Global Warming and Cold War Thinking

China sees climate change as another opportunity to help topple the United States from global preeminence, which remains its primary strategic goal in world politics.

On March 7, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi held a press conference at the 3rd Session of 11th National People's Congress meeting in Beijing. He presented a masterful example of the diplomatic art of using the language of international peace and cooperation while at the same time promising that "[w]e will continue to firmly uphold China's sovereignty, security, and development interests and conduct all-round diplomacy." In the process, Mr. Yang demonstrated why, as important as it may be to study nuances in what foreign officials say in public, it is more important to watch what their countries actually do in the world arena. Consider the following statement from the Foreign Minister:

The world is moving towards multi-polarity, multilateralism and greater democracy in international relations. At the same time, a series of global challenges including climate change, energy and resources security and public health security have become more acute. More and more countries have come to recognize that the Cold-War mentality and zero-sum game theory have become anachronistic.

The first sentence has been Beijing's central objective since the collapse of the Soviet Union: to overturn the unipolar "hegemony" of American world leadership. New rising powers like China want "peer" status with the United States. The one-party Communist regime does favor democracy in international relations if it means that Beijing and it allies can outvote the U.S. and the West in multilateral forums or by the conduct of power politics overwhelm opposition.

A commentary in Global Times, a publication of the Chinese Communist Party, on the recent trip Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg made to Beijing to reverse the downward trend in relations, argued,

... our lonely planet consists of not only the US. Their 300 million population accounts for only 5 percent of world population. That excuses can be found within conditions in the US doesn't mean those excuses would be bought in Beijing.

One place where Beijing wants "democracy" to prevail is at the United Nations, where China has staked out its leadership of the developing countries. The U.N. is supposed to be a venue for peaceful negotiations and international cooperation, but it is in reality a political battleground where rival blocs struggle to control the course of world affairs and restructure the balance of global wealth and power. Nothing belies Minister Yang's claim of moving "beyond the Cold-War mentality and zero-sum game theory" than China's behavior at the U.N. climate conference held in December at Copenhagen and its actions on the so-called climate issue since.

On March 9, China sent a letter to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) confirming that it would attach itself to the Accord reached at the end of the conference. The Copenhagen meeting was supposed to be the climax of two years of negotiations to draft a new treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that will expire in 2012. The UNFCCC had called for the "rich" developed countries to cut their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25 to 40 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels. Such a drastic measure would have locked the developed countries into a permanent recession. Meanwhile, the developing countries, led by the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) coalition and the Group of 77 (chaired by China's ally Sudan), would not have had any mandated restrictions on their GHG emissions. These nations, which make up the vast majority of the world's states and people, refuse to have any limits placed on their sovereign right to economic growth.

The two-track formula in U.N. terminology is called the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities." It is why the United States under President George W. Bush refused to participate. The Obama administration held to the negotiating position of the Bush administration. The U.S. view is that there should be only one track. The Obama administration spent 2009 trying to persuade China to accept mandated targets. The BASIC coalition insisted on the Kyoto precedent exempting them from targets. The conference collapsed over this fundamental conflict.

Into the void stepped President Barack Obama, who negotiated directly with BASIC. The Accord put matters on a one-track basis. No country would have mandates imposed on it. Each would be free to pursue its own policies in its own interests. The Accord has no legal standing and only asks countries to report to the U.N. what they are doing.

The conference was never about the weather. It was always a battle to gain economic advantages in a world of cutthroat competition. Chinese Premier Wen Jaibao confirmed Beijing hard-line stance in a speech at the end of the Copenhagen meeting:

The principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" represents the core and bedrock of international cooperation on climate change and it must never be compromised ... Developed countries must take the lead in making deep quantified emission cuts and provide financial and technological support to developing countries. This is an unshirkable moral responsibility as well as a legal obligation that they must fulfill.

Beijing was playing on the widespread notion in the environmentalist and global warming movement that the world has a fixed "carrying capacity" and is thus a "zero-sum" game when it comes to economic growth. One of the most direct statements of this view, which makes international confrontations inevitable, came from Nick Dearden, Director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign:

The rich world has gobbled up far more than its fair share of the earth's atmosphere in order to develop. In essence, industrialised countries colonised the atmosphere, in the same way they did other resources.

Those rich countries now owe poorer countries a two-fold ‘climate debt': first for over-using the Earth's capacity to absorb greenhouse gases and thereby denying atmospheric space to those who need it most. Second for the destruction that those emissions are causing.

The solution: rich countries need to 'pay' through redistributing a fairer share of limited atmospheric space, as well as helping poorer countries adapt to the mess they find themselves in.

The global Green movement supported the demands of BASIC at the talks and criticized President Obama for not accepting large mandated GHG cuts for the U.S. The battle will continue at the next major meeting of the UNFCCC in Bonn, April 9-11, and at the sequel to the Copenhagen conference that is scheduled for November 29-December 10 in Cancún, Mexico.

Looking at the attitude of the BASIC countries as expressed in their reports under the Accord posted at U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP) site reveals that the pursuit of national advantage is still their goal, not "saving the planet." Brazil's main policy is "an 80 percent reduction in Amazon deforestation." In the energy sector, the reduction ranges only from 6.1 to 7.7 percent, with a focus on efficiency and alternative fuels. Brazil's more meaningful target is for 5 to 6 percent annual economic growth.

The targets set by China and India use their own standards outside the U.N. framework. Beijing will "reduce the intensity of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP in 2020 by 40 to 45 percent compared with the level of 2005." India has pledged a 20-to-25-percent reduction in "emission intensity" between 2005 and 2020. This means that total GHG emissions will continue to grow as their economies expand. Chinese envoys stated this at the June U.N. climate meeting in Bonn. China and India will simply try to be more energy-efficient, something they would be striving to do anyway.

Beijing's statement to the UNEP declares, "This is a voluntary action taken by the Chinese government based on its own national conditions." The UNEP cites the assertion by Minister of State for Environment and Forests Shri Jairam Ramesh: "I have been saying time and again that India, of all the 192 countries in the world, owes a responsibility not to the world but to itself, to take climate change seriously. We are not doing the world a favour. Please forget Copenhagen; forget the U.N. We have to do it in our own self-interest. Our future as a society is dependent on how we respond to the climate change challenge." Devoid of spin, New Delhi's response will be to put Indian development first.

On March 11, The Hindu newspaper in India reported that Beijing had joined with New Delhi in opposing any international "scrutiny" of voluntary actions to reduce GHG emissions under the Accord. Xie Zhenhua, vice-chairman of China's National Development and Reform Commission was quoted as saying, "Autonomous efforts must not be subject to MRV [Measurement, Reporting, and Verification]," as this is "an issue of sovereignty."

The Obama administration has reported to the UNEP the GHG target set in the House "cap-and-trade" bill (H.R. 2454) passed last summer but not acted upon in the Senate. It set a 17-percent reduction by 2020 from 2005 levels (which is only a 4-percent cut from 1990, the U.N. base year). The United States retains the freedom to decide how -- or even if -- this goal will be met. The approach favored by congressional Greens is no longer viable in the post-Copenhagen world. Imposing unilateral restrictions and higher costs on American economic activity will only cripple an already fragile national economy.

The Copenhagen Accord did not create a competitive world where people strive to improve their condition; it just confirmed it. And by adopting a "zero-sum" view of global climate economics, the U.N. has inflamed international rivalry. Beijing would like the U.S. to abandon "Cold War thinking" about the contentious world, but since China has not done so, neither can America.