REPUBLICANS’ MOST potent argument against acting on climate change — that other nations won’t cut emissions, so U.S. efforts are useless — is crumbling. The European Union has had overlapping climate policies in place for years. China, the world’s largest emitter, continues to fill in details about how it will meet the landmark climate targets it announced a year ago. World negotiators are set to convene in Paris in November to bundle commitments from dozens of nations into a single agreement that should set the world on a path toward lower emissions.
President Obama’s moves to cut U.S. emissions, in other words, have not proved to be unilateral economic disarmament. Instead they have elicited serious commitments from other major polluters. Now more than ever, the United States has reason to lead with confidence.
The most significant recent evidence was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s announcement of concrete steps to peak China’s emissions by the end of the next decade, including a nationwide cap-and-trade program that would put a price on carbon dioxide emissions from several major sectors, including power generation, cement manufacturing and chemicals.
This should only add to Republicans’ embarrassment. Not only is China giving strong signs that it takes climate change seriously, it also is embracing a market-based policy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that the GOP has rejected here. In a bizarre inversion, the United States is adopting a command-and-control approach to emissions-cutting, because that’s all Mr. Obama could do absent congressional action, while China adopts a more liberal approach.
Other countries would not act unless the United States, the largest historical emitter, also took action, and U.S. diplomats would have no credibility to press other nations on a range of climate-related issues. World climate negotiators, for example, should agree on ways to monitor each other’s progress on emissions cuts, keeping everyone honest in an effort that requires many nations to move at once. Moreover, analysis after analysis shows that, while the commitments that countries will bring to Paris will reduce warming over the next several decades, they won’t bend the emissions curve down nearly far enough. Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi agreed last week that each nation should develop not just flimsy emissions targets but real strategies to cut greenhouse gases much further by mid-century. This ambition should be accepted by others in Paris, too.
This is not to say that climate diplomacy — or decarbonizing energy-hungry economies — will be easy. It will take the sort of sustained global effort that only the United States is capable of. Anyone seeking to lead the nation should be explaining how he or she would engage in an international climate movement that is beginning to come together — not irresponsibly and inaccurately arguing that it’s useless to try.