James Inhofe (R–Okla.) stopped in but briefly. But Sen. John Kerry (D–Mass.) made the trip to say that "success in Copenhagen is really critical to success next year in the U.S. Senate and Congress."

That is, without action toward a global agreement in Copenhagen, it will be difficult, in Kerry's opinion, for senators from, for example, Ohio to reassure constituents that U.S. action won't reduce economic opportunity. "Here in Copenhagen, it's critical that people understand that one of the reasons the U.S. has moved as slowly and with reservation is a fear by many members of Congress and people across the country that if we take those steps [to cut CO2 emissions] they're simply going to be eclipsed by rising emissions in developing countries," Kerry says.

After all, Kerry noted that total greenhouse gas emissions from China will likely be 40 percent higher than the U.S.'s by 2020, and 97 percent of emissions growth in the next decade will come from developing countries. "None of us on the planet are doing enough under any plan currently proposed to keep the temperature from rising two degrees Celsius," Kerry notes. "India, China, countries that didn't have to step up have stepped up and have made a commitment to reduce," but those emission reductions will need to be verified.

"It would be a terrible irony, to say the least, if we succeed in understanding the terrible mistakes that have been made over these years but have brought us where we are with this crisis but allow the less developed world to repeat our mistakes and develop the way we did," Kerry says. Partnerships among the U.S. and India and China to develop technology, as well as cleaner fuel sources, such as shale gas, the discovery of which may enable the U.S. to reduce its emissions more quickly and cheaply than anticipated, have been signed in recent weeks.

Ultimately, Kerry is optimistic for climate legislation in the U.S. in 2010, noting business and bipartisan support for action as well as passage of a bill in the House of Representatives this year and the looming threat of regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "We're going to pass major energy and climate legislation that will have an impact on the reduction of emissions," he says, by June most likely. "The only way to reduce emissions and meet the goals that science tells us we must meet is to price carbon," whether a tax, cap-and-trade scheme, or other policy.

After all, the science of climate change and its impacts becomes ever more clear. "Science has been screaming at us since Rio [in 1992] and it's screaming at us today even more so," Kerry says. "Vast populations are going to experience negative consequences as a result of something they had nothing to do with."

And with world leaders already descending on Copenhagen, the pressure is mounting here to get a deal done. "Ministers who have their bosses coming are particularly keen ot have things done," says Todd Stern, chief negotiator for the U.S. "I think it's pressure of a salutary kind."

Image: © David Biello

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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