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Originally published December 15, 2009 at 4:01 PM | Page modified December 15, 2009 at 6:01 PM

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Guest columnist

U.S. climate change needed globally and to create economic opportunity

President Obama arrives in Copenhagen Friday, the last day of the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Guest columnist K.C. Golden notes how hungry for U.S. leadership the rest of the world is. The arguments are strong for emissions reduction, including much-needed job creation.

Special to The Times

COPENHAGEN — U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke has a reputation as a sharp, levelheaded, practical leader — a no-nonsense numbers guy.

It's a new day when a guy like that stands on a world stage, as Washington's former governor did last week here, and makes a powerful pitch for transformational change. In his words:

"If we don't curb the carbon, we imperil the planet. ... President Obama is calling for an 83-percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. You're not going to meet those targets with a wind or solar farm here and there. What's required is nothing less than completely rethinking the way we produce and consume energy.

"In the next few decades, we need to rebuild and reinvent virtually every industrial activity. We're talking about creating an entirely new model of economic growth. The potential new business and new job creation is astounding."

Locke also said the cost of failing to build that new economy — the cost of unchecked climate disruption — would be "ferociously high."

What struck me was how forcefully the speech linked the scientific imperative to dramatically reduce emissions to the economic imperative to reduce unemployment. The commerce secretary is saying that if we focus on science — and commit to the deep emission reductions needed to stabilize the climate — we unlock the gates to a world of economic opportunity.

But we may never get there, because our politics are broken. Now that climate and energy are on the front burner of national policy debate, they have become a political football — another opportunity for partisan warfare and political posturing, the classic Washington, D.C., recipe for doing nothing.

Because of this political dysfunction, the U.S. Senate failed to deliver a comprehensive climate and energy bill before U.S. negotiators arrived in Copenhagen. After eight long years of official American indifference, the world must continue to wait for a binding commitment from America.

The Obama team is here in force, with Cabinet secretaries speaking every day to demonstrate American resolve. But the world knows that the U.S. Senate stands in the way. Last night, a Japanese woman grilled me in very broken English about the intricacies of the U.S. Congress and how long it would take them to get it done.

As a Seattleite and a Washingtonian, I find this a profoundly frustrating experience. Our city and state have demonstrated enormous political will to develop climate solutions. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and Gov. Chris Gregoire are here, inspiring global leaders with their commitment, while positioning our region as a leader in the new energy economy. Yet as an American, I know I'm partly responsible for holding up the global show. I wish I could adequately convey the desperate depth of the world's hunger for American leadership.

President Obama will be here Friday, along with 110 heads of state. If he tries to fly under the domestic political ceiling imposed by Congress' partisan dysfunction, we're toast. He can't go down to the level of Congress' weak ambitions to get a global deal. He needs to lead Congress up.

If Obama arrives in Copenhagen as a world leader — the guy who accepted the first prospective Nobel Peace Prize last week, in anticipation of this moment — Copenhagen could be the turning point toward a sustainable future.

Candidate Obama called Americans to rise above the limits of our bitter politics and step up to the "fierce urgency of now." He will need every ounce of that urgency to deliver a real global deal for climate solutions in Copenhagen.

K.C. Golden is policy director for Climate Solutions.

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