12/20/2010 11:35 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Climate Morality and 2009

"What right does someone driving a huge gas-guzzling SUV have to say to a poor Bangladeshi or Indian cooking over a wood stove to cut down their emissions?"

It's a stark framing of the global debate over climate change -- and one that Americans, as the collective driver of that proverbial SUV, might seriously consider right now.

The question was posed to me in a recent exchange with Adil Najam, a lead author of the report by the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore.

His sentiment leads to a more immediate and concrete question: What role will morality play in U.S. climate change policy this year?

Yes, it sounds almost naive, as officials and diplomats often only weigh considerations of realpolitik and trade advantage. But the question of ethical leadership will play a role this year, and America will be judged on it, like it or not.

The year 2009 looms large in the world climate debate -- it's arguable that the next 10 months could mark a turning point, either good or bad. After all, at year's end, the Copenhagen climate conference will take place, a forum that will set the framework for a successor to the 1997 Kyoto climate protocol, which the U.S. conspicuously never signed.

Many people, including Najam, are not optimistic that a big breakthrough will happen at Copenhagen. The differences on mitigation and adaptation -- how to cut carbon and share costs in adjusting to a new hot world -- are too great, observers say. Expectations for the U.S. are already being tamped down. United Nations climate chief Yvo de Boer even said recently that he doesn't expect the U.S. to match Europe's aggressive pledges to cut carbon emissions.

U.S. leadership, though, could change the overall dynamic, and there are signs of it happening already on several fronts.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) have stated that they may advance cap-and-trade bills this year, with Waxman's more likely on the early side. The general idea is to sell a declining number of permits to carbon polluting companies, using the free market to put a price on carbon and forcing companies to look to cleaner alternatives. The world will undoubtedly be watching even for baby steps on this.

Of course, the economic recession makes any new moves more difficult. But a large coalition of U.S. businesses and environmental groups -- and independent economists, as journalist Eric Pooley has noted - now believe cap-and-trade could be good for the U.S. economy in the long run. That coalition, called the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, gave its endorsement to a cap-and-trade scheme just last month.

The Obama administration is already setting a different tone, and even capitalizing on climate change leadership as a new diplomatic tool to forge better relationships. On her recent trip to Beijing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sounded a note of contrition about America's role in polluting the world's atmosphere:

When we were industrializing and growing, we didn't know any better; neither did Europe...Now we're smart enough to figure out how to have the right kind of growth.

Clinton's new climate envoy, Todd Stern, noted that China and the U.S. account for 40 percent of global carbon emissions, according to The New York Times. "This is not a matter of politics or morality or right or wrong," he said. "It is simply the unforgiving math of accumulating emissions."

At one level, he's right. Reality is reality. Carbon helps trap heat. The carbon level is rising. The Earth is warming. Disaster looms.

But the question remains whether or not the U.S. bears a special responsibility -- a moral one that the Chinese, or Indians or Bangladeshis or anyone else for that matter, simply do not bear.

Some say that the U.S. must get China and India to act on curbing emissions, or any domestic carbon cap will put American businesses at a disadvantage. Najam deconstructs that logic:

China may have surpassed the US in total emissions, but is still no where near the US in terms of per capita emissions. Each Chinese still only emits a fraction of what each American emits and therefore there is something quite pungent about the idea that somehow there is moral equivalence between US and Chinese emissions. Many Indian scholars also raise the issue of 'survival emissions' versus 'luxury emissions.'

There are those, of course, who see the warming as a vague abstraction, a long-term problem that has no particular moral consequences attached. Others disagree.

In his new book Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley, the journalist Stephan Faris takes a close look at the impacts of climate change on conflicts, poverty, and general misery around the world.

He builds a case -- and many analysts here and abroad concur -- that climate change has played some role in causing the strife and genocide in Sudan. Faris concludes,

Of all the repercussions of climate change on the killing in Darfur, one of the most significant may be moral. If the region's collapse was in part caused by the emissions from our factories, our power plants, and our cars, we bear some responsibility for the dying.

For the skeptics who think his conclusions have outrun the evidence, Faris gives a nuanced comparison, which rests on the fact that drought and swings in climate make impoverished societies more vulnerable and susceptible to conflict:

The impact of climate change on a country is analogous to the effect of hunger on a person. If a starving man succumbed to tuberculosis or was shot while stealing a piece of bread, you wouldn't say he had died because he didn't eat. But hunger played a role in his death. Global warming by itself doesn't launch wars, rebellions, or campaigns of ethnic cleansing.

In other words, the causal chain of responsibility may be difficult to trace precisely. And no one would argue the U.S. is the only culprit. But there is nevertheless a connection.

As Clinton implies, America helped start this climate mess. Now the question looms what steps -- or even just signals -- the country is willing to put forth this year to end it.