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Climate Change and U.S.-China relations

Article published:
People marching behind a banner that says Peoples Climate March

U.S. and China relations will have a profound impact upon the fate of the planet. And there is growing potential for climate activism to spark a fierce fire of green internationalism.

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, OrgUp editors Calvin Cheung-Miaw and Max Elbaum published an article at In These Times on U.S.-China relations. In it, Cheung-Miaw and Elbaum outlined their case for the left to prioritize the fight for a 180-degree turnaround in the U.S. stance toward China, demanding that diplomacy and negotiation replace trade wars and military encirclement. We invited several thinkers and activists to respond to our piece and provide their own take on the path forward. Below, Craig Collins makes the case for greater attention to climate justice movements; stay tuned for more.

Cheung-Miaw and Elbaum’s insightful article leaves no doubt that—for better or worse—the relationship between the United States and China will have a profound impact upon the fate of the planet. The authors highlight the mounting tensions between China’s rising influence over global affairs and Washington’s need to reassert its supremacy as the world’s uncontested superpower. After analyzing the multiple dangers in this escalating conflict, they call upon readers to resist by demanding that the US replace trade wars, military encirclement, and conflict with negotiation and cooperation.

However, the article itself does not do justice to the great existential threat that makes cooperation not only possible, but also urgent and absolutely essential. Because, if the US and China fail to cooperate, the planet we all call home may soon become largely uninhabitable.

The escalating threat of catastrophic climate change underscores the desperate need for a groundswell of international green activism to compel China and the US to replace conflict with cooperation.  But unfortunately, climate change is barely covered by the article, even though it figures prominently in the title. The authors say they, “believe it is urgent to demand that diplomacy replace economic and military confrontation in US-China relations, with the ultimate aim of forging the international partnership necessary to take effective action against catastrophic climate change.” Yet this statement contrasts sharply with the fact that the article mentions climate change only 4 times in passing. And gives it serious consideration in just one paragraph out of 32.

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To its credit, this single paragraph does acknowledge how crucial international solidarity is for pressuring China and the US to protect the planet.  It says, “…there is a basis for building a broad-front campaign to redirect US-China relations for the sake of the planet and its inhabitants.  Such a campaign’s demands would be consistent with the principle of the Green New Deal on a global scale, would recognize that the United States and China are the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide…A successful international effort to avert catastrophic climate change depends on joint action by the two countries.”

That’s a great start! But this useful insight is offered near the end of the article, and nothing more of any substance is said. The climate movement itself is not mentioned. At one point the authors ask, “what can US peace and justice activists do to push the US-China relationship in a different direction?” Peace and justice activists? What about climate activists?

The article left me wondering: why did the authors make no mention of the burgeoning global climate movement, if their “ultimate aim” was to forge an international partnership to confront climate chaos? Shouldn’t the article have said something about how Green activists could combine forces to compel the US and China to pursue climate cooperation instead of economic and military conflict? Instead, the article examines the difficulties in forging solidarity between Chinese and American workers over labor issues—not climate. But if the ultimate aim is to “take effective action against catastrophic climate change” why is labor solidarity the only type of solidarity given any attention?

From reading the article you wouldn’t know that there is a vibrant and growing international climate movement demanding that the planet’s 2 largest climate criminals—China and the US—cease and desist from driving the world past the point of no return. Even in China, environmental activism has surpassed illegal land expropriation as the leading source of social unrest, according to Chen Japing, a former leading member of the Communist Party’s political and legislative affairs committee.

For over a decade, Chinese activists have been fostering international climate solidarity and pressing policymakers to take action.  In 2007, the China Civil Climate Action Network (CCAN) and the China Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN) were created. These two NGOs have been raising climate awareness at home, reaching out to the global climate movement, and pressing their government for energy reform and carbon reduction. CYCAN was forged by seven major youth organizations; and more than one million students from over 300 Chinese universities and colleges were directly involved and indirectly influenced by CYCAN actions. Since then, these NGOs have submitted public comments and recommendations to improve the government’s new comprehensive National Climate Change Program.

From the outside, it may appear that environmental activism in China is very different than here in the US. But, in reality, the similarities are quite striking. In both countries, climate activism has taken three forms: officially sanctioned, tolerated, and repressed.

The most militant grassroots activism has met with violent repression. This was true for the battle to blockade the Keystone XL pipeline. And it was true for the successful mass protests that shut down the Dalian petrochemical plant and blocked construction of the world’s largest smelting complex in Sichuan province. In each country, these non-violent protests were met with state repression. For a while, it appeared that the harmful publicity generated by this police brutality would force both governments to back down. But after Trump was elected, the Obama administration’s limited concessions to popular resistance were reversed.

Other forms of climate activism in China and the US have been more tolerated. As in the US, citizen-based NGOs in China are beginning to shape public opinion through social media, much like, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and other environmental groups do in the US. Using platforms like Weibo7 (the Chinese equivalent of Facebook), the bilingual website China-dialogue has become an important web portal for international communication that Chinese climate activists use to post news, articles, and opinion pieces about climate change and other environmental issues.

As in the US, Chinese climate activists have had to counteract protectionist nationalism, conspiracy theories, and junk science. Chinese climate deniers say global warming is a plot by western powers to restrict development and limit China’s growing influence in world affairs. Sound familiar? According to a Trump tweet, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” In both countries, this kind of ludicrous thinking has found its way into the mainstream, especially after China was sharply criticized by the western media after the Copenhagen climate conference. And, like the US, these insidious notions are promoted by those powerful sectors of Chinese society most reliant on fossil fuel production and profit.

Recently, China’s officially tolerated climate groups were encouraged by the new Environmental Protection Law which permits citizen-based NGOs to sue industries that violate environmental laws and punish local officials who breach environmental standards. In addition, these NGOs have been cooperating more closely with international environmental groups with a presence in China, particularly WWF, Greenpeace, and Oxfam. Moderate US environmental groups like Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and The Nature Conservancy have begun to contribute resources and expertise to support the officially sanctioned Chinese organizations that promote renewable energy and carbon reduction.

These developments indicate that the growing dangers of climate chaos and the emerging grassroots demand for action have begun to influence China’s political establishment. In 2015, an official report produced a dire scientific assessment of the impact of climate chaos on China. It urged more spending to cope with the increasing confluence of major climate calamities like extreme droughts, floods, heat waves, and rising sea levels. Already, the waters off China’s coastline have risen faster than the global average exposing Shanghai and other coastal cities to tidal floods and severe damage from storms and typhoons. The report predicted that China’s northern region—the country’s breadbasket—will suffer crippling droughts, making it increasingly difficult to maintain the Communist Party’s goal of basic self-sufficiency in key crops. It warned that climate chaos would soon pose extremely serious and debilitating economic, ecological, and national security emergencies.

Officially, China’s leaders have declared that the impacts of climate change “pose a huge challenge to the survival and development of the human race” and that China is “one of the most vulnerable countries to the adverse impacts of climate change.” Yet unofficially, like the US and all industrial countries addicted to fossil fuels, China’s ruling elite is quite reluctant to kick their carbon habit. So far, China’s climate policy landscape remains plagued by conflicting agendas and disproportionate power dynamics. The overriding compulsion for more energy to fuel incessant growth has left China with a policy of “more coal, more renewables,” not “less coal, more renewables.”

Government officials can rightfully tout the fact that China now leads the world in renewable energy investment; dominates the solar-module industry with eight of the world’s ten largest firms; and owns five of the top ten wind power companies. However, none of these energy reforms have reversed China’s rising coal consumption. More often than not, the stricter standards, ambitious targets, and high fines designed to reduce China’s coal combustion have been largely ignored.

China continues to get 65% of its energy from coal; it is responsible for 46% of world coal production and 51% of global demand. Just last year, the government lifted a 2-year ban on coal-fired power plant construction and reduced subsidies for solar projects. Today, according to The Guardian, recent satellite observations reveal that China is building hundreds of new coal-fired power plants with a capacity equal to five times Australia’s entire electricity market despite assurances from government authorities that construction had been stopped. It appears that, despite their official pronouncements, unofficially the Chinese government remains as enthusiastic about coal as the Trump administration.

So far, the planet’s two great fossil fuel addicts are only pretending to kick their deadly habit. Hopefully, their criminal disregard for people and the planet will, in good time, unleash enough global anger and resistance to foster some variety of Green New Deal in China, the US, and elsewhere around the world. This article should have focused more on the growing potential for climate activism to spark a fierce fire of green internationalism. Because, in the final analysis, ecocidal, militarist nationalism can only be defeated if it is overwhelmed by the realization that—regardless of nationality—we are all human beings and our very survival depends on protecting and healing the planet we all call home…before it’s too late.


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