How to Fight Climate Change Fast

The past year will be remembered for the global financial crisis. But next year will be no less dangerous, albeit for a different reason. Lost among the economic headlines is an even more important fact: emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, rose by an unexpected 3 percent in 2007. (Story continued below...)

This revelation means that the 50 percent targets for carbon cuts set by Europe and elsewhere by 2050 are already out of date. Scientists now say reductions of 60 to 80 percent will be needed to avoid a catastrophe.

There is other bad news. Everyone knows about the accelerated melting of Arctic sea ice. Now recent U.N. reports offer evidence of less visible but equally troubling changes. Our planet's species are going extinct at an unprecedented rate, according to the U.N. Environment Program. Massive "dead zones" are multiplying in the oceans as pollutants are absorbed, killing off coral reefs and decimating fisheries. Incidents of extreme weather, such as the hurricanes that devastated Haiti and Myanmar, have grown more frequent. Insurers predict that 2008 will set yet another record for economic losses. Meanwhile, U.N. refugee agencies believe that as many as 50 million people will be displaced by climate-related disasters by 2010, and the figure could hit 200 million by 2050.

All this points to a stark truth: though we can overcome the financial shocks of 2008, we will not overcome the climate-change crisis unless we act fast. This means 2009 will be the critical year for the critical challenge of our era.

In early December, world leaders gathered in Poznan, Poland, to chart a shared vision for the future. Then in another year comes a long-awaited summit in Copenhagen, where nations hope to reach a comprehensive new deal on climate change. Getting there will require a clear plan with specific goals within an agreed institutional architecture; a serious commitment to green-technology transfers; and, above all, a readiness by both developing and developed nations to do their part.

Nothing can happen without global leadership and unity of purpose. So far, however, we have fallen short. Narrow differences paralyze us. The United States and other developed nations insist that no accord is possible without the participation of rising powers such as China, India and Brazil. Yet many in the developing world blame the industrialized nations for creating the problem—and insist that they should therefore solve it.

This impasse is a prescription for disaster. To break it means accepting two realities. First: the world is waiting for the United States to lead, and rightly so. The United States remains among the world's most vibrant, entrepreneurial economies. Thanks in part to rising fuel prices, U.S. capital has flooded into "green" energy ventures in recent years. Slowing growth may affect this trend, but won't reverse it. And the new U.S. administration will have climate change high on its agenda.

The second reality is no less obvious: there can be no progress unless the newly developed nations also play a key role. China has surpassed the United States as the largest greenhouse-gas emitter. India will likely soon become the third-largest emitter. Fortunately, many of these nations have already begun moving to combat climate change. China has set national goals for reducing energy use by 2010. It has become one of the world's largest producers of wind power, and it leads in the development of solar energy. Brazil has already built one of the world's cleanest economies, with more than 80 percent of its electricity coming from hydropower, and has become a pioneer in biofuels and hybrid transportation. Meanwhile, Mexico has put more than 1.5 million people to work better managing its forests as a crucial buffer against future climate shocks.

True, the most advanced developing nations have not yet fully shouldered their responsibilities. Yet neither have developed nations. Both things must change before it is too late. Facing this great collective challenge, world leaders cannot wait for others to move. We must act together with the same urgency shown in the financial crisis.

Looking forward to Copenhagen, we should remember the proverbial truth that many roads lead to Rome. Some experts advocate strict emissions limits. Others favor voluntary targets. Still others debate the pros and cons of "cap and trade" carbon markets versus taxes and national conservation regulation. In truth, there is no one solution to climate change. We need all of the above. The important thing is to act, and to act now. When it comes to climate change, it's make-or-break time.