The deal made by Chinese leader Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama to limit greenhouse gases from those two nations represents the most significant action in the fight against climate change in years. Suddenly, it appears international progress is possible in combating one of the most serious threats facing humanity — if the effort is not completely undermined by Congress, that is.
The United States and China are the top two producers of greenhouse gases, accounting for an estimated 40 percent of the worldwide total. That means the agreement under which the countries would gradually ratchet down emissions — China would reach peak emissions no later than 2030 and the U.S. will bring pollution significantly below 2005 levels in a similar time frame — should encourage other countries to do the same.
As much as China has invested in renewable energy in recent years (and the agreement would elevate that further), the country's continued construction of coal-fired power plants has long been the major obstacle to progress on the international stage. China now burns about four times as much coal as the U.S., adding the equivalent of two 600-megawatt facilities per week during one seven-year construction stretch.
To reach these ambitious goals, both countries will have to accelerate efforts in clean energy. As controversial as President Obama's initiatives in this area have already been, the U.S. will have to pick up the pace of clean energy production and invest more in solar and wind power technologies so that carbon targets can be reached.
As might be expected, leading Republicans in Congress were quick to criticize the deal, including Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is expected to assume the role of Senate majority leader in the next Congress. The Kentucky senator has been a devoted critic of Environmental Protection Agency rules that discourage the burning of coal that he believes has cost Kentucky jobs. House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement calling the pact an "example of the president's crusade against affordable, reliable energy that is already hurting jobs and squeezing middle-class families."
But affordability is in the eye of the beholder. If countries don't take greater steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there are consequences far more costly than higher monthly utility bills. Rising temperatures and sea levels, more intense weather events, loss of farmland and other adverse impacts of climate change could cost the U.S. alone $150 billion a year, according to one government estimate.
The problem is that the adverse effects of too much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are not reflected in energy prices, giving coal the illusion of affordability. And the longer the U.S. takes to correct this problem, the more expensive the remedies will be — whether it means such Band-Aids as sea walls to protect coastal communities from flooding or higher insurance premiums to cover weather-related catastrophes or other emergency measures.
It's fair to debate how each country should respond to this threat. Developing countries, for instance, may lack the capital to adopt clean energy initiatives without assistance from their wealthier neighbors. But the reality of climate change is not a subject of great scientific uncertainty, at least not in the mainstream of academia. Yet you wouldn't know that from the odd pronouncements that come from the right wing and those with ties to big coal, however.
The leading example of this is surely Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, a longtime climate change denier who also happens to be the incoming chairman of the Senate committee that oversees environmental policy. He regards climate change as a hoax (although it's become more fashionable among conservatives to simply say, "I'm not a scientist" when the issue is raised these days). Such a philosophy makes a reasoned debate about any international agreement with China over greenhouse gases unlikely — at least in his committee.
With EPA rules on carbon already under assault by Senator McConnell and others in his party, one can just imagine the scramble to deep-six any agreement with China. That can't be allowed to happen, particularly when further progress on the international stage now looks possible. Administration officials see the climate pact with China as "historic," and they are probably right — if the science-adverse elements in the GOP don't find the means to thwart the public's long-term interests.