Last week, President Joe Biden met Chinese leader Xi Jinping — albeit virtually — for the first time in his presidency. The two were brought together by an ambitious U.S.-led summit of global leaders to address the existential threat of climate change. The Leaders Climate Summit came a week after John Kerry, the U.S. special envoy for climate, traveled to Shanghai to meet with his Chinese counterpart, after which they issued a joint statement indicating a mutual desire to cooperate on climate change.
The Biden administration understands that the United States must pursue an aggressive climate agenda as a core component of our domestic and foreign policy and is already taking steps to do so. But given that China’s emissions make up over one-quarter of the global total, it is imperative that we continue to engage with the Chinese government on climate because the world’s largest polluter is also the world’s largest opportunity for emissions reductions.
History has shown that when facing an existential threat, even the most antagonistic relationships can find common ground. In 1982, at the height of the Cold War, I spoke in front of 1 million people in Central Park to demand that President Ronald Reagan freeze the unaffordable and unwinnable U.S. arms race with the Soviet Union. Due to the success of the “Nuclear Freeze Movement,” we were able to achieve major advancement in arms control, while at the same time pressuring the Soviet Union to cease its abuses of human rights and civil liberties and to allow safe passage out of the country for Soviet Jews.
We are again facing an existential threat — this time from climate chaos. The United States is the highest historical contributor to excess greenhouse gasses, and therefore must take immediate measures to curtail climate change and the resulting instability that threatens our interests and our very existence. Yet, even if the United States and its allies adhered to the most stringent emissions standards, China’s output alone will continue to fuel negative climate impacts that threaten global stability. As China seeks greater global prominence, it will have to confront this climate reality in cooperation with the international community.
It is precisely China’s ambitions, prominently articulated under Xi, which make this an optimal time to seek cooperation on climate change. China feels that its regional position, economy, and development have earned it a more prominent role in shaping rules and norms that impact the broader international community. But China has yet to demonstrate that its interest in engaging on the international stage extends beyond shaping norms and bullying counterparts in order to achieve its own narrow interests. It is time to put China’s leadership ambitions to the test.
China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic provides a recent example of how the realities of the Chinese government system — authoritarianism and tight control over information — limit its ability to demonstrate true global leadership. China has tried to control the narrative of the COVID-19 crisis though the spread of disinformation and through vaccine diplomacy in an attempt to revive its reputation. Despite these efforts, the reputations of the Chinese government and Xi personally have both taken a massive hit over the past year — for good reason. Xi’s continued obfuscation of the World Health Organization’s investigations into the origins of the pandemic, as well as aggressive action against Hong Kong, have eroded trust and prevented any rehabilitation of the Chinese leader’s reputation. Aggressive efforts by the U.S. to take the global leadership mantle back on climate action can leverage Xi’s recent leadership missteps by forcing the Chinese government to either step up to the plate or have their failings broadcast even more widely to the world.
An invitation to cooperate on climate can and must be balanced with concentrated efforts by the United States and the international community to address human rights abuses, as well as China’s activities meant to undermine democracies and the rules-based international order.
If we are to blunt the Chinese government’s worst abuses, we must invest in ourselves and embrace the values and relationships that have made the United States a global leader for the better part of the past century. Congress is moving forward with multiple proposals for serious investments in domestic and foreign programs that would counter Chinese influence and enable the United States to compete strategically with Chinese advancements. But we are not in a new Cold War with China. We must seek areas of mutual cooperation, not mutual annihilation, on the existential threats to our well-being like climate change.
The costs of climate change are well-documented and have devastated communities around the world. Heat waves, sea-level rise, and extreme weather devastate communities with increasing frequency, threatening sectors like agriculture and fisheries and raising concerns about food security in the most vulnerable regions. The World Health Organization estimates that between 2030 and 2050, an additional 250,000 people per year are expected to die as a result of climate change effects.
Last year alone, the U.S. Department of Defense spent roughly $67 million to fortify U.S. bases against the effects of climate change, which threatens more than two-thirds of U.S. military bases. If current climate trends continue, the United States will face the tough choice between spending billions of dollars adapting and maintaining vulnerable bases to be more climate resilient or abandoning strategically valuable bases that will eventually be rendered unusable.
The United States must evolve out of a reliance on fossil fuels and into the green economy envisioned by the Green New Deal that I reintroduced with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on April 20, 2021. We should invest in public-private partnerships with leading national innovators to spur a green tech and sustainability revolution to catch up with China.
To avoid the worst effects of climate change, the global economy must reach carbon neutrality by no later than 2050, yet recent public commitments made by the United States and China fall short of this important goal. To achieve necessary and unavoidable global targets, the United States and China must engage and challenge each other to enact ambitious and lasting policies as soon as possible.
If we include cooperation and competition on climate action as a cornerstone of U.S.-China policy, we can open up dynamic opportunities for investments at home and abroad that create American jobs, protect our strategic interests, and counter Chinese economic power. We cannot save the “pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known” without spurring China — and ourselves — to action.