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News Opinion Editorial

Global climate talks stall — again

One can just imagine the future "Jeopardy" TV quiz show answer: The name of the international conference that took place in early December of 2012 that critics universally panned for accomplishing little despite overwhelming evidence of a global ecological catastrophe on the horizon.

"Alex, what is the Doha Climate Change Conference?" would be the winning question and surely worth a lot to the right contestant. After all, the planet is already in "double jeopardy" — not only from climate change but from the continuing failure of the wealthiest nations to do much about it.

As President Barack Obama is looking to come up with $60-to-$80 billion to offset the worst effects of Hurricane Sandy, a storm that practically shut down New York City, the world's media center, one would think the call to avoid more such costly catastrophes in the future would be deafening. After all, $60 billion is pocket change compared to what global warming could do to the U.S. and other countries from rising sea levels and harsher weather events alone.

It's certainly not a question of uncertainty in the scientific community. The evidence of record-high carbon dioxide levels is overwhelming. It's not just that climate change exists, the studies point out that it's getting worse far faster than previously anticipated.

Yet only the most Pollyannaish of diplomats could see United Nations climate negotiations as producing anything of more lasting consequence than hot air. What emerged from Doha, Qatar was little more than another round of promises — to stick to Kyoto Protocol and to do more in the future (without providing many specifics).

It's not even clear whether developed countries will do anything to help poorer nations in this regard. The U.S. wasn't ready to pledge a definite amount of financial aid. But then that wasn't shocking considering the uncertain state of the nation's finances in the midst of "fiscal cliff" talks.

But aren't most nations in their own fiscal dilemmas? Europeans have been climate change leaders in the past, but they are still trying to get a handle on their own debt crisis. Some of the worst polluters like China and India are not exactly champing at the bit to raise energy costs or potentially limit economic growth.

We would be willing to accept any of these rationales if we seriously thought that meaningful climate change solutions were just around the corner. But if not now, when would the stars be aligned? Would they ever? How perfect that the conference was held in Qatar, the country that produces the largest per-capita volume of greenhouse gases in the world but obviously has a less well-developed sense of irony.

That's not to suggest that all is lost, at least not quite yet. Investment in renewable energy is on the rise in the U.S. and elsewhere. The growing abundance of natural gas — while hardly an environmental ideal given the uncertainties of "fracking" on the water supply — has reduced the burning of coal, the greatest single source of greenhouse gases.

What's needed now is an extra incentive for change, or at least a fair accounting of the cost of pollution. The U.S. and other nations must either institute a tax on carbon or offer emissions "cap and trade" systems to create an economic incentive for alternatives like conservation and non-polluting "green" energy like solar and wind power.

Admittedly, this is a challenging issue. These policies inevitably produce winners and losers. Coal-producing communities are upset while those invested in renewable energy prosper. Foreign aid never wins a popularity contest at the polls. But the difficulty and complexity of the challenge can't be used as an excuse for inaction. How many Hurricane Sandy-like storms of unusual strength and disastrous consequence will be required to convince leaders that current energy policies are a threat to our national security?

Doha is history, but it doesn't require a UN full of negotiators for the U.S. and other countries to take more forceful action. President Obama can lead the charge by revisiting the nation's energy policies in 2013. The people who went to the polls last month knew which candidate favored stronger action in this arena and voted for him. A line needs to be drawn in the sand — even if that wasn't possible in Qatar.

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