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U.S.-China Climate Talks Creep Forward


With the US and China responsible for 40 percent of global carbon emissions, the future likely turns on bilateral diplomatic progress towards the December 2015 global summit. With tensions increasing between the US and China over the South China Sea and cyber-espionage, it was at least a hopeful sign that the recent negotiations toward a climate agreement were not being sacrificed to a new Cold War. The presence of John Podesta, President Barack Obama’s top climate change specialist, on last week’s US diplomatic delegation to the strategic dialogue with Beijing, was a guarantee of the Obama administration’s growing seriousness. But differences over equity between rich and poor nations may be more insurmountable than technical and scientific ones.

What little climate news leaked from the summit was positive, although ambiguous. The two parties signed eight agreements including increased efforts on fuel efficiency in cars and trucks, greater efficiency in power distribution, carbon capture, and ambiguous collaboration towards “clean coal.” The Chinese insisted, as they have before, on far greater equity from advanced countries towards the lesser-developed Third World where pollution calls most heavily. China is linked to a group of 77 nations, led by Bolivia, who are demanding a renewable development fund, like the New Deal or Marshall Plan, to help them survive eco-catastrophes, which they see as the fault of the rich. That aside, the New York Times reported, “The Americans appeared pleased about what they called serious discussions on how to reduce carbon emissions.”

California has multiple teams of experts collaborating with China on air pollution and emission reductions strategies. The NRDC alone has 30 staff engaged with Chinese scientists and environmental experts. A rising citizen’s movement against suffocating air quality has Chinese officials worried. What has triggered the new interest in bilateral progress was President Obama’s issuance of regulatory guidelines which ratchet down carbon dioxide emissions from mainly coal-fired power plants. As soon as Obama made that commitment public, the Chinese announced their intention to take the climate negotiations seriously. According to Tim Wirth, a former senator and close ally of John Kerry, “If we want to make a global impact, we just need to cut a deal with China…Once we have China on board, that kills the whole argument that cutting carbon in the US would give China an economic advantage.” In the meantime, China is scouring the earth for imported oil and planning for what it calls a “revolution” in shale gas exploitation.

Only a global New Deal, with government funding from the advanced industrial countries, would seem likely to unleash the necessary financial resources to combat the most devastating effects of climate change. But ideological and political considerations seem to point towards conservative market solutions in the short term. Many environmental advocates have proposed a Green Climate Fund of $100 billion per year, a small sum compared with the $60 billion spent by Congress on rebuilding the East Coast after superstorm Sandy. China and the developing bloc known as the “Group of 77 and China” are likely to insist on that sort of fund in the climate talks approaching 2015, but the US has flatly rejected such an approach, at least for now. In a speech laden with scorn last year, US climate negotiator Todd Stern said, “lectures about compensation, reparations and the like will produce nothing but antipathy” from the elites and publics in the advanced nations. Recent calls for carbon pricing mechanisms by American billionaire Wall Street investors signal the opposite of a New Deal approach as well. The climate guru James Hansen also calls for a market approach to saving the planet, and one built into the core of US-China energy relations. “We must demand that the liberal left keep their hands out of our pockets and off of our wallets,” he told an approving audience at the Ridenhour Courage Awards in 2013, a speech which was published in The Nation.  In Hansen’s scheme, an across-the-board carbon tax will lead to 60 percent of the American public getting more money in their monthly dividends than they would pay in higher energy prices, but only if they “make wise choices.” His recommendation for the other 40 percent who won’t be able to afford higher energy prices is a work in progress. But “not one dime of the carbon fee should be used to make the government bigger.” China has “many reasons to join” this new order, he says, without evaluating the social impacts of a deregulated energy market on either the Chinese people or their statist political order.

As the US and China take tentative steps towards limiting carbon emissions, in other words, it is assumed that “free enterprise” or neoliberalism will be the only framework considered. Ideological considerations, above all the primacy of private markets over public governments, are as central to the debate as scientific, environmental or health considerations. But that’s not how the New Deal or the Marshall Plan were carried out. How will poor countries, or island nations facing rising seas, gather the revenues needed to mitigate the coming disaster? From tourist revenues? If the West hopes to attract China and its allies to a global climate agreement, the richer nations will have to explain how to assist those who will be hardest hit during the global Katrinas ahead.

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