Expert Voices

Can the World's Oldest and Largest Democracies Come Together Over Climate? (Op-Ed)

cloud cover and climate change
Scientists have shown that as the planet warms water vapor, and thus clouds, will increase, trapping even more heat. One scientist, however, suggests random events drive clouds, which then drive warming. (Image credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation)

Frances Beinecke is the president of NRDC — an environmental advocacy organization with 1.4 million supporters nationwide — served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, and holds a leadership role in several environmental organizations. Beinecke contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

When President Obama hosts Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the White House on Friday, the two leaders will have a historic opportunity to advance the long-term security and prosperity of both nations, and the world.

No single issue poses a greater threat, or a more urgent opportunity for cooperation, than global climate change.

The central environmental ill of our time, climate change is imposing huge and growing costs on both countries.

Last year alone, the hottest year on record for the continental United States, Americans spent $140 billion on crop losses, wildfires, floods and other disasters made worse by climate chaos. Our government paid the lion's share — to the tune of $1,100, on average, for each American taxpayer.

In India, where millions live on the perilous front lines of climate change, thousands of lives were lost by severe monsoons that caused unforeseen floods. Rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers threatens the vast Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra river systems, which have provided water to civilizations for thousands of years. And more than 600 people died last summer in India from extreme heat waves that sent temperatures as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius).

In both countries, some of the most fertile farming regions are becoming drier, imperiling the future of crops, the health of their people, the security and affordability of their food supplies and the livelihoods of millions of farm workers. And sea level is on track to rise three feet or more by this century's end, threatening coastal cities like New Orleans and Calcutta, Miami and Mumbai.

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This climate chaos is being fueled by growing emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution released when we burn oil, gas and coal, and by powerful heat-trapping chemicals used primarily as refrigerants.

The administration of President Barack Obama took an important step in that direction just last week, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) moved to put in place the first-ever limits on dangerous carbon pollution from the power plants the nation will build in the years to come.

The EPA is beginning a long period of engagement with state officials and leaders of businesses and industry to establish carbon limits on existing power plants — the source of 40 percent of the nation's carbon pollution.

India, meanwhile, the third-largest carbon emitter in the world, is showing important leadership as well. Accounting for more than 5 percent of the global carbon footprint, India must be part of the solution, and here, President Obama and Prime Minister Singh can make a real difference.

India is on track to double its energy consumption and its carbon pollution, by 2025, if not sooner. The question isn't whether India will continue to grow, but, rather, how — and the how matters.

India can become a model of energy efficiency, renewable power and advanced cooling technologies for countries across the developing world, or it can base growth on the old fossil fuel model and send its climate-changing pollution levels through the roof.

That's why the energy India needs to fuel development must come from a growing proportion of wind, solar and other low-carbon, renewable-power sources. And the massive construction required to modernize India's expanding cities must employ energy-efficient materials, appliances and designs, which can reduce fuel consumption and carbon pollution for generations to come.

The two nations are making progress, in part through initiatives like the U.S.-India Energy dialogue and the U.S.-India Partnership to Advance Clean Energy.

High interest rates and limited access to capital, however, have limited energy-efficiency and renewable-power gains in India.

The United States can help by expanding programs through the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to back investments in efficiency and renewables.

India and the United States can create public-private partnerships — like those in information technology — to help increase energy efficiency in workplaces, appliances, homes and cars.

The two countries can promote and enhance the exchange of advanced clean-energy technology, like smart grids to make electricity transmission more efficient, and systems to make wind and solar power available to vast areas of rural India.

And the nations can leapfrog to the next generation of safer chemicals for cooling our homes, offices and other buildings.

For far too long, wealthy nations and rapidly developing countries have viewed climate change from starkly different perspectives. It's time to join forces and take action around what all parties can agree on.

We're threatened, all of us, by the grave and widening scourge of climate change. We can't afford to kick this problem down the road. And, working together, we can fulfill our obligation to protect future generations from the worst consequences of climate chaos.

I urge the leaders of the United States and India, the world's oldest democracy and the world's largest, to help to lead the way.

Beinecke's most recent Op-Ed was "$2 million XPRIZE Targets Ocean Acidification" The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.