The global debate on climate change is giving democracy a bad name. With the Copenhagen climate summit only a month away, it is almost certain the US delegation will arrive empty-handed as the Obama administration has so far failed to either shame, coerce or cajole Congress into passing a bill that would limit carbon emissions. In that regard, the US is little different than the nearly 200 other countries that will be represented at the conference, few of which have declared a firm, meaningful commitment to lower their emissions.
Of course, the US is quite distinct in other ways. It is the world's largest economy, its second-largest polluter behind China and its oldest democracy. The cataclysms of the Bush years notwithstanding, the world still yearns for American leadership. Should Barack Obama, the US president, be party to a failure at Copenhagen after the notorious withdrawal by George W Bush, his predecessor, from the Kyoto climate treaty in 2001, it would signal that the sclerosis some fear is eroding America's political system is not only real, but also in an advanced stage.
According to an investigative study by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), some 1,150 energy companies and advocacy groups have dispatched 2,810 lobbyists to Washington, an increase of more than 400 per cent from six years earlier. The ICIJ, an arm of the respected Center for Public Integrity, estimates that these agents of influence have invested US$47 million (Dh172.6m) for the sake of persuading legislators to water down, stall or reject outright emissions reduction legislation. At the same time, energy industry leaders and their surrogates are funding an alarmist national campaign to fan popular opposition to carbon cuts.
In just one example, the ICIJ cited a rally hosted by something called "Friends of America", in which Don Blankenship, the coal tycoon, warned how "environmental extremists and corporate America are both trying to destroy your jobs". Such scare tactics appear to be having the desired effect; according to polls, the ratio of Americans who believe dealing with climate change is worth the costs is 30 per cent, among the lowest level of all industrialised countries.
Though the conjugality of politics and fear predates republican America, it has become especially fertile in the digital age, where lies and half-truths - the deception of Iraq's nuclear stockpile, for example, or the "death panels" in Mr Obama's health plan - are only a keystroke away from infecting the body politic. Climate change, however, respects no sovereign limits. In the handiwork of a demagogue from America's coal belt there is complicity in the break up of polar icecaps, the raising of water tables and the consumption of islands and coastlines worldwide. When it comes to the environment, the purchasing of US legislators has global consequences.
Now consider how China - autocratic China, with its muzzled press and gulags - is responding to the threat of climate change. Hu Jintao, the president, pledged in a speech to the UN in September ambitious reductions in China's carbon footprint by 2020. In its current five-year plan, Beijing has committed itself to improving the nation's energy efficiency by 20 per cent and it has declared renewable sources of energy will account for 15 per cent of fuel consumption within the next decade.
Polls suggest ordinary Chinese are nearly as apathetic about climate change as their American counterparts. Unlike poll-obsessed Washington, however, Beijing is taking the issue seriously enough to put behind it the political muscle of an industrial policy, particularly for the development of such renewable fuel sectors as solar and wind power and electric vehicles. Last year, China exceeded the US as the world's largest market for wind energy. In the past four years it has doubled its wind-power capacity and it has targeted another five-fold increase within the next decade.
In an effort to pre-empt the potentially disastrous impact of China's growing appetite for cars - the market is expected to expand 10 times between now and 2030 - Beijing offers rebates for the purchase of electric and hybrid cars while mandating state and regional governments to set up charging stations. Wang Chuanfu, the founder and chairman of BYD, a maker of electric cars, became China's richest man last year after a unit of Warran Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway bought a 10 per cent stake in his company. The price of BYD shares rocketed on the news and Mr Wong is now worth $5.1 billion.
"There has been an extremely rapid acceleration of awareness in China that green technology will be the next technology revolution," the noted Sinologist Orville Schell told National Public Radio this week. "It missed the industrial and information revolutions, and now it wants to go green." Environmentalists and political analysts estimate Mr Obama has about four months to rally an emissions reductions bill out of Congress before next year's mid-term elections suck the oxygen out of Congress until 2011. At their summit meeting in Beijing later this month, he and Mr Hu are expected to discuss their common interest in reversing, if not reducing, climate change and its effects. But given the disparity between what the White House has said should be done and what China actually has done, it is difficult to imagine what Mr Obama will have to say.