Why China Is Cooperating on Climate Change

With China, we have a worrisome rival and an indispensable partner.


Xi Jinping
Public Domain

Americans like to keep the world simple, dividing important countries into two groups: valued allies and hateful enemies. That approach suffices when we're talking about South Korea and North Korea. But it doesn't work well when it comes to China.

Many people see it as a giant, looming menace. The truth is more complicated. With China, we have a worrisome rival and an indispensable partner.

That latter status has never been clearer than today, after a summit that produced several new accords between Washington and Beijing. The most important and surprising was an agreement to curb emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. It is, in the words of a former Obama administration official, "the most important bilateral climate announcement ever."

Back home, people on either side of the climate issue agreed it's a big, fat hairy deal. Environmentalists who had forgotten how to smile were wearing out underused face muscles. The Natural Resources Defense Council called it "a turning point in the fight against global warming" that "will help protect our families' health and shield future generations from unchecked climate change."

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, however, lost the post-election spring in his step, saying the agreement advances "the president's ideological War on Coal" and "will increase the squeeze on middle-class families and struggling miners."

The bigger reason coal miners are struggling is that their product has been undercut by a boom in the production of natural gas. But McConnell would prefer to blame Barack Obama for commercial developments that are largely the result of ordinary market forces.

The opponents of climate change action had counted on China to give the United States an excuse to do nothing about planetary overheating. Their argument was that it would put a staggering burden on American companies, giving a big advantage to their unconstrained Chinese competitors.

But a couple of underlying assumptions turned out to be faulty. One is that the Chinese put economic growth above everything else. Another is that they are too bent on defying and weakening the U.S. to give in on such a momentous issue.

In reality, the Chinese have come to understand that ever-growing carbon emissions go hand in hand with their deadly air pollution, which causes 670,000 deaths per year—more than the population of Seattle. They also understand that on many issues, cooperation makes more sense than conflict.

President Xi Jinping is flexing his muscles in Asia, but he also understands the need to minimize the danger of unwanted hostilities with a superpower. He and Obama agreed that the two governments will keep each other informed of their military exercises and work out rules for air and sea encounters.

Little heeded on this side of the Pacific is that Beijing has done many things to show its acceptance of international norms—joining the World Trade Organization, participating in UN peacekeeping operations and providing more funds to combat Ebola in Africa than any government but ours.

That doesn't mean it won't challenge or even bully its neighbors, including our allies. But it's not a rogue state or a Cold War-style adversary. It's a normal nation with normal desires to enlarge its capacity to shape regional and world events.

The summit illustrated the positive side of this impulse. By embracing international obligations like combating climate change, Beijing makes it harder for Republicans to rationalize despoliation of the planet on behalf of special interests like the U.S. coal industry. It also creates pressure on other major polluters—notably India—to follow suit.

Not least important, it undermines those in China who prefer the status quo. Governments generally don't like to embarrass themselves by reneging on public commitments, because it makes other countries reluctant to transact with them. Taking this stand sends a message to party leaders, bureaucrats and industrial titans that they had better get on board.

Critics claim China is free to do nothing until 2030, when it agreed to cap its emissions. But Beijing has already been pouring money into clean energy programs, while revamping its electricity market to discourage the use of coal.

This year, reports NPR, the nation's coal consumption dropped, a first for this century. A new law stipulates that local and provincial officials will be judged partly on how well they meet environmental goals.

Life and U.S. foreign policy would be simpler if China were as hostile and duplicitous as some Americans assume. But they wouldn't be easier.