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On Global Warming: Trust But Verify

As COP-15 approaches, the world already has a precedent for how the United States and China can work together.

As the nations of the world assemble in Copenhagen, Denmark next week to complete the first step toward a binding agreement to confront climate change, naysayers are running out of reasons to delay or deny progress. The United States and China, which account for some forty percent of global greenhouse gas pollution, have put concrete proposals and commitments on the table in recent days, as have many other key countries. Now the pushback seems to be: how will we know if emission reductions are being carried out? There is a way.

Twenty-three years ago, on October 11, 1986, in Reykjavik, Iceland, President Ronald Reagan and the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, agreed in principle to a mutual reduction of nuclear warheads. Later, when he signed the agreement at the White House, President Reagan quoted the Russian proverb "doveryai, no proveryai" (“trust but verify”) suggesting that trust is fine but what is needed is actual verification. With that one phrase, the president swept aside years of impasse based on mistrust. In three years, over 2,600 weapons were destroyed in the agreement known as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Now the United States and 190 other nations are negotiating another agreement for reductions, this time of polluting greenhouse gases. They will try to reach an accord at the meeting of signatory countries to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark this month. Pollution is already creating widespread damage and it threatens catastrophe if left unchecked. A handful of countries produce most of the greenhouse gas emissions, including the U.S., China, European countries, India, and a few others. But China has become the focus of debate in the United States, because the emissions of China and the U.S. together are so large.

We need an agreement, but mistrust is again an obstacle. Some people say we cannot sign a treaty or even pass climate legislation because they fear that China will steal American jobs by being dirty and cheap. The reality is that while the U.S. delays, China is moving to lead in technologies that are innovative and clean. Nonetheless, deep mistrust remains a barrier to cooperation on technology deployment and agreement on pollution reduction.

The solution now, as at Reykjavik, is to “trust but verify.” It is essential for each side to make commitments in an international agreement and provide verification. Confidence will follow not because we can trust everyone to do what they say, but because we will be able to verify the results of what they do to carry out commitments under a global agreement.

Two decades ago, people worried about negotiating with the Soviet Union. To begin to solve the great threat of nuclear war, we had to figure out a way to cooperate notwithstanding doubts. So today, with carbon reduction, verification is perfectly feasible. In fact, we already have experience with environmental monitoring on which to build.

The main culprit causing global warming is the burning of fossil fuels to make electricity, to run automobiles, and in manufacturing. To reduce fossil fuel emissions, countries must adopt more energy efficient technology and shift to low carbon energy sources, including wind, solar, and nuclear power. This low carbon energy path holds the promise of new business opportunities and jobs as well as avoiding damaging global warming.

To ensure verification of actions to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, countries will must collect data from industry, subject to review and analysis. In the U.S., we are familiar with verifying compliance under our pollution laws. We have seen this work internationally under the Montreal Protocol, the treaty to eliminate chemicals contributing to ozone depletion, a dangerous problem that is on the road to solution. We are also familiar with verification under the peer review process of the World Trade Organization and other agreements. Through continuous review of each others’ actions, countries ensure that their competitors are playing by the rules.

With respect to China, this will not require a revolutionary new system. China is a party to the Montreal Protocol and a WTO member. China has invited international analysts to visit, and make recommendations about, its environmental programs. It has been working for years with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency experts in a successful undertaking to improve its efforts to reduce sulfur dioxide air pollution. Also, on its own, China has begun to require reporting and verification of industry clean energy measures. China has experience on which our negotiators can build. Moreover, the U.S. could invest in satellite tracking as an additional way to help check up on whether China is meeting its commitments.

The Chinese and English languages share the expression “we are all in the same boat.” This commonly-held metaphor suggests our respective people understand why we need to work together. Nations that cooperate to achieve common objectives figure out ways to ensure everyone is doing their part to keep afloat. We have the means to verify action on global warming. Let’s not allow fear and suspicion to sink efforts to confront the global warming that threatens all of us.

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