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 the recent meeting of 17 major economies, hosted by the State Department, produced the start of real progress on perhaps the biggest challenge yet. Climate change.
This is a challenge that requires imagination, political will and the vision to champion generations to come while meeting the urgent needs of today. Climate change is a global 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 launch 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.
Many of the world's major economies have responded. 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 run a successful cap and trade system for several years. China is engaged on what President Obama has rightly called "the world's most ambitious energy efficiency program."
Perhaps most importantly, the United States, so long the hold-out, is now preparing ambitious legislation to tackle emissions. 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. Matching words with action, they approved $112 billion in green stimulus spending to shift the U.S. economy on to a low carbon path.
President Obama's stated objective in convening the Major Economies Forum was to "facilitate a candid dialogue among key developed and developing countries" aimed at producing "a successful outcome at the [December] UN climate change negotiations in Copenhagen."
The first part of this agenda, the meeting certainly achieved. Goodwill lacking in the tense UN climate negotiating sessions marked the two days of discussion, and by all accounts there was candid discussion on how all major economies, including China, India and Brazil, can take clear and robust actions to support energy security and sustainable development.
Whether the MEF process meets its larger objective of providing the political leadership to forge a new global climate treaty in December remains to be seen.
There are formidable obstacles to overcome -- not least a chasm of disagreement on nations' greenhouse gas reduction targets. Bringing together the leading greenhouse gas emitters in Washington only started the work of bridging this chasm. To be effective, the Major Economies Forum must build on the goodwill generated to produce substantive outcomes at future meetings, culminating in a summit of presidents and prime ministers in July. These outcomes must then be fed into the UN negotiating process, shaking up the existing entrenched positions.
The world has forged a seminal agreement once before on climate, in Rio. We can -- and must -- do it again in December in Copenhagen.
Fernando Henrique Cardoso is the former president of Brazil. Jonathan Lash is President of the World Resources Institute.