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