Magazine article Foreign Policy

Lean in to Climate Change: To Maintain an Edge against China, America Must Continue to Be an Environmental Leader

Magazine article Foreign Policy

Lean in to Climate Change: To Maintain an Edge against China, America Must Continue to Be an Environmental Leader

Article excerpt

The South China Sea. Human rights. Trade. Currency manipulation. [paragraph] When U.S.-China relations are discussed we often ascribe these issues some level of tension. However, our countries' cooperation has historically been more cordial and productive in one area: environmental protection. 1 The reason for this fertile diplomatic ground is simple. All nations and peoples have an interest in lowering pollution, which harms our health, stifles economic growth, creates instability, and knows no boundaries. 1A powerful instance of environmental diplomacy revolved around an air-quality monitor on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 2008. Its purpose was to inform the American diplomatic corps of how safe it was to be outside on any given day. However, the public availability of this solid air-quality data led to growing demands from Chinese citizens for cleaner air, eventually pushing the Chinese government to respond by better connecting the dots among clean air, climate change, and economic growth.

International relationships have always been influenced by the availability (or constraints) of natural resources essential to public health, well-being, and economic growth. Unfortunately, the "America First" mantra touted by the Trump administration seems blind to the fundamental need for clean water, air, and land. There are vast economic opportunities and diplomatic leverage the United States can either seize on or cede to China through climate leadership.

The proven economic benefits of domestic action to advance clean energy, such as tax incentives for wind and solar energy, have supercharged our fast-growing clean-energy industry, added hundreds of thousands of middle-class jobs, and promoted significant economic growth. Clean energy helped pave the way for the Obama administration to lower greenhouse gas emissions to 1994 levels, while managing to create 11.3 million jobs with 75 straight months of employment growth.

In short, the current administration doesn't seem to get it. It argues that the Environmental Protection Agency needs to return to its "core mission," as if carbon pollution doesn't threaten public health and safety--never mind its impact on clean air and water.

If the Trump administration fails to show leadership on domestic climate actions and support the Paris Agreement on climate change, it will cede a competitive economic edge to nations like China. It would place the health and safety of our families, communities, and country at risk and waste our international expertise and leverage, which are essential to ensuring that each country is accountable to its commitments and achieves lower emission levels that science may demand over time. It's misleading of this administration to point to China's 2030 reduction goal under the Paris Agreement, as if it gives the nation a free pass until then. China must act now to meet its commitment, and it is already making substantial investments in renewable energy and disinvestments in coalfired power plants. In fact, during the next five years, China is expected to remain the largest player in wind-energy growth.

Combating environmental health risks is an exercise in addressing the "tragedy of the commons." Pollution, like carbon, is diffuse and blind to borders. Addressing global environmental health risks always requires multilateral cooperation, which will always demand a strong, global leader. …

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