The World

Biden Wants to Take On China and Climate Change at the Same Time

It will be complicated but hopefully not impossible.

Joe Biden with a Chinese flag behind one shoulder and melting icebergs behind the other.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images, Alex Wong/Getty Images, and William Bossen/Unsplash.

Global warming is, in large part, a U.S.-China problem. The two countries combined account for 43 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions. The decisions the two countries make in the coming years will shape what life is like on the planet in the decades that follow. In an ideal world, climate efforts would be central to the relationship between the two countries and that relationship would be a productive and cooperative one. This is not an ideal world.

The Biden administration has reversed course on much of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, but largely shares its view that China’s authoritarian political system and global ambitions are a threat to U.S. interests. A myriad of points of conflict remain, including China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, the threat to Taiwan’s independence, trade competition and currency policy, Beijing’s lack of transparency around the coronavirus, cyberattacks and espionage, and human rights. In his first foreign policy speech as president, Biden stated that “American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States.” He has directed the Pentagon to conduct a review of how the military is positioned to deter China’s military ambitions in East Asia. In a CNN town this week, Biden promised that China would face “repercussions” for its human rights violations at home and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he concurs with the Trump State Department’s last minute determination that China’s persecution of ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region constitutes a genocide. The administration also met the World Health Organization’s recent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus with skepticism, suggesting China was still obstructing the effort to determine the facts.

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If countering China is one tentpole of Biden’s foreign policy, another is tackling what he calls the “global, existential crisis” of climate change. In addition to formally rejoining the Paris climate agreement last week, Biden has elevated the issue within the foreign policy portfolio by naming former Secretary of State John Kerry as a special envoy on climate and giving him a seat on the National Security Council.  He plans to host a summit of world leaders to discuss climate in April.

Critics suggest that these two goals are at odds with each other. “A Biden administration can productively fight climate change or it can edge toward another Cold War, but probably not both,” the environmental journalist Kate Aronoff wrote recently in the New Republic. She continues: “Whether the U.S. warships in the South China Sea run on hydrogen won’t matter for the planet if conflicts there and on other fronts help to make bilateral cooperation on climate impossible.” The liberal foreign policy columnist Peter Beinart, responding skeptically to the Defense Department’s new China review, wrote that “if the Pentagon—having been made first-among-equals when it comes to China—writes a policy review that treats climate as an afterthought, Kerry will find himself in a battle with a department whose spending on marching bands likely exceeds his entire budget.”

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On the other side, China hawks worry that the climate team will go wobbly when it comes to holding Beijing accountable. In an article for the Atlantic in December, foreign policy analyst Thomas Wright warned that Kerry could use his influence with the administration to prioritize climate over all other issues in the U.S.-China relationship, undercutting other officials. He quotes one administration official as saying, “China’s diplomacy is a constant search for leverage, and Kerry will deliver a load of it in a wheelbarrow right to their front door every day.” During Blinken’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Mitt Romney told him, “I hope you’re never tempted to give in on your strategy with regards to China in order to obtain a climate advantage that Secretary Kerry might be promoting.” The Trump administration clearly viewed the two issues as linked. A big part of Trump’s justification for pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement was his specious argument that it would give China an unfair economic advantage.

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For both sides, it’s an issue of priorities. Wright concedes that climate is an issue that “touches virtually every other area in domestic and foreign policy,” but seems to view it as an inconvenient distraction from the really important work of defense policy and diplomacy, and wants the environmentalists to stay in their lane. This sort of attitude, in Democratic administrations as well as Republican ones, is a big part of why the U.S. is now decades behind where it should be when it comes to transitioning away from a fossil fuel economy.

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Aronoff, meanwhile, notes that the U.S. should not “give the Chinese government a pass on human rights atrocities” in order to promote climate cooperation. But given that even mild criticism from a basketball executive is enough to provoke a full-scale political crisis with the Chinese government, it’s not clear how the U.S. could possibly build a productive relationship with China without giving it a pass. Is a productive climate relationship with China worth abandoning support for longtime democratic ally Taiwan? Is it worth turning a blind eye to the theft of U.S. intellectual property? To it disseminating surveillance technology to authoritarian governments? To China withholding vital information from the WHO? To genocide? Perhaps the threat of climate change is so grave that all other considerations need to be put to the side.

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The Biden administration, publicly at least, believes that won’t be necessary. In an email to Slate, a State Department spokesperson described China as “the most significant challenge of any nation to the United States in terms of the interests of the American people.” However, she also noted, “The climate challenge does not get successfully addressed without significant action by China. … The Biden-Harris Administration approaches China through the lens of competition and recognizes that there are both adversarial and cooperative aspects to the U.S.-China relationship. We look forward to engaging with China and other key countries as we move forward to address the climate crisis.”

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In a recent interview with ProPublica, Kerry said he planned to “go to China, sit down with President Xi and talk about mutual interests.” He also said he had little expectation that “you’re suddenly going to turn around and everybody will sing ‘Kumbaya.’ ”

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It would be foolishly optimistic to think that overall U.S.-China tensions won’t complicate climate cooperation at all. The lack of a coordinated international response to the coronavirus shows the worst-case scenario for how geopolitical tensions can undermine progress toward common goals.

But it’s not unreasonable to think the two can be at least partially delinked. Nuclear diplomacy provides a promising precedent here. Even at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were able to reach key arms control agreements that reduced the risk of nuclear war. Nobody would describe U.S.-Russia relations today as warm or even cordial. And yet, Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin were able to agree on an extension of the New START nuclear nonproliferation treaty last month because both sides saw it in their best interests.

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The Obama administration showed how this dynamic could work with climate. In 2014, the U.S. and China agreed to a landmark emissions deal, which paved the way for the Paris Agreement a year later. This was at a time when the U.S. and China were at odds on a number of issues including the South China Sea and alleged cyberattacks. During Obama’s second term, the climate agreement was a rare area of productive discussion in an otherwise pretty dysfunctional U.S.-China relationship. Beinart sees it differently, arguing that it was so difficult to reach a deal in 2014, precisely because relations were otherwise so bleak.

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It’s also important to consider what climate collaboration actually means. China hawks like Romney and Wright worry about Kerry striking a grand bargain with Beijing, undercutting the administration’s tough stance on China. But such a deal isn’t really necessary anymore. In 2014, the Obama-Xi agreement, which included China’s first pledge to peak its emissions (by 2030), was an important step toward showing that a globally coordinated effort to tackle emissions was even possible—China and other large developing countries had long bristled at demands from wealthy Western countries, which historically contributed much more to climate change, that they reduce their emissions while their economies were still catching up. Now countries can make their overall emissions pledges (nationally determined contributions, in the jargon of climate diplomacy) under the framework of the Paris Agreement.

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The more pressing need today, experts told me, is more specific collaboration around scientific research and data sharing. Much of the collaboration of this sort was put on the backburner during the Trump years. In general, scientific collaboration between the two countries is in a dismal place, as shown by the lack of coordinated response to the COVID pandemic. Chinese authorities have been accused of a lack of transparency and several high-profile cases of espionage, while many Chinese scientists in the U.S. have felt targeted and stigmatized by counterespionage campaigns by U.S. law enforcement. Rebuilding trust when it comes to scientific collaboration is probably a more fruitful area for climate progress than government-to-government emissions pledges in the coming years. There are plenty of models for what this kind of collaboration can look like. For instance, during the Obama years the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency worked with its Chinese counterparts to help implement the pilot program for China’s national carbon market, which was finally launched this month. The Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley Lab has worked for years on energy efficiency projects in China.

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Of course, climate policy could itself be a source of U.S.-China tension, as it has been in the past. In the most famous incident of the 2009 Copenhagen summit, Obama and his team crashed a sidebar meeting of large developing economies hosted by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to demand that China sign on to an agreement that included international review of its emissions. In his memoir, Obama recalls his aide, Reggie Love, describing the moment as “some real gangster shit”—not quite what we typically think of as bilateral collaboration but a key moment in climate diplomacy nonetheless.

Both countries are more committed to emissions reductions today than they were in 2009, but the means of accomplishing those reductions could also cause friction. The Biden administration has been coming around to Green New Deal–adjacent ideas promoting the domestic manufacture of green energy technologies—creating jobs and tackling the climate crisis at the same time. It’s smart domestic politics, but China is likely to see it as a form of protectionism meant to undercut its own clean-tech exports. (Many U.S. environmentalists are also skeptical, believing that it would be faster and cheaper to import solar panels and electric vehicles from China rather than waiting for U.S. manufacturing to catch up.)

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This sort of competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the planet. Humans would probably have never reached the moon if not for U.S.-Soviet political competitions. If both countries continue to see the conversion to carbon neutral economies as a priority, why not have the world’s two biggest emitters compete to get there first?

Both China hawks and environmentalists assume that China’s decision to take serious action to tackle climate change in the coming years will be primarily in reaction to U.S. policy. But Beijing is perfectly capable of acting on its own. When Xi Jinping announced the country’s most ambitious climate pledge to date last year—vowing to peak China’s emissions around 2030 and go carbon neutral by 2060—it was at a time of a complete absence of climate action, either foreign or domestic, from the Trump administration. Perhaps, as a number of commentators suggested, Xi was trying to establish China as a responsible player in an area Trump had left open. But China’s leaders are likely also genuinely concerned about climate change after years of worsening droughts, floods, and severe storms. The dismal but recently improving air quality in China’s largest cities has been one area where public pressure has had an impact even on one of the world’s most authoritarian political systems. There’s plenty of reason for skepticism about China’s new climate ambitions: Chinese leaders are fond of offsetting emissions with “sinks” like tree planting projects that may have limited effectiveness, the infamous quality of public data reporting for China’s local governments makes it hard to assess the country’s real progress, and there are concerns that China could just export its pollution abroad by investing in energy intensive projects, including coal plants, through its “Belt and Road” initiative. But to the extent China has been reluctant to take on climate change more seriously, it’s for the same reasons as most other countries: fear of what it would mean for its economy.

At this point, the best thing the U.S. can do for global efforts to combat climate change is probably to get its own house in order and make up for years of lost time. The U.S. can promote scientific cooperation with countries of all sorts. To the extent it’s useful, it can try to encourage China to cut its own emissions or apply some pressure when it falls short. If any U.S. president could snap their fingers and turn the two countries into allies, maybe it would be worth it for the sake of the climate. But the reasons for current U.S.-China tensions are real, complex, and by no means solely caused by the U.S. The planet can’t wait for us to solve those issues first.

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