09/10/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Beijing's Eco-lympics

Much has been said and written about environmental and pollution concerns in Beijing and across China in advance of the Olympics this month. To be sure, there is room for improvement in the air quality in Beijing, but before attacking China, take a moment to consider the U.S. and China's experiences through the prism of the Olympic Games. You may be surprised how similar the two countries are.

The air pollution in Beijing is an unfortunate reminder of the 1984 Olympic Games held in a smog-filled Los Angeles. Back then, the smog and carbon dioxide almost seemed to be a cute distraction -- a constant reminder of how robust and dynamic the U.S. economy was. It was much more than a distraction for the Olympic middle-distance runner Steve Ovett. At the 1984 Games, the world record holder collapsed during the final lap of the 1,500-meter race because of exercise-induced asthma, which was partially attributed to the area's polluted air. As he explained two decades later, "There were a significant number of sufferers, but not much was reported."

The Los Angeles Olympics occurred two centuries after the start of America's industrial revolution, a period that unleashed unprecedented air and water pollution, along with ingenuity and growth. We are only coming to grips with the full extent of the pollution now. However, there were no cries of outrage or protests held in Los Angeles over the conditions. In fact, there was little said at all.

Today, on a national scale, we continue to have little to no leadership on clean energy and energy efficiency. Indeed, the Bush administration's solution continues to be a reliance on fossil fuels -- encouraging drilling, even when doing so will not solve our myriad of problems.

However, at the state and local level, in L.A. and in other places across the country, we are seeing serious efforts to address climate change. Mayors, city councilors and local citizens are taking steps to mitigate climate change -- steps that our national leaders seem unwilling to take. Over 100 communities in the Northeast have committed to purchasing 20 percent clean energy by 2010. Governors from coast to coast have implemented "Climate Change Action Plans" -- road maps that detail how their states will be part of the climate solution. In time, we hope, these actions and this leadership will be embraced by the national government.

The national Chinese government is at least willing to talk about these issues. In November, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced that his country will cut energy consumption by 20 percent per unit of gross domestic product over the next five years, while reducing carbon-dioxide and other emissions 10 percent. Further, China has announced that 15 percent of its electricity will come from wind, solar and other renewable sources by 2020. Though far from what is necessary, these are somewhat ambitious plans for a country that is both the world's largest consumer and producer of steel and coal.

Further, just last month, about 500 eco-friendly vehicles that run on a range of alternative fuels were put on the road to help ensure zero-emission transportation during the Games. China's environmentally friendly traffic plan is said to feature the largest range of models and most advanced technology in the Olympics' history.

Of course, we should listen to what the Chinese are saying with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Still, there may be a real opportunity here. With the start of the Olympic Games, the eyes of the world will be upon China -- and the challenge to the Chinese now is to back up these plans and words with solid actions. The real test will be whether or not China's green initiatives continue past the Olympics. If this is simply "greenwashing" to make China look good for these Games, we will all be worse off.

As in the U.S., much of the answer needs to come from the grassroots activists and state and local leaders. Local Chinese officials know all too well the harmful effects of pollution to their residents. If these leaders are truly ready to implement some real solutions, then perhaps China could become a leader in climate-change solutions. These local officials are the ones who can make the changes that the national Chinese government professes to embrace.

Climate change isn't a game. It's real. Nevertheless, perhaps through the Olympics, we can ignite a climate-change revolution here and in China. Let the games begin!