01/28/2014 02:35 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2014

China Pollutes More... But Is That an Excuse for Inaction?

It seems that an inverse relationship exists between the rise of global carbon emissions and the direction of climate policy and international negotiations. The more the former accelerates, the less the latter progresses.

Arguably, one of the best thing to happen to the U.S. was when China exceeded the U.S. as the largest carbon polluter in 2006. This provided negotiators and politicians an excuse for inaction: since China is polluting more than we are, the U.S. shouldn't have to cut our own emissions.

I mean why put a price on carbon or pursue regulations that could hinder the U.S. economy when China and India are polluting increasingly more? We should focus on economic growth and let them deal with their own problems, right? Since the growth of pollution from those countries would essentially cancel out any domestic carbon reductions, why bother? China and India have said that they won't commit to reducing their carbon emissions, so why should we?

The weakness of these statements is that they ignore one key fact: we all share the same planet. Their emissions are our problem. Their record-breaking emissions should make us more compelled to act, not less. This excuse is not just immature -- it's suicidal. China and the U.S. are busy playing chicken while we all fly off the cliff.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that pollution from China is responsible for 12 to 24 percent of sulfate concentrations in the West Coast of the U.S. Sulfate air pollution has been linked to reduced pulmonary function, increased symptoms in asthmatics, increased mortality and infant morbidity and mortality.

The U.S. doesn't only receive goods manufactured in China -- we receive the pollution associated with those goods as well. Although sulfates and particular matter aren't greenhouse gases, they demonstrate that what happens in China doesn't stay in China. It's not just their problem. It is our problem as well.

"This is a quintessentially global problem, so you have to have action all over the world," states Todd Stern, the US Special Envoy for Climate Change. "Climate change isn't local -- the carbon you emit anywhere in the world affects everywhere in the world."

If we were going to proceed under the rationale that we shouldn't have to limit carbon emissions because China isn't, then it could be argued that whatever China is doing to limit emissions, we should do as well. After all, China might account for more than 20 percent of the world's CO2 emissions but the United States still has higher per capita emissions than the Chinese.

We have established that China is the world's leading polluter but what are they doing to limit their pollution? In 2009, China committed to cutting carbon pollution intensity 40-45% by 2020. They have two experimental carbon trading systems in Beijing and Shanghai with other carbon trading systems in the works. They are considering setting absolute emissions targets in the next five-year plan. And, China has a price on carbon at $2-$8 a ton -- the U.S. does not.

Not to mention China is a leading producer of solar panels, wind turbines and EV batteries and has invested over $66 billion in renewable energy. The experts calculate that it is the only emerging economy to have reduced the rate at which its greenhouse-gas emissions have grown in the last decade.

So why should the U.S. limit greenhouse gas emissions even if China is not? Simply, because it is the right thing to do. The U.S. is a world leader. If we were to take leadership and commit to meaningful carbon reductions, it would make a bold statement to China and the rest of the world to follow suit. Addressing global climate change is in our best interest -- and for both countries it is about mutual self-preservation. It's the right thing to do for our nation, the world, humanity and future generations.

The UK was once the world leader in the slave trade but that didn't stop the United States from outlawing slavery. Additionally, the U.S. and Russia signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 banning nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere because they both recognized the imminent danger posed to the planet from above ground testing.

If China and the U.S. viewed each other as partners fighting a global epidemic rather than adversaries in international negotiations there would be much that we could accomplish. Not the least of which could be saving a planet we both share.