Follow us on social

Screen-shot-2021-11-05-at-10.36.42-am

The American pot goes after the Chinese kettle on climate change

President Biden chastised Beijing for not showing up to COP26 but the US record is far from exemplary.

Analysis | Global Crises

Chinese has a good equivalent of the phrase, “the pot calling the kettle black.” It’s wushibuxiaobaibu,” which (I am told) translates as, “the soldier who retreats 50 steps laughs at the soldier who retreats 100 steps.” In some ways, this is better and more nuanced than our version, because it implies that bits of the pot may indeed be a slightly lighter shade of grey than the kettle — but that this is still an entirely pointless debate.

This phrase perfectly describes the competitive reproaches being hurled by the U.S. and Chinese governments at each other over who is doing more (or rather, less) to combat climate change. Thus President Biden declared at COP26 in Glasgow that:

"I think — presumptuous of me to talk for another leader — but the fact that China is trying to assert, understandably, a new role in the world as a world leader, not showing up? C'mon. The single most important thing that's gotten the attention of the world is climate. … It just is a gigantic issue. They've walked away. How do you do that and claim to be able to have any leadership now? Same with Russia."

Well, yes, it was presumptuous; if only because of course while President Biden did turn up at COP26, thanks to resistance in the U.S. Senate (most notably from members of his own party) he did so empty-handed — and the world noticed. On the critical issue of eliminating the use of coal, China, the biggest global burner of coal, refused to sign a pledge in Glasgow to eliminate it over the next two decades — as did the United States (the third biggest burner of coal).

China can certainly be strongly criticized for powering so much of its stupendous economic growth with coal, to the point where at more than 10.3 billion tons in 2020, its CO2 emissions are by far the largest in the world. This greatly undermines Chinese claims — trumpeted in response to Biden’s scolding — that China leads the world in its response to climate change.

The United States comes second with approximately 5 billion tons of CO2 in 2020. Adjusted for population however, per capita emissions by the United States were 15.2 tons in 2020 — double China’s 7.41. Moreover, relative to per capita income and comparative economic development, China has to date done much better than the United States. It is ahead in developing renewable energy technology, far ahead in the development of electric vehicles, and almost infinitely far ahead in high-speed railways and other public transport. This reflects in part the fact that the leaders of two out of the last four U.S. administrations denied that anthropogenic climate change is even happening and refused to take any new measures whatsoever to limit it. Biden had the grace to apologize for this at Glasgow — and rightly so.

In truth though, no major developed or developing country has much to be proud of in its response to climate change, with the exception of a few small ones like Denmark. Thus Germany, which used to pride itself on its commitment to fighting climate change, allowed itself to be terrified by the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan (which led to no deaths and no significant leakage of radiation) and by a hysterical, irrational campaign by the German Greens into abolishing its nuclear power plants. The result that German electricity generation remains highly dependent on coal and Germany is missing by a wide margin its commitments under the Paris Agreement. The problem at Fukushima was due to an earthquake and tsunami, and Germany has not suffered an earthquake of tsunami for several million years.

The German, U.S., Australian, and Canadian cases — as those of Brazil and India in the developing world — also demonstrate the folly of claiming that democracy is essential to action against climate change. This line is now being assiduously peddled by a combination of the democratization and anti-Chinese lobbies in the United States and Europe — which are increasingly part of the same nexus. In most cases this argument is also utterly hypocritical, since those making it never showed the slightest interest in the issue of climate change until it provided an opportunity to attack China and preach their ideology.

Any argument that authoritarian rule as such is better for climate change action is equally foolish. The Chinese system may have certain advantages in this regard, but there are also numerous examples of authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states around the world that are performing badly or not at all when it comes to action against climate change.

In the field of foreign and security policy, states rely on and can get away with a great deal of bluff and bluster. Indeed, that beloved Washington term “credibility” is often just another way of saying “successful bluff.”

But this is not true of action against climate change, or the technological and developments on which it depends. As with industrial production in general, you have to make things, and they have to work — and be seen to work. Not just in the long run, but today, no amount of self-praising rhetoric and name-calling will succeed in covering up a failure to take real action. Perhaps when they have both run 200 steps from climate action the American and Chinese administrations will learn to start laughing with each other and not against each other — but I doubt that the rest of the world will be laughing very hard.

Photos: Oscar Ivan Lopez and 360b via shutterstock.com
Analysis | Global Crises
The Ukraine War at two years: By the numbers


KYIV, UKRAINE - July 12, 2023: Destroyed and burned Russian military tanks and parts of equipment are exhibited at the Mykhailivska square in Kyiv city centre. (Oleksandr Popenko/Shutterstock)

The Ukraine War at two years: By the numbers

Europe

Two years ago on Feb. 24, 2022, the world watched as Russian tanks rolled into the outskirts of Kyiv and missiles struck the capital city.

Contrary to initial predictions, Kyiv never fell, but the country today remains embroiled in conflict. The front line holds in the southeastern region of the country, with contested areas largely focused on the Russian-speaking Donbas and port cities around the Black Sea.

keep readingShow less
Navalny's death shouldn't close off talks with Putin

A woman lays flowers at the monument to the victims of political repressions following the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Moscow, Russia February 16, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer

Navalny's death shouldn't close off talks with Putin

Analysis

President Biden was entirely correct in the first part of his judgment on the death of Alexei Navalny: “Putin is responsible, whether he ordered it, or he is responsible for the circumstances he put that man in.” Even if Navalny eventually died of “natural causes,” his previous poisoning, and the circumstances of his imprisonment, must obviously be considered as critical factors in his death.

For his tremendous courage in returning to Russia after his medical treatment in the West — knowing well the dangers that he faced — the memory of Navalny should be held in great honor. He joins the immense list of Russians who have died for their beliefs at the hands of the state. Public expressions of anger and disgust at the manner of his death are justified and correct.

keep readingShow less
Big US investors prop up the nuclear weapons industry

ProStockStudio via shutterstock.com

Big US investors prop up the nuclear weapons industry

Military Industrial Complex

Nuclear weapons aren’t just a threat to human survival, they’re a multi-billion-dollar business supported by some of the biggest institutional investors in the U.S. according to new data released today by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and PAX, the largest peace organization in the Netherlands.

For the third year in a row, globally, the number of investors in nuclear weapons producers has fallen but the overall amount invested in these companies has increased, largely thanks to some of the biggest investment banks and funds in the U.S.

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis

Latest