A couple of weeks ago Graham & Dunn was asked to host a group of young foreign lawyers who were spending a few weeks at the UW, improving their English and getting oriented to American law and American life before starting LLM programs at the UW and Boston College this fall. They were a fascinating group, from Japan, South Korea, El Salvador, the Philippines, and Afghanistan. We would have loved to have had time to learn more about them, rather than our assigned task, which was to tell them what we could in an hour or so about being an American lawyer and our practices.

We talked about how much more law we have than is typical in developing countries, the nature of our administrative process, how lawyers are trained in the United States and their countries, what sort of practices are available here and in their home countries, and so on. Eventually we asked for “one more question.” While the rest sat silently, one of the young Afghans raised his hand, “When President Obama was running for election he said if he was elected he would address global warming and greenhouse gases. Has he done it?”

What a question! How did that young lawyer, just arrived from a war-torn Third World country, even know what Barack Obama said when he ran for office? And why would that be the question he wanted to ask when there was time for one more question?

Of course I don’t actually know the answer. We told him that the EPA has issued a finding of endangerment, which provides the foundation for the EPA to adopt regulations under the Clean Air Act regulating carbon dioxide emissions, that the House of Representatives has passed a climate change bill and sent it to the Senate where it awaits completion of health care reform before the Senate will take it up, and that in this country not even Barack Obama can snap his fingers and deliver the change he promised. Our democracy is much too messy for that. Then they got back on their bus and we went back to work.

But I have to think that final question suggests a larger truth – which is that to an extent we cannot measure but should not underestimate – the rest of the world is watching what we do on climate change.

One of the arguments against a cap-and-trade program in the United States is that climate change is a global problem, being fueled by emissions around the globe. Developing nations have largely refused to do anything to cap their emissions, arguing that doing so will harm their ability to achieve anything like the standard of living enjoyed by the developed world. So, the argument goes, the United States shouldn’t have to cap or reduce its emissions, because doing so will put American business at a disadvantage to manufacturers in the countries that aren’t capped. Those countries already have the advantage of cheap labor and less regulation, and the effect of capping U.S. carbon emissions will be to place domestic manufacturers at an even greater disadvantage, with no real benefit to the climate.

The countervailing argument is the one that Governor Christine Gregoire made when asked why Washington State could or should adopt a cap-and-trade program when the rest of the country didn’t have one. Her answer was that if there was one thing that a small state could do to make an impact on climate change, it was to lead.

I didn’t necessarily agree with Governor Gregoire, when we were talking about Washington State going it alone on a cap-and-trade system, or as part of the Western Climate Initiative – a body with very few rules and no due process protections. But the United States alone accounts for something like 22 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the world. That is not a trivial amount, and reducing it is a step in the right direction in its own right.

But perhaps more importantly, we won’t know whether other countries will follow us unless we actually take steps that they can follow. It is easy to understand why Third World countries or even developing countries like the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – aren’t about to cap their emissions and handicap their economies if the United States isn’t going to. Their governments have to explain their actions to people who justifiably don’t believe they should be the first to sacrifice.

What that question from the young Afghan lawyer suggested, however, is that there may be more willingness and interest in following than we assume, if the United States makes the decision to lead. Coming from a country with a very heavy agenda of difficult problems, that young Afghan lawyer was nonetheless clearly looking to the day when the United States stepped up to address an issue of concern to him. And it is not at all clear that he wouldn’t be in the vanguard to insist that if we take the steps we need to take to get on top of the issue, his country takes the steps it could take to follow.