Magazine article The New Yorker

Leading Causes

Magazine article The New Yorker

Leading Causes

Article excerpt

On October 13, 1992, the United States became the world's first industrialized nation to ratify a treaty on climate change. The treaty committed its parties to the important, if awkwardly worded goal of preventing "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." In acknowledgment of the fact that America and its allies were largely responsible for the problem, the pact set a different standard for them; Europe, Japan, Australia, and the United States were supposed to "take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof." Signing the instrument of ratification for the treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, President George H. W. Bush noted the special responsibilities that the developed nations were taking on; they "must go further" than the others, he said, and offer detailed "programs and measures they will undertake to limit greenhouse emissions."

The convention remains in effect, and for the past seventeen years the United States has insisted that it is living up to its terms. Under Bill Clinton, this claim was implausible; the U.S. took no meaningful action to reduce its emissions. Under George W. Bush, it became a bad joke. (When the Bush Administration wasn't handing out tax breaks to fossil-fuel companies, it was muzzling climate scientists and storming out of international negotiations.) The election of Barack Obama seemed in this, as in so many other areas, to offer a fresh start. A few weeks after his victory, Obama vowed to open a "new chapter" on climate change. And yet, almost a year later, the United States is again--or, really, still--stuck in the same old pattern. We keep saying that we want to be marching at the front of the parade, and then hanging back with the tubas.

Last week at the United Nations, at what was billed as the highest-level meeting on climate change ever, there was general agreement about the approaching disaster. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that rising temperatures would "increase pressure on water, food, and land; reverse years of development gains; exacerbate poverty; destabilize fragile states; and topple governments." President Oscar Arias Sanchez, of Costa Rica, described the session as taking place "on the brink of a precipice for our planet." President Nicolas Sarkozy, of France, stated, "We are the very last generation that can take action."

"If things go business as usual, we will not live," President Mohamed Nasheed, of the low-lying Maldives, told the assembled delegates. "We will die. Our country will not exist."

President Obama, too, was apocalyptic. "We risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe," he said in the first of three U.N. addresses. He went on to list the various steps that his Administration has taken--setting new automobile-efficiency standards, investing billions of dollars in weatherizing homes and office buildings, establishing reporting rules for the nation's largest greenhouse-gas emitters. "The developed nations that caused much of the damage to our climate over the last century still have a responsibility to lead," he said, before adding, unconvincingly, "And we will continue to do so."

What would it take for the United States actually to show leadership, instead of just talking about it? …

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