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Climate politics: Why the old diplomacy no longer works

Climate politics: Why the old diplomacy no longer works

Wednesday 13 October 2021

Ahead of Cop26, the world’s two biggest superpowers, China and the US, have tried talking to each other about emissions. Nothing has been achieved


It is “code red for humanity,” declared UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The world, he exclaimed, is running out of time. The language on climate change is becoming ever more alarming.

As recent reports show, the current crop of national commitments is leading the world to heat up by close to three degrees. Temperatures such as those would trigger what scientists call a “cascade” in which one disaster provokes another, with ever wider economic, social, and geopolitical consequences.

That is the future. The present and past are already alarming enough. The World Meteorological Organisation says that the number of disasters such as floods and heatwaves driven by climate change has increased five-fold in the past 50 years.

This is the context as world leaders and experts head to Glasgow for Cop26. The summit is taking place at the worst possible time, with countries struggling to see off the pandemic and restart their economies. They are promising to “build back better,” but early evidence shows they are building back as fast as possible  – doing whatever it takes to kick-start growth, including high-emitting infrastructure projects. 

All of this is coming when the most dangerous big-power rivalry since the Cold War is escalating. The US regularly chastises China over its treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and its clampdown in Hong Kong, alongside threats to Taiwan, tensions in the South China Sea, and cyberattacks. The announcement of AUKUS – a joint US-Australia-UK project to build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia to deploy in the Indo-Pacific – has exacerbated tensions.

Climate is the ultimate test of whether it is possible to simultaneously compete for dominance of the world and collaborate to save that world. If the US and China cannot work together on this, if they cannot bring other countries along with them, then where else can they? The US and China are jointly responsible for 40 per cent of greenhouse gases.

Logic dictates that without them coming together, no meaningful progress will be made, multilaterally or bilaterally. To put it another way, we would be doomed.

The evidence so far suggests that conventional diplomacy – a combination of carrot and stick, of the handshake and the megaphone – is not working.

In the first 100 days of the Biden presidency, the US held a series of talks with China. At the first meeting, in Alaska in March, China’s senior foreign affairs official, Yang Jiechi, launched a tirade against Antony Blinken after the US secretary of state attacked China’s human rights record. 

In April, President Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, became the first senior official of the new administration to visit China, for talks with his counterpart Xie Zhenhua. President Xi Jinping then attended an online leaders’ climate summit convened by Biden. Kerry and Xie have talked, online and face-to-face more than a dozen times. 

It remains unclear what these various meetings have achieved. What therefore are the prospects of one side coaxing the other to improve its climate performance? 

First, the positives. Cop26 is taking place a year late due to the pandemic, and the time-lag has provided a certain distance from the Donald Trump era. Within days of taking office, Biden signed a series of executive orders, directing the government to make climate change a central issue. In Kerry, the US has a negotiator of stature, shuttling around the world in an attempt to cajole states to sharpen their commitments.

But there are three weaknesses in the US position. Firstly, the international community is factoring in the likelihood of a return of Trump – or at least “Trumpism”. Some of the most radical climate action by Biden can be swiftly reversed.

Secondly, the administration insists climate talks must be separated from other issues. Kerry has rejected the notion that China can buy American silence on human rights as the price of cooperation on climate. China, however, has made clear that any thought of splitting climate from other policy issues is a non-starter. 

The third weakness is perhaps the most intractable. Even before the Afghanistan debacle, American power was diminished. The Biden administration has struggled to persuade wealthy countries to meet their long-standing commitment to stump up $100 billion in climate finance per year to help poorer states. 

The UN was the venue for a dramatic intervention in 2020 by China when Xi announced that China would achieve peak emissions before 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060, calling on nations to “pursue innovative, coordinated, green, and open development for all”. It had not committed to a date for Net Zero before – and then it did so ahead of the US. 

Choreography matters. China is keen to show its announcements are on its own terms and will not be blamed for failure. “The Chinese won’t be pushed around,” says Mikko Huotari, executive director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies. “This is a game of waiting – and hoping for the signals.”

The most likely triggers for radical change lie elsewhere and are based on national self-interest. Which big power, which political system, will seize the mantle of the green global citizen and drive action by other governments around the world? Which will seize the huge economic benefits arising from green technologies?

Such is the scale of China’s economy, it produces more renewable infrastructure than the rest of the world combined, bringing down the cost of solar, wind, and other resources. 

But, even in a country as tightly controlled as China, domestic pressures are considerable. Coal remains mission-critical for growth, comprising two thirds of total energy consumption. Emissions have grown at their fastest pace in a decade. Resilience and energy security are paramount. Recently, ten provinces were forced to ration energy because of a slump in production, triggering alarm and pleas for more, not less, coal.

A nationalism is taking hold in which climate change is denounced as “Western pseudo-science” and a conspiracy to stem China’s growth. This reflects culture clashes playing out across the world. 

There is another instinct, alongside rivalry and competition: self-preservation. At what point will populations begin to appreciate that inaction on climate is imperilling them? How bad will it have to get before they demand radical change, even in authoritarian states?

In 2021 alone, wildfires raged in Canada and the US Pacific Northwest as temperatures topped 50 degrees, New York’s subway was engulfed by water, floods tore through Germany and Belgium.

Importantly, this happened in China too. On 17 July, terrified subway passengers in Zhengzhou stood in chest-high water as almost one year’s rain fell in just three days and more than 300 people were killed across Henan province. Zhengzhou’s lines were built only five years ago and were supposed to be able to withstand climate emergencies. Local authorities were subjected to unprecedented criticism on social media. Xi hesitated to go there, foreign journalists were harassed when interviewing residents, and state media dwelt instead on the “heroic” efforts of the People’s Liberation Army.

China’s leadership demands others cut it slack. It falls back on the argument that it and other “developing” countries are merely catching up and should not be subjected to the same strictures as the US and Europe, which have been emitting far more for far longer. 

Isabel Hilton, senior adviser at China Dialogue, summarises the dilemma: “Domestically, despite a rapid deployment of renewables, the complicated economics of transition in a country still heavily dependent on coal, and concerns about energy security in an increasingly tense world, appear to be slowing the pace of China’s effort alarmingly.”

The bidding war for green credentials will intensify in the days ahead of Cop26, amid virtue signalling and admonishments. This is a proxy battle within a wider cold war. Will it spur each to more radical green policies?

The old tale of the scorpion and frog provides a worst-case scenario. A scorpion wants to cross a river but cannot swim, so it asks a frog to carry it across. The frog worries that the scorpion might sting it, but the scorpion argues that if it did that, they would both drown. The frog agrees, lets the scorpion climb onto its back and begins to swim. Midway across, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming them both. It couldn’t help it, it said, it was in its nature.

This is an abridged version of a long read by John Kampfner, the second in a series of three reports on cooperation in an era of rivalry, drawing on expert analysis and recommendations from Chatham House. The first report examined Covid-19 and vaccine nationalism.

Photograph by Sam McNeil/AP/Shutterstock


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