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If climate change is a ‘priority,’ Biden must shed the cold war approach to China

Secretary of State Blinken recently placed the challenge in the contradictory context of great power competition.

Analysis | Global Crises

The Biden administration’s approach to climate change is obviously incomparably better than that of former President Trump, but to date it has still been many ways fundamentally flawed; and its flaws are related to wider problems in the way that the U.S. foreign policy establishment sees the world. The administration should adopt a different approach as it heads into the “climate summit” it has called for later this week.

Among these flaws are an inability to set priorities; militarized attitudes to international issues, linked to an unconditional acceptance of the need for military spending that dwarfs other essential needs; a tendency to think in terms of zero-sum competition instead of co-operation; and a commitment to indefinite, universal and unilateral U.S. global hegemony.

Today, these attitudes form the common and largely unquestioned culture of the Washington establishment. A hundred years from now, if in the meantime we have failed to set limits on carbon emissions, they are likely to be regarded by our descendants as mistaken to the point of near insanity.

On present trajectories, global temperatures are projected to rise by at least three degrees centigrade by the end of this century. Even if this does not lead to runaway climate change (for example, through the release of methane from the melting Arctic permafrost) and the destruction of civilization, a rise of over three degrees would make certain the melting of the Greenland ice cap sheet, raising sea levels (admittedly over an uncertain period of time) by approximately 6 meters, flooding large parts of every coastal city. The last time the world was 4 degrees hotter than now, sea levels were 260 feet higher.

Will Chinese control over sandbanks in the South China Sea and Russian control over worthless coalfields in eastern Ukraine really seem important to the Americans of the future if their coastal cities are sinking beneath the waves, their agriculture is collapsing and hundreds of millions of desperate migrants are seeking to enter the country?

Secretary of State Antony Blinken clearly revealed the administration’s — and the establishment’s — problematic approach to climate change in the speech on the subject at the Chesapeake bay Foundation in Annapolis on Monday April 19.

“As secretary of state, my job is to make sure our foreign policy delivers for the American people — by taking on the biggest challenges they face and seizing the biggest opportunities that can improve their lives,” he said. “If America fails to lead the world on addressing the climate crisis, we won’t have much of a world left.”

This statement accords well with the administration’s promise to conduct a foreign policy that serves the real interests of the American middle classes. Yet even this part of his statement contains a problem. Why does the United States necessarily have to “lead the world,” rather than cooperate with other countries? And given the U.S. record on climate change, why should other countries accord it this right to lead? Were the Bush and Trump administrations not also elected governments of the United States? And if the Republicans are elected in 2024, is it not probable that U.S. climate change policy will yet again reverse course?

Later in his speech, Blinken set the U.S. effort to limit climate change squarely in the context of the “new cold war” with China: “It’s difficult to imagine the United States winning the long-term strategic competition with China if we cannot lead the renewable energy revolution.”

The Biden administration seems to be calculating that framing climate change action as part of geopolitical competition with China is necessary in order to gain Republican support to get measures through Congress. There is some justification for this. Unfortunately though, the administration also clearly believes strongly that geopolitical and military rivalry with China is in fact a priority, and — as Blinken said — a struggle that the United States can “win.”

Insofar as it is inspired by the experience of the Cold War with the USSR, this thinking is disastrously mistaken. For the Soviet Union was the last of the great European multinational empires, held together by an ideology whose utter failure became more and more glaringly obvious. Sooner or later, it was bound to go away.

China is not going to go away. It is a nation state with the most ancient of all state traditions, an overwhelming majority of Han Chinese possessing an extremely strong nationalism, and its own remarkably successful version of capitalism. The notion that the United States can “win” a global competition with China is utterly chimerical. China and the United States will exist and have to co-exist for all foreseeable time as great global powers.

The futile pursuit of U.S. “victory” over China for generations to come will be a colossal distraction from the effort to limit climate change, starting with money. Biden has put forward a $1.7 trillion development package over the next four years. But even if this were all spent on green energy and climate change mitigation, it would still form only about half of U.S. military spending over the same period. If U.S.-Chinese or U.S.-Russian rivalry leads to actual war, any hope of successful action to limit climate change will be irretrievably ruined.

The core problem in trying to prioritize both climate change and harsh geopolitical rivalry was well demonstrated later in Blinken’s speech.

“First, we’ll put the climate crisis at the center of our foreign policy and national security, as President Biden instructed us to do in his first week in office,” he said. “That means taking into account how every bilateral and multilateral engagement — every policy decision — will impact our goal of putting the world on a safer, more sustainable path.”

Now, what it does not mean is treating other countries’ progress on climate as a chip they can use to excuse bad behavior in other areas that are important to U.S. national security. The Biden-Harris administration is united on this: Climate is not a trading card — it’s our future.

It is hard to believe that someone as intelligent as Blinken cannot see how these two statements not only directly contradict each other, but negate the most basic principles of diplomacy. If climate change and the wellbeing of ordinary Americans truly are “at the center” of U.S. national security, then by definition other issues are secondary and the United States should be prepared to compromise on them to gain the cooperation of other countries in the struggle to limit climate change.

The COVID-19 pandemic should have taught the U.S. establishment something about comparative risks and the wellbeing of ordinary Americans. To date, COVID-19 has killed more Americans than all U.S. foreign wars put together. Even moderate climate change will kill many more; while unlimited climate change represents a true existential threat. Since the Korean War, China has not directly killed a single American. This comparison should be at the heart of any understanding of what “the interests of ordinary U.S. citizens” really means.

Then-vice President Joe Biden talks with then-Chinese Vice President Xi and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during a luncheon at the State Department, in Washington, DC, February 14, 2012. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)
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