Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE - PS: You can down­load the re­port, Cap­i­tan Amer­ica, from www.csein­

WHY SHOULD we look at the US to check out its cli­mate ac­tion plan? The fact is that the US is the world’s largest his­tor­i­cal con­trib­u­tor to green­house gas emis­sions—the stock that is al­ready in the at­mos­phere and al­ready warm­ing the earth’s sur­face—and the sec­ond largest con­trib­u­tor (af­ter China) to an­nual emis­sions. What the US does makes a huge dif­fer­ence to the world’s fight against run­away cli­mate change. It will also force oth­ers to act. It is, af­ter all, the leader. And now, af­ter nearly three decades of cli­mate change de­nial, the US has de­cided enough is enough. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has said clearly that cli­mate change is real, and his coun­try must act. It has sub­mit­ted its In­tended Na­tion­ally De­ter­mined Con­tri­bu­tion ( its emis­sions re­duc­tion frame­work— to the cli­mate treaty sec­re­tariat. The world is al­ready cel­e­brat­ing—the prodi­gal has re­turned.

My col­league Chan­dra Bhushan and I humbly dis­agree. Our re­search, which we present in our just re­leased re­port, Cap­i­tan Amer­ica, presents a few in­con­ve­nient truths that might throw cold wa­ter on the cel­e­bra­tion. The US cli­mate ac­tion plan is nei­ther am­bi­tious nor eq­ui­table. Worse, it is but busi­ness-as-usual. When im­ple­mented emis­sions re­duc­tion will be mar­ginal. What­ever re­duc­tion is achieved, whether due to in­creased ef­fi­ciency or a shift in fos­sil fuel use, will be negated by run­away glut­tonous consumption. We con­clude, for the sake of the world’s fu­ture: Amer­i­can life­style can no longer re­main non-ne­go­tiable.

Our find­ings are most in­con­ve­nient, we know. Our friends in US civil so­ci­ety are sure to ac­cuse us of play­ing into the hands of the Repub­li­can Party—that fear­some free-mar­ket gang of cli­mate scep­tics. Our po­si­tion on the need to dis­cuss consumption in cli­mate change will fuel their worst fears: the world wants to close their free-mar­ket fron­tier. We would have agreed with them, ex­cept for the fol­low­ing is­sues.

One, the US is not mov­ing to­wards low-car­bon growth in any re­spect. There is, there­fore, no rea­son to be­lieve that even if its cur­rent plan is not am­bi­tious, it will lead to change in the fu­ture as the ef­fort gath­ers mo­men­tum with speed and scale.

Two, more se­ri­ously, the dan­gers of cli­mate change are real and the need for real ac­tion ur­gent. We in In­dia are be­gin­ning to see how dev­as­tat­ing ex­treme weather events can be—they are death-deal­ers tak­ing lives. The world’s poor­est, who have not con­trib­uted to the emis­sions al­ready in the at­mos­phere, are be­com­ing the most af­fected. This is not ac­cept­able. Cli­mate jus­tice re­quires ef­fec­tive and am­bi­tious ac­tion to cut green­house gases.

Three, for many years now, we have been told by our same friends in the US civil so­ci­ety that we must al­ways fear the re­turn of the Repub­li­cans, for they will de­stroy even the vis­age of US cli­mate change pol­icy. And when a Demo­crat pres­i­dent is elected, the ad­vice is we need to “tone down”, be prag­matic and al­low that “lib­eral” per­son to steer the cli­mate course. Ac­tu­ally, for many years, their game of thrones has held us to ran­som. Decades have gone, and deadly green­house gas emis­sions still con­tinue to rise.

Our con­cern is dif­fer­ent. US life­style and consumption pat­terns are as­pi­ra­tional and ad­dic­tive. Quite sim­ply, ev­ery­body wants to be an Amer­i­can. Ev­ery cit­i­zen of the de­vel­op­ing world wants to ei­ther live in Amer­ica or live like an Amer­i­can. If it were pos­si­ble to at­tain such a life­style and yet com­bat cli­mate change, our con­cern would be un­founded. But that is not pos­si­ble. If Amer­i­cans con­tinue to guz­zle, it is not pos­si­ble to ex­pect that the rest will not fol­low in their foot­steps. The world—the US and us— can­not com­bat cli­mate change with­out chang­ing the way peo­ple drive, build homes or con­sume goods. The C-word is the C-word.

Cli­mate change de­mands that the world col­lab­o­rates and acts col­lec­tively. The US is the world’s most pow­er­ful econ­omy, a world leader. This leader has to point to the di­rec­tion of change that must be cred­i­ble and mean­ing­ful. Oth­er­wise, the deal to save the world will not fruc­tify.

It is also im­por­tant to note that the less the US does, the more it jeop­ar­dises our fu­ture. Its lack of am­bi­tion means it ap­pro­pri­ates more space of the Planet’s lim­ited car­bon bud­get, leav­ing lit­tle for the growth of coun­tries like In­dia and those in Africa. Worse, th­ese coun­tries will be forced to make high cost changes to re­duce emis­sions. This can­not be ac­cept­able. It will not just shift the bur­den of tran­si­tion to us; it also means that the US will not make the tran­si­tion to low-car­bon growth. This is deadly for all.

So, it is time we stopped tip­toe­ing around the US. It is time to call a spade a spade: US ob­du­racy on cli­mate change has en­sured that the world to­day is in the dan­ger zone and will go crit­i­cal soon. Since 1992, when the frame­work con­ven­tion on cli­mate change was signed, the US has played of­fence, fin­ger-point­ing at oth­ers and jus­ti­fy­ing its own lack of ac­tion. It is time the rest of us stopped play­ing de­fence. For the Planet’s sake.

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