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Pivotal Power

May 29, 2009
The game of chicken with China over global warming ends

Climate change was on the agenda this week when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The Obama administration’s foreign policy marks a break with the Bush approach on many counts, but none more visible than energy and climate change. These issues now animate our relationship with China, and not a moment too soon.

Climate is now central to U.S. diplomacy for three reasons:

  • The administration rightly views global warming as a serious threat to national security;
  • A treaty to succeed Kyoto is to be negotiated at the end of this year in Copenhagen under the auspices of the U.N.;
  • Science tells us that time is running out to contain the increase of average global temperatures, avoiding the potentially castastrophic limit of 2°C.

The big enchilada on climate and energy diplomacy is China. China is now the largest yearly emitter of greenhouse gases, having just surpassed the U.S. Together, the U.S. and China account for 40 percent of worldwide emissions. China is the largest coal producer in the world, and coal accounts for 70 percent of China’s energy use. Energy demand in China is growing wildly. From 2001 to 2007, energy demand in China alone grew by the same amount used in all of Latin America put together.

Thus, last August, when the Center for American Progress released a report (which I co-authored) making recommendations about the future of U.S.-China relations, we called for the new president to make climate and energy a central focus of the bilateral relationship. We argued that the urgency of global warming demanded that step, but that elevating an issue on which China and the U.S. had much in common could have other positive spill-over effects. At the time, this was not a run-of-the-mill recommendation. There had been very little positive interaction between the U.S. and China on climate and energy, with both countries in a “suicide pact,” refusing to act until the other got serious.

The administration is now putting a new approach to the test. On her first trip as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton went to Asia and highlighted energy and climate change in Beijing. President Obama brought up global warming with President Hu in their first meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in April. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was in China earlier this week, having made climate change — and not human rights, as many expected — the focus of her trip.

As a result of this diplomatic focus, and the fact that the Obama administration is clearly serious about cleaning up America’s act on energy and climate, the U.S.-China game of chicken over global warming is giving way to a more positive dynamic. Both sides, while still demanding unrealistic progress from the other, are doing a lot themselves, realizing that the more steps they can say they have taken domestically, the more leverage they will have in Copenhagen.

Last week, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, or ACES, sponsored by Congressmen Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA), passed through committee in the House. This legislation would, for the first time, create a cap and trade system in the U.S. Some environmentalists have assailed the legislation because its stated targets — 17 percent under 2005 levels by 2020 — come lower than many would like. But, as my colleagues and I have pointed out, if you measure the full effects of the legislation, the numbers actually look a lot better. In fact, in contrast to what The New York Times reported (and then retracted) about our piece, we think the ACES, if it passes before December — in combination with other environmental measures the administration is taking, like imposing strict mileage standards on cars — will give President Obama the leverage he needs with China, and with others, to make the Copenhagen treaty the best it can be.

– Nina Hachigian

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Speaker Pelosi under a Creative Commons license.




[…] are critical factors in getting the global economy back on its feet. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to China last week to discuss climate — China is now the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world; […]


Is Eve referring to our former administration, or our current administration that is willing to destroy their economy to tax their citizens? I also believe the term “Global Warming,” is a misused term. “Climate Change,” might be a better alternative.


The hypothesis that Co2 causes warming is simply that..a hypothesis. It does not have enough proof to be a theory. On the other hand, the theory of natural variability has never been disproven. The planet has been cooling for 11 years despite increasing Co2 emissions. That really should be enough, in an intelligent society, to disprove the hypothesis of AGW. The climate change lobby group is huge in the US, the UK, Europe, Canada, etc. The Chinese do not allow such things and therefore will never destroy their economy for a failed hypothesis.


The world’s emissions of the main planet-warming gas carbon dioxide will rise over 50 percent to more than 42 billion tonnes per year from 2005 to 2030 as China leads a rise in burning coal, the U.S. government forecast on Wednesday. China’s coal demand will rise 3.2 percent annually from 2005 to 2030, the Energy Information Administration said in its International Energy Outlook 2008. –Reuters, 26 June 2008

“I’m going to tell you something I probably shouldn’t: we may not be able to stop global warming. We need to begin curbing global greenhouse emissions right now, but more than a decade after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, the world has utterly failed to do so. Unless the geopolitics of global warming change soon, the Hail Mary pass of geoengineering might become our best shot.” –Bryan Walsh, Time Magazine, 17 March 2008


It is vey hard to get leverage ovver China when you are talking about a failed hypothesis. The Chinese know as do our elected officials that AGW is a scam. The differnce is that the Chinese are not willing to destroy their economy to tax their citizens more. Our government is willing to do that.

Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of “The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise.” She has worked on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House and been a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She specializes in U.S.-China relations and great power relationships, multilateral institutions and U.S. foreign policy.

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