For U.S., leadership role in climate talks should begin in Washington

We’ve been reserving judgment on last week’s United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen because we’re still trying to figure out what, exactly, happened. An acrimonious two-week negotiations marathon ended Saturday with a raucous final session in which delegates “noted” (but didn’t exactly approve) an agreement seemingly thrown together at the last minute by representatives of the United States and four other big greenhouse-gas emitters. The pact, if you can call it that, has no binding targets, monitoring mechanisms or legal force.

Though some diplomats and environmentalists are positioning the deal as an important step forward, others say it is a failure. Meanwhile, world leaders are pointing fingers at one another for not coming up with something more substantive. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez attracted applause by blaming global warming (along with AIDS, poverty and murder) on capitalist countries, while British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Monday denounced a handful of countries for holding the talks “to ransom.”

To observers of past treaty negotiations, none of this is particularly surprising. The World Trade Organization has been struggling for eight years to complete its Doha round of talks aimed at lowering barriers to agricultural trade, which would have clear economic bonuses for every country. Yet if entrenched political interests can prevent even such a clearly beneficial deal from going forward, think what they can do to a treaty that will impose significant costs on many countries to avert a crisis whose future impacts, while solidly researched, remain theoretical. If aliens from outer space had commenced an invasion of Earth last summer, the U.N. would probably still be arguing about how much money industrialized nations should be obliged to pay for repairing photon torpedo damage in the developing world rather than organizing a response.

We haven’t given up hope for a worldwide climate accord. Such a deal is important, and someday it should be achievable. But Washington needs to get its own house in order before it can play a leadership role in global climate talks, or expect them to bear fruit. Right now, we’re less concerned about the lack of action in Copenhagen than about the lack of action on a climate bill by the U.S. Senate. Granted, the world has to contend only with demagogues like Chavez, who at least grasps the clear evidence that climate change is happening; we’ve got to deal with the likes of Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, who considers it a hoax. Nonetheless, the U.S. bears an overwhelming burden of responsibility for the problem, and the world will follow only if it first sets a good example.