As the United Nations Climate Change Conference begins today in Copenhagen, some experts believe world leaders will be sufficiently motivated to achieve consensus on ways to reduce greenhouse gases.

In the United States, retired military leaders like Gen. Anthony Zinni call climate change a “threat multiplier” that could have disastrous consequences for unstable countries like Somalia, Sudan, Kenya and Nigeria.

Chinese, Indian and Pakistani leaders are keenly aware of these risks, recognizing that their nations may endure water scarcity as global warming dries up mountain snowpack and disrupts the monsoon season.

The United States could still agree to “Kyoto Lite”—a set of targets and a timetable that look weaker than 1997’s Kyoto Protocol, according to Matthew R. Auer, PhD, a professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University, Bloomington. If so, U.S. leaders would still be agreeing to reduce more carbon dioxide than any other country.

“The U.S., China and India could turn out to be climate heroes if they put their minds to it,” says Dr. Auer, author of Restoring Cursed Earth: Appraising Environmental Policy Reforms in Eastern Europe and Russia. “China is getting smarter about how it produces and uses energy, with everything from high-tech furnaces at steel mills to newly insulated office buildings now saving energy in Chinese cities. China’s solar power and wind turbine industries compete fiercely with U.S. firms for global market share.

“In India, Tata Motors’ peppy Nano minicar gets 65 mpg, and new alternative fuel and electric battery models are in the works. With that kind of ingenuity and their newfound wealth, China and India in partnership with the U.S. could go a long way in fighting global warming, with or without a resounding diplomatic triumph at Copenhagen.”