America's Climate Dilemma

Oil and homes. Signal Hill, California. (Evan G/Flickr)

Last week, former American Vice President Al Gore sharply criticized the Obama administration for failing to significantly alter United States policy on climate change and energy. We asked our Sustainability Roundtable to discuss the role American leadership should play in shaping government policies on climate change throughout Asia.

Additionally, what global leadership role exists for developed and developing Asian countries themselves in areas like clean energy and global warming mitigation? Is the possibility of a global deal on climate change completely dead? If so, can it be resuscitated?

Adam Moser is the China Environment Fellow at Vermont Law School's US-China Partnership for Environmental Law; and he blogs at

With nearly a billion people in Asia still living on less than two-dollars a day and nearly that many in need of better access to energy services, Asia illustrates that climate change is a human development issue as much as it is an environmental one.

Unfortunately, and in part due to a lack of leadership from the US, many developing Asian countries still define development by the resource and consumption intensive lifestyles exemplified by the US model of development.

At the crux of America's climate dilemma is the belief that it needs cheap fossil fuel to grow its economy and be competitive. Meanwhile, its continued addiction to cheap fossil fuel subjects its economy to stress when fuel prices rise and harms natural resources such as water.

Yet, in many ways the US is in a better position than many countries to lead the world in climate change mitigation. It has the world's largest economy, high per-capita income, and abundant human and natural resources; these facts combined with its status as the world's second largest GHG emitter and an extremely high per-captia emissions rate create a responsibility for the US to lead on climate change.

Despite the Obama administration's efforts, the US has not done enough and its continued failure harms its credibility as a responsible leader. An ambitious US domestic policy to reduce greenhouse gases would be a shot in the arm to international climate negotiations. Unfortunately, due to domestic politics, such a policy shift is unlikely anytime soon.

Asian countries should learn from America's mistakes. The risks inherent in fossil fueled growth models are already evident in Asia and will be more severe for Asia than they are for America - unless every nation builds the world's largest military. (I don't know about you, but that's not a world I want to live in.)

Severe weather and high fuel costs have already caused a spike in grain prices this year, which threatens the poorest in Asia and social stability.

Recent conflicts in the oil and gas rich South China Sea between Vietnam and China, and the Philippines and China highlight the dangerous resource race that can result from fossil fuel addicted economies.

But Asia also provides examples for a more sustainable future. Japan with few domestic energy supplies is the world's most efficient economy and can assist its neighbors in becoming the same.

In the last decade, China's rapid growth turned it into a major importer of oil and other natural resources. This fact prompted Chinese policy-makers to aggressively promote low carbon energy development and manufacturing for wind and solar. China is also the world's largest solar hot water user.

But certain aspects of developing Asian economies should be avoided. Real-estate booms tend to use massive resources and energy and in the case of China and the US leave buildings that are not energy efficient and assets that are of little of value in the long-term.

Perhaps, the best that we can hope for is that America's current economic challenges and strong strain of climate change denial will be a lesson for Asia as to the dangers of fossil fuel addiction.