There is no question that failing to control the rising temperatures due to carbon dioxide output will have disastrous consequences on a global scale. The dangers are well known. Rising sea levels, famine, drought and other effects of unchecked global warming would lead to widespread displacement, conflict and death. Entire nations face the prospect of being buried beneath the ocean. Yet in the face of such massive human suffering, greed remains a powerful obstacle to reform, as demonstrated at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

That such a conference happened at all is encouraging, and is a sign that nearly every government on earth — including the leadership of the largest economies — recognizes the challenge posed by global warming. That the United States, which emits one-fifth of world’s carbon dioxide and is noted as the only industrialized county not to have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, has come to play a leadership role in international climate change agreements is also a positive sign. This is a radical departure from the policies of President George W. Bush and his administration, which actively undermined domestic and international efforts to combat global warming.

Nevertheless, the American position at Copenhagen was somewhat disheartening. After promising to act “boldly and decisively” at the conference, Obama proposed only a modest 17 percent reduction from 2005 levels of United States greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, far short of what scientists believe is necessary. Secretary of State Clinton made a commitment to support a fund to aid developing nations’ responses to global warming, but the proposed $100 billion is much less than what is necessary to help people in the most vulnerable parts of the world. Finally, despite calling for measures that “ensure that an accord is credible, and that we are living up to our obligations,” the resolution that emerged from Copenhagen is not legally binding.

The blame for the impotent response from the world’s leadership, however, does not rest solely on us. An international conference requires international cooperation, and the story that has emerged from Copenhagen shines an ugly light on the growing economic power of China. According to Mark Lynas, an environmentalist who was present at the high-level talks in Copenhagen, China — currently the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide — actively fought against a global target temperature, a global emissions target, and even unilateral emissions cuts by developed countries. Their actions at Copenhagen were Bush-esque: much like former President Bush, China’s leaders have decided that the payoff for playing by the rules is negligible compared to the wealth they are currently reaping from a fast-growing economy founded on coal.

The game China is playing with its population is a dangerous one, and one Obama and other world leaders may be better off avoiding entirely. Less-than-global measures to combat climate change are better than nonexistent ones, and international pressure may force China to follow suit. Whatever the course of action, he and other leaders must act swiftly and forcefully. The whole world is at stake, and it’s all we have.