For much of the latter half of the 20th century, the world was locked in a cold war. Two superpowers amassed nuclear arsenals capable of destroying the world many times over.The world took sides and watched as the superpowers stared one another down, fingers poised over red buttons that could only lead to mutually assured destruction. It was an uneasy peace kept by deterrence to action.
Today, the world is caught in a less tense but still serious international standoff over how to stop climate change. But instead of two adversaries staring each other down and threatening to push their mutual-destruct buttons, the entire world is keeping their buttons pressed, spewing heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an ever increasing pace that scientists warn could lead to mutually assured destruction of the natural systems on which all life depends.
To veer away from emissions-as-usual, the political stalemate over climate action must be broken.
Many countries rightly look at developed countries, particularly the United States, to make the first move because we have been the historically dominant emitters of greenhouse gases. But now China has surpassed the United States in total emissions with their surging coal-fired economy. Brazil and Indonesia are also among the world’s top emitters because of rapid destruction of their verdant tropical forests. Newly industrializing countries like South Korea and India will soon “catch up” if we don’t all start to take our fingers off the emissions buttons.
Countries will, of course, have different responsibilities for emissions reductions based on their historic emissions and capacity to act. Regardless of who goes first, though, all nations will need to do their part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by protecting forests and transitioning to more efficient and less carbon-intensive energy use.
During the cold war, inaction kept the peace. With climate change, inaction exacerbates the problem. Every year that we delay results in another 10 billion tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions spewing into the atmosphere.
There are no longer expectations that a binding climate change treaty will be signed in Copenhagen. But world leaders can still use this meeting to reach a decisive political agreement that sets a clear course toward reducing global emissions. It is time to lift our fingers off the emissions buttons and start working toward a more sustainable, low-carbon future.