World news – Yes, Biden can take on China and climate change at the same time


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Global warming is largely a problem between the US and China. The two countries together cause 43 percent of global CO2 emissions. The decisions that the two countries will make in the years to come will shape life on the planet in the decades to come. In an ideal world, climate efforts would be central to the relationship between the two countries, and that relationship would be productive and cooperative. This is not an ideal world.

The Biden administration has reversed course on much of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, but broadly shares its view that China’s authoritarian political system and global ambitions pose a threat to US interests . There are still a variety of points of conflict, including China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, threats to Taiwan’s independence, trade competition and monetary policy, Beijing’s lack of transparency regarding coronavirus, cyberattacks and espionage, and human rights. In his first foreign policy address as President, Biden stated, « American leaders must face this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including China’s growing ambitions to compete with the United States. » He has ordered the Pentagon to conduct a position review to deter China’s military ambitions in East Asia. In a CNN town earlier this week, Biden promised China would « impact » its human rights abuses at home, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he would agree with the Trump State Department’s last-minute decision that China persecute ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Region represents genocide. The government was also skeptical of the World Health Organization’s recent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, suggesting that China is still obstructing fact-finding efforts.

If the fight against China is a tentpole of Biden’s foreign policy, another deals with the so-called « global existential crisis » of climate change. In addition to the formal resumption of the Paris Climate Agreement last week, Biden has addressed the issue within the foreign policy portfolio by appointing former Foreign Secretary John Kerry as Special Envoy on Climate and giving him a seat on the National Security Council. He plans to hold a summit of world leaders in April to discuss the climate.

Critics suggest that these two goals contradict each other. « A Biden government can productively combat climate change or approach another Cold War, but probably not both, » environmental journalist Kate Aronoff wrote recently in the New Republic. She continues: « Whether the US warships in the South China Sea run on hydrogen does not matter to the planet if conflicts there and on other fronts contribute to making bilateral cooperation on climate impossible. » Liberal foreign policy columnist Peter Beinart, who was skeptical of the Defense Department’s new China review, wrote: “When the Pentagon, after coming first on China, writes a policy review that treats the climate as an afterthought , Kerry will find himself in a battle with a department whose brass band spending is likely to be more than his budget. “

On the other hand, Chinese hawks fear that the climate team will be shaky when it comes to holding Beijing accountable. In an article for the Atlantic in December, foreign affairs analyst Thomas Wright warned that Kerry could use his leverage over the government to prioritize climate over all other issues in US-China relations and undercut other officials. He quoted a government official as saying, « China’s diplomacy is a constant search for leverage, and Kerry will be bringing a load of it in a wheelbarrow to your doorstep every day. » During the Blinken confirmation hearing, Senator Mitt Romney said to him, « I hope you are never tempted to abandon your China strategy for a climate benefit that Minister Kerry may promote. » The Trump administration clearly saw the two issues as linked. A large part of Trump’s justification for pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement was his bogus argument that doing so would give China an unfair economic advantage.

It’s a matter of priorities for both sides. Wright admits that climate is an issue that « touches virtually every other area of ​​domestic and foreign policy » but seems to see it as an uncomfortable distraction from the really important work of defense policy and diplomacy, and wants environmentalists stay on their track. That kind of attitude, in both Democratic and Republican administrations, is a big part of why the US is now decades behind what it should be in transitioning from a fossil fuel economy.

Meanwhile, notes that the US « should not give the Chinese government a passport for human rights abuses » in order to promote climate cooperation. Given that even mild criticism from a basketball manager is enough to spark a sweeping political crisis with the Chinese government, it is not clear how the US could potentially establish a productive relationship with China without giving it a passport. Is it worth giving up a productive climate relationship with China in order to give up support for longtime democratic ally Taiwan? Is it worth turning a blind eye to intellectual property theft in the US? To hand over surveillance technology to authoritarian governments? To withhold important information from the WHO from China? About genocide? Perhaps the threat from climate change is so serious that all other considerations must be put aside.

At least the Biden government publicly believes that this is not necessary. In an email to Slate, a State Department spokesman described China as « the greatest challenge a nation faces the United States with regard to the interests of the American people. » However, she also noted, “The climate challenge will not be successfully addressed without significant action by China. … The Biden-Harris administration approaches China through the lens of competition, recognizing that US-China relations are both controversial and cooperative. We look forward to working with China and other key countries to address the climate crisis. “

In a recent interview with ProPublica, Kerry said he plans to » go to China to sit down with President Xi and discuss mutual interests « . He also said he had little expectation that « you will suddenly turn around and everyone will sing » Kumbaya « . »

It would be foolishly optimistic to believe that US-China tensions are not making climate cooperation difficult at all. The lack of a coordinated international response to the coronavirus shows the worst-case scenario for how geopolitical tensions can undermine progress towards common goals.

However, it is not inappropriate to believe that the two will be at least partially separated can. Nuclear diplomacy offers a promising precedent here. Even at the height of the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union were able to reach important arms control agreements that reduced the risk of nuclear war. No one would describe US-Russia relations today as warm or warm. Nevertheless, Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin were able to agree on an extension of the New START Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty last month, as both sides saw this in their best interests.

The Obama administration has shown how this dynamic works with the climate can. In 2014, the US and China reached a landmark emissions agreement that paved the way for the Paris Agreement a year later. This was at a time when the US and China were at odds on a number of issues, including the South China Sea and alleged cyberattacks. During Obama’s second term, the climate deal was a rare area of ​​productive discussion in an otherwise rather dysfunctional relationship between the US and China. Beinart sees it differently and argues that it was so difficult to reach an agreement in 2014, precisely because the relationships were otherwise so bleak.

It is also important to consider what climate collaboration actually means. China hawks like Romney and Wright worry that Kerry will get a great deal with Beijing, undermining the government’s tough stance on China. But such a deal is no longer really necessary. In 2014, the Obama-Xi Agreement, which contained China’s first promise to increase its emissions (by 2030), was an important step in showing that a globally coordinated effort to combat emissions was even possible – China and other large developing countries had each other Long resisted the demand of affluent Western countries, which historically have contributed much more to climate change, that they reduce their emissions while their economies are still catching up. Now, under the Paris Agreement, the countries can make their entire emission pledges (nationally determined contributions in the jargon of climate diplomacy).

The more pressing need today, according to experts, is more specific cooperation in the field of scientific research and data exchange. Much of this type of collaboration was pushed into the background during the Trump years. In general, scientific collaboration between the two countries is grim, as evidenced by the lack of a coordinated response to the COVID pandemic. The Chinese authorities have been accused of a lack of transparency and several high-profile cases of espionage, while many Chinese scholars in the US have felt targeted and stigmatized by counter-espionage campaigns by US law enforcement agencies. Rebuilding confidence in scientific collaboration is likely a more fertile area for climate change advancement than government-to-government emissions pledges in the years to come. There are many models of what this type of collaboration can look like. For example, during the Obama years, the US Environmental Protection Agency worked with its Chinese counterparts to implement the pilot program for China’s national carbon market, which finally launched this month. The Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley Lab has been working on energy efficiency projects in China for years.

Of course, climate policy itself could, as in the past, lead to tensions between the US and China. In the most famous incident at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, Obama and his team crashed a sidebar meeting of major developing countries hosted by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to demand that China sign an agreement that includes an international review of its emissions. In his memoirs, Obama recalls his adjutant Reggie Love, who describes the moment as « real gangster shit » – not quite what we normally consider bilateral cooperation, but a key moment in climate diplomacy nonetheless.

Both countries sit down today more than in 2009 for emission reductions, but the means to achieve these reductions could also lead to frictional losses. The von Biden government has turned to the Green New Deal – adjacent ideas to encourage domestic manufacturing of green energy technologies – that simultaneously create jobs and tackle the climate crisis. It’s a smart domestic policy, but China is likely to view it as a form of protectionism designed to undercut its own clean-tech exports. (Many U.S. environmentalists are also skeptical, believing that it would be faster and cheaper to import solar panels and electric vehicles from China than waiting for U.S. manufacturing to catch up.)

This type of competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the planet. Without political competitions between the United States and the Soviet Union, people likely would never have reached the moon. If both countries continue to view the transition to climate-neutral economies as a priority, why shouldn’t the world’s two largest emitters compete to get there first?

Both Chinese hawks and environmentalists assume that China’s decision to Taking serious action to combat climate change in the coming years will primarily be driven by US policies. But Beijing is quite capable of acting independently. When Xi Jinping announced the country’s most ambitious climate protection pledge to date last year – the promise to achieve China’s emissions by 2030 and become climate neutral by 2060 – it was at a time when no climate protection measures at home or abroad were being taken by Trump Administration. Perhaps, as a number of commentators suggested, Xi was trying to establish China as a responsible player in an area that Trump had left open. But China’s leaders are also likely to be seriously concerned about climate change after years of worsening droughts, floods and severe storms. The grim but recently improved air quality in China’s largest cities was one area where public pressure itself had an impact on one of the most authoritarian political systems in the world. There are many reasons for skepticism about China’s new climate moves: Chinese leaders like to offset emissions with “sinks” like tree-planting projects that may have limited effectiveness. The infamous quality of public data reporting for China’s local governments makes it difficult to gauge the country’s real progress, and there are concerns that China could only export its pollution overseas by using its Belt and Road initiative invested in energy-intensive projects, including coal-fired power plants. To the extent that China is reluctant to take climate change seriously, it has the same reasons as most other countries: fear of what it would mean for its economy.

At this point, the best the US is for the global efforts to combat climate change can, likely, put your own house in order and make up for years of lost time. The US can promote scientific cooperation with countries of all kinds. To the extent that it is useful, it can try to encourage China to cut its own emissions or apply pressure if it comes up short. If a US president could snap his fingers and make the two countries allies, the climate might be worth it. However, the reasons for the current US-China tension are real, complex, and by no means solely US-related. The planet can’t wait for us to solve these problems first.

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