As international climate change negotiators confer in Cancún over the next ten days, a sweeping new global agreement won't be on the table. The groundwork has not been laid for that. Instead they may start to pivot toward a new strategy of gradualism, and that would be a step in the right direction.
Participants in the UN talks, just as in the U.S. Congress, have shied away from comprehensive action on climate change, and the recent elections have left the Obama administration with little ability to advocate for a bolder approach. And yet national and state governments are steadily showing the way forward -- with steps toward a clean energy economy that will cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Embracing such a "building block" strategy -- with steps that make sense in their own right and reduce the rate at which the world is pumping heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere -- can build confidence in the efficacy and attractiveness of action while increasing the momentum behind a greener energy economy.
For better or worse, this is a game in which the United States is now a laggard, not a leader. Most notably, China is setting the pace on energy efficiency -- with a 20 percent improvement over the past five years and a commitment to continue those gains -- and on renewable energy, in which it reportedly plans to invest $738 billion over the next 10 years to establish clear global leadership in the field.
China is far from alone in this. The other BASIC countries -- Brazil, South Africa, and India - as well as Korea, Japan, and the European Union, all have taken impressive steps in the same direction. In the United States, the states have led even as Congress has failed to act. In November California voters overwhelmingly rejected the oil industry's attempt to overturn the state's comprehensive global warming legislation.
The way forward in Cancún is to build on these gains and encourage others to follow suit. Investments in energy efficiency are cost-effective for every country in the world. Increased use of renewable energy is particularly attractive in developing countries where the electricity grid is absent or unreliable and where high-cost imported oil is often the fuel source.
A particularly attractive near-term focus would be on emissions of black carbon -- soot from forest burning, household cooking with wood or coal, and diesel engines. These emissions are the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide and have a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere -- weeks, not years. Immediate action with known technologies -- preventing deforestation, using more efficient stoves and cleaner engines -- could slow the effects of climate change for a decade or more.
Previous negotiations have cued up building-block agreements -- on avoided deforestation and land use change; technology development and cooperation; and adaptation assistance for the poorest countries that are being hit the hardest by a changing climate. However, the United States has called for strict standards of "MRV" -- monitoring, reporting, and verification -- before green-lighting such deals.
MRV is needed to ensure that countries will take actions they would not do otherwise -- when they are being told to take their medicine. But a building-block strategy is good for both the countries implementing them and the rest of the world. That makes rigorous MRV desirable but not a deal-breaker.
Let's go after the low-hanging fruit now while we are building a ladder to the more difficult to reach. This will build trust among nations and confidence that the transition to a low-carbon economy is both possible and beneficial, setting the stage for a truly comprehensive agreement in South Africa next year or Brazil in 2012.
The atmospheric physics of climate change are not affected by the political maneuverings of the human species. The more heat-trapping gases we put in the air, the hotter the planet will become. Indeed, 2010 is on track to be one of the two warmest years in a steadily warming record.
The goal of the UN climate negotiations has been, and should continue to be, a global agreement to reduce emissions dramatically, decisively, and comprehensively. That will not be politically possible in Cancún. Rather than bemoan our human frailty, let us resolve to make what progress we can, when we can. The rising impacts of climate change -- on our poorest neighbors today and on our children and their children tomorrow -- demand no less.
Timothy E. Wirth is President of the United Nations Foundation and former Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs. John D. Podesta is President and CEO of the Center for American Progress and former White House Chief of Staff.
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