Before President Obama vowed to address climate change in his inaugural address, U.S. climate policy was so dead in people's minds that skeptics of global warming had crept, unmolested, into the mainstream. Not only do important Republicans still question the merits of climate science and the wisdom of a U.S. climate policy, but terms like "environmental alarmism" and climate "propaganda" are now apparently part of the centrist vernacular. The recession, one might be tempted to conclude, killed climate policy for good.
But Obama's speech, in which he promised to lead the transition to sustainable energy, was not the first indication that progress can be made on climate policy. While a comprehensive federal response to global warming may yet be out of reach, a number of states and localities are taking action independently -- as is much of the rest of the world. Moreover, the president's nomination of Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) as the next secretary of state elevates a staunch advocate of climate policy at the same time as a growing list of American allies are looking for increased cooperation on that front.
Officials around the globe are exploring the future of sustainability, especially in massive megacities, giving the United States a unique chance to engage. The European Union, Canada, and Australia are moving forward with major carbon-saving initiatives. Even China, is aggressively seeking reductions in carbon and oil imports with mammoth investments in renewable energy, restrictions on car purchases and use, incentives for electric vehicles, and even pilot carbon trading programs.
In the coming years, then, the United States may well be able to capitalize on these diverse efforts to marshal support for coordinated measures to slow climate change. The trick, as international relations scholar David Victor has noted, may be to limit ambition and start with realistic goals that can build credibility.
The United States should begin by creating international partnerships on low-carbon transport fuels, which have the potential to eliminate 2.6 gigatons of carbon by 2035 through efficiency gains and fuel switching, according to the International Energy Agency. Alternative fuels not only help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they also enhance global energy security and lessen the burden of high oil bills around the world. For these reasons, many countries are converting vehicles to run on natural gas, while many others are beginning to invest in electric vehicles, biofuels, and even hydrogen fuel cell technology. Countries with important vehicle-exporting industries -- including Japan, China, the European Union, and Brazil -- are taking an especially strong interest in alternatives to petroleum.
Given this nearly-universal interest in alternative fuels, it may be possible to agree on global testing protocols for vehicle efficiency and life-cycle -- steps that would go a long way toward creating global performance standards. The United States could further advance global dialogue by addressing low-hanging fruit such as methane flaring, land use, and deforestation -- starting within its own borders. By starting small and sidestepping controversial issues like universal carbon caps, the United States might find that significant progress is within reach.