In 2009, President Obama made a bet. He told the crowd assembled at COP15 in Copenhagen that the US would be "cutting our emissions in the range of 17 percent by 2020, and by more than 80 percent by 2050". He was putting his chips on H.R. 2454, a cap-and-trade bill that had made it through the gauntlet of committees and amendments and passed the House a few months before. But the bill died in the Senate and carried with it hopes of addressing the US's overwhelming carbon pollution.
Because so many are touting the lack of US leadership at the UN climate talks as a major, if not the primary, barrier to progress, it might be helpful to think of these international negotiations as a domestic issue. Columbia Professor Scott Barrett said as much in an interview with NPR on Monday:
"If you look at lots of global issues in the past, where we've had success in the past, we've had US leadership. On this issue we have not had proper US leadership," Barrett says...If leadership by the US is what's lacking, where can we find it? Is the president hiding it somewhere? Tim DeChristopher thinks so and recently called for environmentalists to defeat him in 2012.
What's politically possible may not be as much as scientists say we need to accomplish to stabilize the planet's atmosphere, but Barrett says we need to start somewhere.
"I'm not unrealistic about what we're able to achieve," Barrett says, "but I'm very confident we can achieve more than we have done so far, which is basically zero."
But if you think power comes from the bottom and not the top, then let's acknowledge that we hold the potential US leadership Barrett laments is lacking going into COP17. And that power, in my mind, is best applied to Congress where meaningful legislation might pass if we're willing to pull out the stops.
Fortunately, we can excersize that leadership right now, by raising a ruckus about climate change in our communities: writing LTEs, steadfastly countering the skeptics, and holding our Representatives' feet to the fire.
On that last point, we've already got a head start. Check out a bill that's quietly sitting in Congress right now, waiting for you to give it a boost: H.R. 3242 - the Save Our Climate Act. The bill calls for putting a tax on carbon and using the resulting money to pay down the deficit and help Americans pay for higher energy costs. It sets a target for reductions: 80% less than what we were producing in 1990.
Two previous versions withered away without much fanfare, but we can pelt our Representatives with cries of support for this one (do it now, in fact!). It's not impossible: Australia passed something similar this month - and their political landscape is much less friendly to such ideas than the EU. The Concord Monitor wrote about H.R. 3242's chances:
In the current political climate, for such a bill to stand a chance, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's ice cream cone would have to melt all over his hand before he could raise it to his mouth. But the act's proponents shouldn't give up. With a presidential race under way and major contenders like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney campaigning on "drill, baby, drill" platforms, it's the perfect time to offer an alternative vision of America's energy future.If we can pass federal climate legislation in the US, even if it doesn't meet all our goals, it'll make a huge difference at these international negotiations. And such legislation will only happen when we recognize that we as citizens possess leadership too.