The only hope to solve the climate crisis requires an entirely new approach to superpower diplomacy and statecraft.
The Economist “newspaper” has a lot of clout with the global policy cognoscenti. The theme of its cover story, or “leader,” will often end up as a session at invite-only conferences in Davos, Bittenberg, Aspen, Munich, and Singapore. It’s not that The Economist is writing anything new. Quite the contrary, it has long been recognized as being a superbly written clip job by a bunch of really smart Oxford and Cambridge grads.
What the Economist does better than any news organization is to capture the establishment zeitgeist of elite political, economic, social, and financial thinking. And that kind of thinking is a big problem these days, as the earth’s atmosphere begins to enter a very dangerous red zone of concern.
Take a recent cover on the U.S. and China: It has not a word on climate change. This is remarkable, given the outsized influence both countries have on climate policy. Instead, the story was a predictable rehash of cold war rhetoric more suitable for an era of coal-powered battleships than of green hydrogen. The Economist view on what needs to be done was even more underwhelming: “The only thing both sides [US/China] agree on is that the best case is ‘decades of estrangement,’ ‘limited economic decoupling,’ or ‘lowering the chances of war.’ ”
Talk about diminished expectations. Approaching U.S./China relations from such a traditional Cold War perspective is a bit like the Polish cavalry charging German Panzer tanks in World War II. Much of the intellectual machinery we are using to tackle climate change, says Financial Times columnist Pilita Clark, was “forged in the middle of the fossil fuel era and is no longer fit for that purpose.”
If the last year’s tit-for-tat tat insults are any indication of the future, the U.S. and China are sleepwalking into a generation of geopolitical rivalry that will doom humanity to a slow and agonizing descent into climate chaos.
That is particularly true with the U.S. and China. If the last year’s tit-for-tat tat insults are any indication of the future, the U.S. and China are sleepwalking into a generation of geopolitical rivalry that will doom humanity to a slow and agonizing descent into climate chaos.
Last week, as U.S. and Chinese relations reached a new low, the World Meteorological Organization issued a stark prediction that the rising temperatures of the earth’s atmosphere will soon breach the 1.5°C limit all nations agreed to try to avoid when they signed the Paris climate agreement in 2015.
This acceleration of a coming tipping point moment for climate is the equivalent of the Cold War threat of instant oblivion from a nuclear attack. But climate’s impact on humanity is more like a relentless cancer that is metastasizing faster than anyone imagined.
Partnership or bust
If there were ever a time to bury the imperial thinking of Bismarck, Stalin, Mao, Churchill, Kissinger, and Kennan, it is now. The challenge of global warming is so profound that the only hope for solving the climate crisis requires an entirely new approach to superpower diplomacy and statecraft. The 21st century will not be defined by which superpower emerges on top, but whether China and the U.S. can turn an escalating rivalry into a climate partnership to save the world.
A glimmer of hope? Or a mirage?
We were reminded last week by a trusted senior Asian diplomat who has been a negotiator at four UN climate conferences, that the U.S. and China have rallied in the past to get important climate stuff done. Long forgotten, he said, was that it was the U.S. and China who, behind the scenes, hammered out a crucial climate compromise that became the foundation of the 1.5°C Paris Agreement. “It was the kind of global agreement that only superpowers can achieve,” he says.
We can only hope that despite the daily escalation of insulting rhetoric, the U.S. and China are talking. Last week, the FT reported that President Joe Biden had dispatched one of his most trusted aides, CIA Chief Bill Burns, on a clandestine trip to Beijing to see what it will take for both nations to restore a bit of trust and civility.
The 21st century will not be defined by which superpower emerges on top, but whether China and the U.S. can turn an escalating rivalry into a climate partnership to save the world.
Rescue signals for COP 28
And not a minute too soon. In six months the United Nations will hold its annual climate summit (COP 28), and it is not going well. It is a crucial COP because it will be the first assessment of how things are going since that Paris treaty. The conference will also tackle the knotty issue of “loss and damage” support to nations in the Global South for climate-related adaptation and resiliency projects.
You can’t make this stuff up
As COP negotiators restart pre-conference discussions this week in Bonn, Germany, recriminations and attacks are escalating by the day. Many are angry because they believe the COP28 agenda has been hijacked by its host, the United Arab Emirates. Members of the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament are urging for the removal of Sultan Al Jaber as the president of COP, a critical role in guiding COP negotiations. Al Jaber also happens to be the CEO of the nation’s largest oil company, Adnoc, which wants to dramatically increase fossil fuel production. Jaber’s appointment, says former UN climate chief Christina Figueres, is “a direct threat to survival.”
The fear is that with “Big Oil” controlling the COP negotiations, there is little chance for any agreement on a timetable to phase out fossil fuels or that, under pressure from the UAE, delegates will greenwash the global “stocktake.”
Now or never
The U.S. and China, by working together, can push a more positive outcome. But such a decisive climate leadership role requires a new partnership that is the opposite of where relations stand today. It also requires acknowledging the necessity to rethink every aspect of the present relationship.
A generation ago it was ping pong, panda bears and “shuttle diplomacy” that ended a quarter- century estrangement between the U.S. and China. Now it is the acknowledgment that the existential planetary threat of global warming supersedes superpower rivalry, and that no single nation or regional bloc has the power, money, or ideas necessary to manage the climate crisis