Climate change. A pledge as bold as sending a man to the moon

– On May 25, 1961, US President John F. Kennedy announced the dramatic
and ambitious goal of sending an American to the Moon before the end of
the decade. This goal was achieved in less than ten years when Neil
Armstrong stepped onto the Moon’s surface on July 20, 1969. Kennedy’s
decision to pursue this extremely challenging technological feat was
spurred in part by the desire to gain supremacy over the Soviet Union.

the greatest threat to the American way of life is not communism but
the warming of the planet. America needs a president who will stand
before the television cameras and proclaim that within a decade five of
America’s most heavily polluted major cities will be transformed into
green cities with a low carbon economy. And that alone will not
suffice. To ensure that his pledge is as groundbreaking for humankind
as the manned lunar mission was in 1969, Barack Obama has to find a way
to persuade China’s President Hu Jintao to stand beside him and pledge
to do the same in China. If the US and China were to transform Los
Angeles, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit, Beijing, Xian,
Chongqing, Jilin and Taiyuan into eco-cities, it would pave the way for
the technology, logistical know-how, and financial mechanisms necessary
to emulate a low carbon economy throughout the US and China.

are several climate change initiatives being polished off for the new
American president. Two of these focus on ways that the US and China
could together reduce their greenhouse gas emissions through enhanced
cooperation and pooling of resources. The US-China Ten-Year Framework
on Energy and Environment that was signed in June 2007 also
incorporates a broad range of joint projects designed to combat climate
change. But though these initiatives spell out far-reaching measures
and call for game-changing commitments they still do not go far enough
in tackling head on the drastic problem facing the planet. As the two
largest consumers of energy and the two largest emitters of greenhouse
gases, the United States and China must radically and urgently
transform their economies if there is hope of limiting the rise in the
planet’s temperature to two degrees, a goal deemed critical by
scientists. They must indeed be prepared to take a leap that is
comparable to sending a man to the moon. And to succeed this leap must
be taken in tandem. It must capture the imagination of the world in the
same way that the moon project did.

In principle policy-makers and
the general public in the United States and China advocate action to
combat climate change. But in both countries powerful lobby groups with
vested interests oppose the federal / central government taking
measures needed to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The
current financial crisis has made it politically all the more difficult
for the US Congress to agree on the details of a bill to curb US
emissions. In China slowing economic growth and rising unemployment are
sure to affect the political establishment’s willingness to implement
costly policies to use more clean energy.

Even if China manages to
meet its stringent targets to increase energy efficiency and the use of
renewable energy, China’s annual emissions are estimated to balloon by
more than double by 2020 compared to 2000 levels. Every month China
builds two coal-fired power plants and is being further locked into to
the fossil-fuel trap to meet its continued upsurge in energy demand.

more serious deterrence than the financial crisis from the perspective
of global warming is the entrenched notion among a wide range of
China’s policy-makers that Westerners are using climate change as a
weapon to impede China’s economic growth. The mindset that “the US is
intent to keep us down” is not a fringe phenomenon, rather a mainstream
view among decision-makers in Beijing.

It is for this reason that
only a bold and joint pledge by the American and Chinese presidents can
genuinely make a difference. If Hu Jintao can be persuaded to make
transforming China into a low carbon economy his political legacy,
China will indeed become the world’s leading green nation. When the
leadership of the Chinese Communist Party sets a political goal,
allocating money and human resources is not an issue, as the world
witnessed during the successful Beijing Olympics. Hu Jintao has already
publicly supported the idea of China moving toward a low carbon
economy. Barack Obama must also get on board and even take the lead.