Countdown to Copenhagen: Why the U.S. Must Act at Home

Yesterday marked the long-awaited release of the Waxman-Markey "discussion draft" of a clean energy and climate bill. I welcomed this development. After all, I have worked for more than a decade to prepare for the moment we find ourselves in: at last the president of America and the U.S. Congress are seriously grappling with how to curb global warming.

It is gratifying to see, but I can't help but wonder: will they come to a resolution fast enough?

The clock is ticking. In December, the international community will meet in Copenhagen to forge a new climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol (click here to see how many days, minutes, seconds until the conference). Already this week, preliminary meetings began in Bonn (see my colleague Jake Schmidt's reports from Bonn here).

All parties agree that if the United States has not already taken significant steps at home to reduce its global warming pollution before Copenhagen begins, the international effort to stop climate change will be deeply undermined.

I am concerned that time is running out. There is a lot of climate activity in Washington now, but is it moving fast enough? Is it headed in the right direction? The draft legislative language released by Reps. Waxman and Markey was a promising start, but can it get passed in time?

Between now and the negotiations in Copenhagen, I am going to write regular posts about new climate action--at the White House, at the EPA, in Congress, and on the International Stage--and assess whether America is moving at the right pace.

Today I want to describe a meeting I recently attended that underscored for me just how much is riding on the United States taking fast action.

The meeting was with Minister Xie Zhenhua, the lead climate negotiator for China. Just like Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's trip to China to discuss global warming, the minister's presence in Washington was a welcome sign. He came to talk with the Obama administration, members of Congress, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. I spoke with him at a meeting of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership.

It was obvious from what Minister Xie told us that China is deeply engaged with climate policy. The minister outlined for us what China was willing to do, but stressed that it would need money for technology transfer and adaptation.

But Minister Xie also made it very clear that the United States has to act first. He said the United States has to come to Copenhagen with a real commitment to lower our emissions at home in order for China to be willing to join an international framework.

Most of us in the room agreed. After all, even though China recently surpassed the United States in global warming emissions, we still have the highest per capita emissions on the planet.

America can and must take leadership on this issue, and international delegates like Minister Xie and visiting Washington to figure out if we actually will.

Most of them are getting mixed messages. In his round of meetings, Minister Xie heard great things from the White House and great things from Henry Waxman, but he also heard a lot of resistance from some members of Congress.

It's not going to be easy getting a climate bill through Congress by December. Yet we must avoid what happened in Kyoto, which is when the U.S. negotiators signed the treaty, but Congress failed to ratify it.

The coming months will be critical to avoiding that kind of diplomatic debacle. We still have time to pass a U.S. climate law before Copenhagen--a move that will not only place us at the forefront of international climate leadership, but also create millions of jobs here at home. We just have to use the time we have wisely.