Walter Russell Mead: Appeasing China Won’t Cool the Earth

  • Date: 22/09/20
  • Walter Russell Mead, The Wall Street Journal

A President Biden would face pressure from climate hawks to go easy on Beijing.

As policy makers in Beijing weigh their options in the event of a Biden victory, one of the subjects that will most engage their attention is climate change. Joe Biden has repeatedly stated that he will put the goal of slowing climate change at the heart of U.S. foreign policy.

Washington would rejoin the Paris Climate Accords and urge all countries to enact measures to keep Earth’s temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, as the Democratic Party platform states.

China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Does this mean a Biden administration would add another dimension to U.S.-China tensions? Beijing likely hopes it’ll ease them.

For Chinese officials, the goal would be to get the Biden administration to negotiate with itself—the climate hawks persuading the incoming president to squelch the China hawks to save the planet. Beijing is the key to climate change, climate warriors will say, and America can’t persuade China to help cool the Earth by harassing it on trade, imposing sanctions against its companies, arming Taiwan, and encouraging its neighbors to form alliances against Beijing.

This is an approach China can work with. Beijing wants to fight climate change, its diplomats will whisper to U.S. climate hawks, but Chinese hard-liners need to be convinced. Help us to help you: If America demonstrates a spirit of compromise and cooperation on issues important to the hard-liners, well, who can say? We might even give up our coal plants. Someday.

There are Democrats to whom this will seem like smart statecraft. Global governance, they will tell Americans, transcends the petty stakes of geopolitical competition. Our common interest in saving humanity outweighs ephemeral disputes over maritime boundaries. Can we really let a conflict over Taiwan, a small island that America already officially recognizes as part of China, stand in the way of a climate treaty that could halt extinction?

The Biden team needs to assess Beijing’s position on climate change realistically. Global temperatures aside, China wants to improve the energy efficiency of its economy because energy is a cost. Beijing wants to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign fuel because the U.S. controls the sea lanes through which China’s Middle East imports must flow. It wants to mandate a shift from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles because this would destroy German and Japanese competitive advantages in the automobile industry.

A new technology would give Chinese car companies a chance to occupy the industry’s commanding heights. Beijing wants to reduce water and air pollution in and around China’s great cities because residents, including powerful Communist Party members, like clean water and air.

China’s emissions will slow also because its economy is no longer growing as rapidly as it did during the boom years. As Chinese consumers become older and more affluent, demand will tend to shift to less energy-intensive services, like health care. The information revolution, which is making the world more energy-efficient and reducing humanity’s environmental footprint, is at work in China as well.

Like diplomats from many other countries, Beijing’s climate negotiators spend a lot of time packaging steps their country would take anyway as bold and courageous initiatives demonstrating its altruistic leadership. Because China’s environmental record is so poor, there is much low-hanging fruit still to gather; Beijing can achieve significant progress on emissions while honoring its other policy goals. On the other hand, it will resist any commitments that seriously interfere with its economic and strategic ambitions. The sad reality is that there isn’t all that much difference between the steps China is prepared to take on its own and the steps U.S. pressure might induce it to take.

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