On Global Warming, Start Small

The conference on climate change that begins tomorrow in Cancún, Mexico, will be the 13th such annual meeting since 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol, the first and only international agreement to place a cap on emissions of greenhouse gases, was written. This year there will be no such treaty. Why not? Excuses will abound, but finger-pointing misses the crux of the matter, which is that climate change is the most complicated and challenging problem mankind has ever faced.

Climate change is global, as emissions from one country enter the atmosphere and affect every other country. It is created by every form of economic activity, but its effects will not become critical for another generation. Today, it is practically impossible for more than 190 countries to negotiate — and ultimately ratify — an agreement that would affect all facets of their economies in order to deal with a problem so far in the future.

But there is an alternative to this top-down approach to climate change: a bottom-up strategy that stands a much better chance of working. Rather than count on international negotiations to produce an effective strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the United States should build upon the innovative clean-energy developments already under way in individual states. (Disclosure: I invest in clean energy in America and abroad.)

Texas alone produces more electricity through wind power than all but five countries. In California and Arizona, solar energy will soon provide electricity for three million homes. Geothermal energy plants are being built in Nevada. Michigan is making electric cars. And these are only the leaders. Iowa, Oregon and Illinois are also building wind power generators; New Jersey and Florida are investing in solar, and Maine in biomass.

These state-level efforts are already having national impact. Last year, renewable energy accounted for more than half of all the new power generation plants nationwide. Another 40 percent was from natural gas, which emits only half as much carbon dioxide as coal.

Clean energy has strong bipartisan support in the states. Of the 31 that already have laws requiring increased production of renewable energy, 11 are states that vote largely Republican, including Arizona, Kansas, Montana and Texas.

The United States still has a very long way to go to curtail emissions, but the states are heading in the right direction, and national energy policy must build on their efforts. Congress should extend federal financing, tax credits and loan guarantees for renewable energy projects and for upgrading transmission lines. It should also develop clear environmental standards for extracting natural gas from shale. The American desire for energy security and for new jobs creates an opportunity to pass an energy bill in the next Congressional session.

With such a national energy plan in place, the United States could negotiate a bilateral climate agreement with China. Together these two countries account for 42 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide. By focusing on our shared interests — innovation in clean energy technology, for example, and the need to develop ways to capture and store carbon dioxide from coal-burning utilities — our two countries could agree to mutually reduce emissions.

Then, with a strong renewable energy industry at home and a climate agreement with China in hand, the United States would be in a good position to re-engage with the broader international community to negotiate a global cap on greenhouse gas emissions. And given such a sturdy foundation, any agreement coming out of those talks would have a good chance of ratification by Congress.

After more than a decade of international negotiations, it might seem as if working our way through these steps from the bottom up would be like starting over. But it makes no sense to pin all our hopes for averting climate change on a diplomatic process that is difficult to negotiate and impossible to ratify. An approach that begins with changes in domestic policy is far more realistic.

The United Nations would still have a critical role to play, because 65 percent of the needed reductions in emissions will have to be made in the developing world. The United Nations must help developing countries institute the policies that will enable them to finance and deploy low-carbon technologies.

During the two weeks of climate talks in Cancún, more than one billion tons of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere worldwide, adding to the nearly 30 billion tons emitted since last year’s failed meeting in Copenhagen. This top-down approach is not effective. A plan that works from the bottom up could achieve the goal of capping global emissions. Before more time runs out, let’s start building on the local American success stories already in progress.

Bruce Usher, an executive in residence at Columbia Business School and the former chief executive of a company that operates emission-reduction projects.