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It Doesn't Get Bigger Than This

To see how the world's major economies might make progress this week on climate change, look back to 1992.

The world economy, the future of the financial system, the rebuilding of a nation’s infrastructure. Nothing small, it seems, gets done in Washington these days. But this week at President Obama’s Major Economies Forum could be the start of the biggest challenge yet. Climate change.

This is an issue that requires imagination, political will and the vision to champion generations to come while meeting the urgent needs of today. Climate change is an issue that intertwines the lush rainforests of Brazil, the gleaming American automobile and the roaring factories of China. The solutions will require seismic shifts in the way we use and consume energy, the launching of entirely new economic sectors, and a strong hand of assistance to those that are already suffering the impacts of a changing climate.

And it will demand all of these actions from the world’s major economies, acting together. When, a cynic might ask, was the last time world leaders showed that kind of vision?

Not as long ago as you might think. In 1992 the world’s leaders met at the “Earth Summit” in Rio, Brazil, to shape the future of our planet. Then, the threat posed by climate change appeared far more distant than it does today. Yet, to the surprise of many, the community of nations shaped the world’s first international climate agreement – the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreeing to act to prevent dangerous changes to the Earth’s climate. And the United States, led by the first President Bush, signed and ratified that Convention.

For the past seventeen years the science of climate change has become ever sharper, and the impacts have been felt sooner and more powerfully than we had anticipated. The Earth’s drylands have doubled in size, ice sheets are retreating, storms are more severe and floods more extreme.

At the same time, many of the world’s major economies have moved to act. Brazil has set ambitious goals to reduce deforestation, and is pushing forward with renewable energy. Mexico and South Korea are adopting emissions targets. The European Union has now had a successful cap and trade system running for several years. China is engaged on what President Obama has rightly called “the world’s most ambitious energy efficiency program.”

Perhaps most important of all, the United States, so long the hold-out, is now preparing ambitious legislation to tackle emissions. The world’s largest historic emitter, the United States is still the world’s most vibrant and innovative economy, and its participation is essential.

Both the Obama administration and Congress have laid out visions for an ambitious U.S. climate policy, and for vigorous re-engagement with international partners. They also included $112 billion in green stimulus spending in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, designed to start shifting the U.S. economy on to a low carbon path.

President Obama’s stated objective in convening the Major Economies Forum is clear and commendable. He hopes to “facilitate a candid dialogue among key developed and developing countries and help generate the political leadership necessary to achieve a successful outcome at the [December] UN climate change negotiations in Copenhagen.”

Whether it does so or not depends to a large extent on how far this new process can build trust – between developing and developed countries, and between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Too many countries are pointing to each others’ inaction as a pretext for dragging their own feet. People in all countries, developed and developing, stand to suffer from the ravages of climate change. All have the potential to benefit from a greener path to development. All countries therefore stand to gain from an effective climate agreement.

There are formidable obstacles to overcome, and this week’s important forum will start the work, not end it. Policy challenges don’t get bigger than this. But then, nothing small gets done in Washington these days.

The world has forged a seminal agreement once before on climate, in Rio. We can---and must---do it again, starting this week in Washington, D.C.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso is the former president of Brazil.


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