If there is any chance of saving our planet from environmental catastrophe, there must be a drastic change in relations between the United States and China.
There must be, what political analyst Michael Klare calls, a United States–China Climate Survival Alliance:
“[T]o save human civilization, the U.S. and China must dramatically reduce their CO2 emissions while working together to persuade other major carbon emitting nations, beginning with fast-rising India, to follow suit.”
Coping with the climate crisis must become the foremost priority (bar none) for both the United States and China.
In 2020, the United States and China were jointly responsible for 42% of global fossil fuel consumption and 45% of CO2 emissions. The United States was the world’s leading consumer of petroleum and natural gas, while China was the leading consumer of coal. China accounts for about 54% of the world’s coal use and over 70% of China’s CO2 emissions are from coal.
Unless both the United States and China revolutionize their respective production and consumption patterns there is no chance of escaping planetary environmental catastrophe.
But a radical change in political and economic priorities cannot occur under the current hostility between the United States and China. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in September emphasized this when responding to entreaties by U.S. global climate envoy John Kerry:
“China-U.S. cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-U.S. relations. The U.S. side wants climate change cooperation to be an ‘oasis’ in China-U.S. relations. However, if the ‘oasis’ is entirely surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later the ‘oasis’ will itself become desert.”
The United States initiated the current conflict with China and thus bears heavy responsibility for the parlous relations that currently exist. U.S. political elites are motivated by their obsession with being the global political hegemon and have grossly exaggerated Chinese military strength and assertiveness.
U.S. economic elites feel threatened by rapid Chinese progress in producing advanced technology electrical equipment. Donald Trump started a trade war with China (continued by Biden) which, so far, has done more harm to United States consumers than to Chinese producers.
More hazardously, the U.S. has surrounded China with military bases (300 spread across East Asia) and menacing military alliances. The most recent anti-Chinese military alliance (dubbed AUKUS) is between Australia, United Kingdom and the United States and (among other things) provides offence-capable nuclear submarines to Australia.
Unsurprisingly, U.S. hostility towards China is justified on human rights grounds. But given U.S. toleration of egregious human rights violations by allies — e.g., Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt — and not to mention our own severely blemished human rights record, such justifications lack credibility.
Perhaps the most ruinous consequence of the conflict between the United States and China is the possibility of expanded coal use by the latter. The conflict — particularly its military aspects — endangers China’s energy security. China imports 70% of the oil and 40% of the natural gas that it uses. With these supplies jeopardized, China may be driven to use more coal. It is reported that China is seriously considering increasing its coal-fired power capacity by 88 gigawatts in the next decade. Any such expansion would be disastrous for the entire planet.
Whatever grievances the United States and China may have towards each other are absolutely dwarfed by their common interest in preventing environmental catastrophe. China, with its enormous seacoast populations, would be devastated by the flooding that even moderate global warming (two or three degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels) would cause. Science, common sense and undisputable reality require a United States-China Climate Survival Alliance along the lines envisioned by Michael Klare.
Regrettably, as Patrick Cockburn ruefully remarks: “Despite all the apocalyptic predictions of climate catastrophe, the moment when these countries really believe that they face an existential threat has yet to arrive.”