Dear progressives: You can’t fight climate change by going soft on China

A man wades through a heavily flooded area after a strong downpour hit Shanghai on June 17, 2015. (Str/AFP/Getty Images)
A man wades through a heavily flooded area after a strong downpour hit Shanghai on June 17, 2015. (Str/AFP/Getty Images)

On Thursday, more than 40 progressive groups sent a letter to lawmakers and President Biden, urging them to stop the “demonization” of China and to start cooperating with it. The letter argues that the United States must end “the new Cold War” with China to address our current climate emergency.

The United States, they write, has long “scapegoated China as an excuse to avoid global climate commitments.” The letter absolves China of its human rights abuses and the national security threat it poses to the United States, and instead claims that the two countries can partner to “support international best practice” human rights standards — a breathtaking statement, given China’s brutal repression of the Uyghurs, Hong Kong and Tibet (among other things). In short, the progressive groups who signed this letter imply that while the United States got us into this crisis, we can encourage China to save us.

The letter begins with the true statement: “Climate change is a global crisis.” But it’s followed by a false one: “Confronting it requires global cooperation.” In fact, countering China is a far more effective and more realistic strategy for fighting climate change.

Partnering with China reduces U.S. leverage to push China to reduce its emissions. Beijing and Washington negotiate on climate change in two very different ways. As the scholars Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel Collins explain in a recent Foreign Affairs essay, the United States compartmentalizes climate change, while China links it to the rest of the bilateral relationship. As a result, negotiating with China requires yielding in other areas, such as trade or human rights — decisions that are both unwise and politically unfeasible.

What do progressives think will happen if the United States continues to challenge China on climate change? That Beijing will passive-aggressively build even more coal plants? The fact is, China stands to lose far more from climate change than the United States. China is by far the world’s largest polluter — it emits more greenhouse gas than the rest of the developed world combined — and that burden of substandard air and water quality falls overwhelmingly on Chinese people.

Nearly 600 million people live in China’s densely populated coastal provinces, where even a one-centimeter rise in sea levels could flood more than 30 feet inland (sea levels could rise at least 50 centimeters by 2100). The most at-risk cities in the world are in China’s low-lying Pearl River Delta, the country’s manufacturing heartland, where flooding is estimated to cost at least tens of billions of dollars this century. Other problems, including melting glaciers in Tibet and desertification in northern China, compound this grim reality.

Indeed, Beijing is in greater need of the United States’ cooperation on climate than the reverse. Climate action is necessary for China and, thus, for the party’s legitimacy — and the United States weakens its own fight against climate change if it compromises to strike a deal with China on an issue that is more in the party’s interest to address. Targeting Chinese manufacturers that directly benefit from cheap Chinese coal prices, for example, would both help their U.S. competitors and incentivize Chinese exporters to reduce their reliance on coal.

There can be no fight against climate change without the freedom to investigate and discuss its effects: Freedom of speech is crucial to our survival. But clamoring for partnership with Beijing undermines the global discourse on climate change: It reduces the effectiveness of global nonprofits as advocates for sound and sane policies. A “see-no-evil” stance toward the party helps it suppress domestic dissent, including critical voices on environmental policy, while boosting different viewpoints about how China can fight climate change helps the party make smarter policy decisions.

Major international organizations with offices in China, such as Greenpeace and especially the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), find themselves cornered: To protect the safety of their local staff and to ensure they maintain access to Chinese policymakers, they praise China’s progress and fawn over announcements from party leadership, even as the country experiences year-on-year emissions growth, while emissions in much of the rest of the world fall. (An NRDC spokesman said, “Building a more sustainable future means helping China address pollution that has both domestic and global impacts. That’s what we’re trying to do.” Greenpeace did not respond to a request for comment.). Advocacy groups and governments must be able to criticize China’s contribution to climate change without triangulating the acceptable level of criticism that may allow them to stay in Beijing’s good graces.

What about working with the Chinese firms that are some of the global leaders in green technology? Regardless of how much the Biden administration prioritizes fighting climate change, trade tensions with China will persist. As supply chains continue to bifurcate, U.S. firms must understand that the costs of depending on Chinese firms for green technology are beginning to outweigh the benefits.

“Partnering with China” to fight climate change may sound like a soothing and practical solution. But it rests on deeply flawed assumptions about the party, its way of doing business, and its determination to impose its authoritarian agenda on its people and its neighbors. Fighting climate change is indeed a global imperative. But pandering to Beijing isn’t the way to advance that goal.

Prayuj Pushkarna contributed research.

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