I have, however, a modest proposal of my own: a climate deal with China. Climate change is a more urgent problem than nuclear proliferation. Obama is deeply seized with the subject, as is John Kerry, his all-but-confirmed secretary of state. Hurricane Sandy was a seminal moment, having something of the effect on public opinion that the Sandy Hook school shooting has had on gun control; wait a few months, and more calamities will push the public further still. The United States and China, which together produce almost half of global carbon dioxide emissions, are the key to solving the problem. Congress has refused to take any serious steps so long as the major emerging countries -- above all China -- fail to do so, but U.S. inaction provides an indispensable pretext for Chinese hesitation. No one wants to move without the other.
At the same time, there is tremendous activity on both sides, both at the private-sector level and at the state level. California has a cap-and-trade system, while nine Northeastern states have agreed to reduce emissions from power plants. In China, six provinces have begun pilot cap-and-trade programs. There is more "bottom-up" than "top-down" progress in both countries. A climate agreement could coordinate and accelerate that progress. William Antholis, a former trade and climate negotiator for President Clinton now at Brookings, suggests as a "middle bar" a bilateral framework that would promote cooperation between the two countries at the state and provincial levels as well as joint programs on auto-emissions standards, natural gas technology, alternative-energy research, and the like. Such a pact could include specific targets for emission reductions or improvements in "energy intensity" -- emissions per unit of energy.
Of such useful but modest steps, however, legacies are not made. And we will be living in a very hot world by the time these measures have taken full effect. Because neither country appears prepared to adopt a national cap-and-trade system, the "high bar," says Antholis, would be a joint agreement to impose a carbon tax. This could counteract the effect of growing U.S. oil and gas production by making conservation measures and the use of alternative-energy sources more appealing (another one of the Brookings "big bets," by the way). And of course it would apply to each country, not just to particular states and provinces. There may be no other way of bending the curve of global emissions growth downward quickly enough to avoid catastrophic changes in the environment. This would have the added benefit of providing a sense of common purpose and common interest to the United States' contentious relationship with China.
Since Beijing surely would not bind itself until Washington does, Congress would almost certainly have to pass such a measure in order for China to sign. That would be quite a heavy political lift. Republicans would insist that such a measure be revenue-neutral, which is to say that it would have to be offset by a tax cut and thus could not be used to invest in, say, alternative-energy development. But that's self-defeating: The American people, as I've said before, will accept serious climate change measures as an opportunity for growth and bold change, not as a sacrifice or punishment. The highest of the high bars would thus be a deal with China, bringing with it a carbon tax and new investment.
That would require mighty deft diplomacy both at home and abroad -- though now that we're on the subject of legacy, it's hard to imagine a more lasting one for a Secretary Kerry. Both Kerry and Obama will, in fact, want to lay a big bet somewhere. I say, let's wait for a few more hurricanes and droughts, and then get to work.