Taking China’s Temperature on Climate Change

The latest talks on efforts to control global emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) concluded in Bonn this week with little reported progress. A key sticking point is China’s continued unwillingness to agree to control its emissions.

Last month I spent two weeks in China at the request of the U.S. State Department to give a series of lectures on environmental law. I gave 14 lectures in six Chinese cities at universities, think tanks, government agencies, and a bar association. While I lectured on a variety of environmental topics, in every presentation I explained why it was crucial for China to control its GHG emissions. In 2007 China surpassed the U.S. as the largest emitter of GHGs and it accounted for more than two-thirds of the growth in global emissions that year. During my lectures, the question whether China should agree to control its emissions sparked lively exchanges with audiences of professors, students, lawyers, government officials, and scientists. A few responded that “climate change doesn’t exist,” or “if it exists, it’s not caused by human activity.” Others maintained that China already was doing its fair share to respond to the problem through its efforts to promote renewable energy and electric car technology.

But I did perceive that there is greater awareness in China of the problem of climate change than there was last year when I was teaching in China as a Fulbright scholar. I gave guest lectures then at universities in several Chinese cities and found remarkably little understanding or concern about the problem among Chinese audiences. Climate change has not been high on the agenda of Chinese environmentalists in large part because the country has so many other immense environmental problems, including severe air and water pollution that pose basic threats to public health.

Another thing that had changed from last year is that the Chinese people know that the U.S. has dramatically changed course by electing Barack Obama president. The students I taught in China last year followed the U.S. presidential election very closely, commenting on the results of each primary. Many told me that the U.S. would never elect a black president. When Obama won, they were stunned, as were most of the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. While most Chinese I met now realize that Obama is changing U.S. policy, they are not well aware of the extent of his administration’s efforts to adopt controls on GHG emissions. Last year a Chinese student told me that she knew the U.S. would never agree to control its GHG emissions because Cass Sunstein had written that it was not in the economic interests of the U.S. or China to do so. Now they are impressed by Obama and how he is changing U.S. policy.

Yet many Chinese remain openly skeptical of the motives of those who seek to persuade China to control its GHG emissions. Even one of China’s the top public interest environmental lawyers believes that climate change is a western plot to reduce China’s economic growth. In nearly every audience I addressed, someone would insist that the U.S. possesses secret technology to control GHG emissions and that it is simply refusing to share it with China in order to gain economic advantage.

In December the nations of the world will meet in Copenhagen to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol to control GHG emissions after 2012. The key issue will be whether China will agree to control its GHG emissions. The Chinese government has proposed that developed countries reduce their GHG emissions by 40% by 2020 and contribute .5 to 1% of their GDP to a fund to assist developing countries. This proposal is widely viewed as pre-negotiation posturing. Chinese officials also have argued that China should not have to control emissions generated by its production of goods exported to other countries, an argument that flies in the face of the “polluter pays” principle and a global trend toward increasing producer responsibility. That argument seems to have backfired as an open invitation to other countries to impose carbon tariffs, but if it implies that China should control the rest of its emissions generated by non-export industries (estimated at 75-85%), it could signify some progress.

In my presentations I emphasized the increasing urgency of the climate change problem. More rapid melting of polar ice than anticipated just two years ago when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its most recent report has convinced some scientists that worst-case scenarios for climate change are now being realized. I showed video clips of the impact of sea level rise on Beijing and Shanghai from “An Inconvenient Truth,” which drew audible gasps from every audience. Few Chinese have seen this movie, which embassy staff attribute in part to the fact that the title does not translate well into Chinese.

In February of this year the nations of the world agreed to negotiate a treaty to control global emissions of mercury. For years the U.S., China and India had opposed negotiating such an agreement. But when the Obama administration reversed U.S. policy, China and India also agreed to drop their opposition. The fate of the world’s climate is now largely in the hands of China and the U.S. because they account for nearly half of global GHG emissions. Whether they can agree to overcome this other global “tragedy of the commons” should be revealed by December in Copenhagen.

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3 Responses

  1. Jake says:

    China is an ancient nation. Informed by millenia, the Chinese undoubtedly recognize the equivalence of junk science and politics. Thus the Chinese position on international GHG regulation.

  2. “Another thing that had changed from last year is that the Chinese people know that the U.S. has dramatically changed course by electing Barack Obama president.”

    I’ve always found that an amusing philosophical point: You can’t “know” something that’s false, but everything that’s going on in your head is exactly the same.

  3. Part of the reluctance of the Bush administration towards the mercury treaty that Mr. Obama has resurrected is that these type of UN projects just devolve into seemingly never-ending negotiations. Bob – I will buy you and yours a dinner of the biggest Obama-cleansed, sushi-grade tuna steaks if this treaty is in place by EOY 2013.

    …and really, showing clips from “Inconvienent Truth”? It’s not as if Communist China needs to import propaganda.