Dr. Bill Chameides is the dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He blogs at HuffingtonPost.com and his own GreenGrok.com, which is certainly worth reading.

He just posted Impressions from National Academies Climate Summit,” in which he drops a bombshell quote from Eileen Claussen, head of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. But Chameides treats the quote as if it were just another piece of the puzzle, rather than a stunning revelation of a lack of understanding of climate science — assuming the quote is accurate. Here is what he blogged:

International Policy Will Be Key

“Binding targets for the developing nations is [sic] out of the question.”

– Eileen Claussen, President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change

Without emission policies in the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), it will be impossible to keep the CO2 concentration below 650 [parts per million].”

– Lorents Lorentsen, Chief, Environment Directorate, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

(Note that many scientists believe that CO2 concentrations must be held at or below 450 ppm.)

“How we [Americans] move [on climate] will determine the international direction. To lead, we must act.”

– Eileen Claussen

Addressing the problem of climate change requires virtually every nation to curb their greenhouse gas emissions, but international action is unlikely without U.S. action. Yet, for many U.S. lawmakers, international commitments are essential before the United States acts.

Chameides’s final paragraph lays out the political dilemma that I named Chapter Nine of my book after: “The U.S.-China Suicide Pact on Climate.”

But Claussen’s first quote is a bombshell — completely untenable from a policy or scientific perspective, assuming she means to include China in “developing nations.” And if she meant binding targets for the developing nations are out of the question at Copenhagen this year, then Chameides needs to say so. Indeed, as written, the quote really makes no sense since it gives no timeframe whatsoever, suggesting that developing countries could never agree to binding targets, which is patently fatal to human civilization.

Dr. Chameides: I do not grok Claussen’s quote — literally!

From a scientific perspective and a climate policy perspective, one can make a some strong and unequivocal statements. From a scientific perspective, we have no chance to stabilize CO2 concentrations anywhere near 450 ppm (let alone 350), if China does not agree to cap its carbon emissions by 2020 (see “Must-read IEA report explains what must be done to avoid 6°C warming“). Indeed, China must agree to a CO2 cap by 2020 that is not at levels that represent simply a continuation of their CO2 growth rate in the first part of this decade (see “China announces plan to single-handedly finish off the climate“).

Every single major international policymaker — and China’s leaders — must come to understand that and quickly.
Yes, the United States and the rich countries are responsible for the vast majority of cumulative emissions and must agree to reduce their CO2 emissions by 80% to 90% by 2050, with real cuts starting no later than 2020. But all that action would be utterly vitiated by China’s inaction.

Brazil and Indonesia don’t need binding targets anytime soon so much as they need a global deal to generate enough funding to stop their deforestation. And India may eventually catch up to China’s rapacious pace of emissions growth and will eventually need a binding target.

But nobody could have imagined China’s staggering rate of growth in coal use and CO2 emissions this decade. That growth makes China nothing like traditional developing countries like South Africa or Kenya — and it must be treated differently if humanity is to avoid self-destruction. As I wrote in Salon (click here):

China is in a special category by itself. It has announced plans to spend more than half a trillion dollars on an economic stimulus and infrastructure plan. It is a hyper-developing country, with vast amounts of capital in key advanced technologies, including wind and solar.

As a matter of U.S. politics, if China won’t agree to some sort of a binding target, then there is zero chance of getting 67 votes in the U.S. Senate for a global treaty — and little chance of even getting 51 votes (see “Should Obama push a climate bill in 2009 or 2010? Part I, Does a serious bill need action from China?“).

I also think it is rather obvious that if China simply refuses to agree to any strong emissions constraint sometime during Obama’s (hopefully) two terms in office, than even assuming we do pass a domestic climate bill in the next year, the political support for the kind of carbon dioxide prices needed to achieve meaningful reductions by 2020 would just fade away.

I do not want to be misunderstood here: It is more than reasonable to argue, as I have repeatedly, that the US should work hard to pass a bill first — and such a bill may be the key to unlocking Chinese action. But whether or not Obama needs some action by China to get a U.S. bill passed, his entire presidency and the fate of the planet rest on whether he can in fact get a China deal (see “What will make Obama a great president, Part 2: A climate deal with China“). Absent a binding Chinese target, you can plan to buy beachfront property in Baton Rouge.

So I think Claussen and/or Chameides need to clarify what she said and what she meant.

As an aside, the comments of Lorents Lorentsen, Chief, Environment Directorate, OECD are a tad worrying. Is he seriously thinking that humanity can tolerate 650 ppm? And does he really believe that it is even possible to stabilize at 650 ppm — that such warming won’t destroy much of the tundra and lead to amplifying carbon cycle feedbacks that quickly take us to 1000 ppm? If so, he should read “An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water.”

Note to Lorents: It is 350 to 450 ppm — or bust!

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.