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Climate: The Existential Threat

Nov 29, 2021
  • Tom Watkins

    President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL

The UN Climate Change Conference, hosted by the United Kingdom (UK) in partnership with Italy, takes place from October 31 to November 12, 2021, in Glasgow. It will bring together the largest gathering of world leaders ever assembled on British soil.

This event will include over 200 government representatives who plan to share what each nation is willing to do to keep Earth from becoming hotter, more combustible, and a less hospitable place to live. The stakes continue to rise for humans on this planet, as does the temperature. To say this is a meaningful gathering would be an understatement.

Can climate change become the common denominator that forges a shared vision and common agenda between two global titans – the U.S. and China?

Clearly, the threat of climate change to all who inhabit our planet is an area where China and the U.S. might brush aside their parochial, narrow self-interests and seek an agenda focusing on the 5 Cs of collaboration, communication, cooperation, coordination and competition without stumbling into confrontation that drags the world down.

Climate action is an area where the two superpowers can both cooperate and compete – the question remains if both Presidents Biden and Xi can show the world they can walk and chew gum at the same time.

This meeting is the perfect opportunity for our respective leaders to end their false dichotomy and prove they can hold diametrically opposing views on a slew of subjects while still coming together for mutual survival. We can dislike each other’s system of governance and understand there is mutual benefit to work together in ways that assures the survival of the planet we all share. We don’t need to be best friends to get along to face existential threat.  

Both global leaders have something to prove to their domestic and international audiences at this world leaders’ meeting.

President Biden, sinking in domestic political polls, has pledged to show that 'America is back'. Soon after assuming the presidency in 2021, he declared, “We're going to rebuild our alliances. We're going to reengage the world and take on the enormous challenges we face dealing with the pandemic, dealing with global warming…”

Yet, at this writing, Biden’s domestic agenda, his “build back better” plan, has had no bipartisan support and is being whittled away by his own Democratic party.

At this point in time, he will be in Glasgow with half of what he promised at best; at worst he arrives with egg on his face, minimal resources allocated back home to back up his rhetoric on leading the world in addressing the climate risk. He is clearly counting on his Democratic colleagues to bail him out and send him to the Glasgow Climate Change Conference with the wind at his back, and resources that back up his commitment to address this real threat.

For his part, President Xi has adopted the old Tip O’Neill ideology, “All politics are local.” As Kevin Rudd, a knowledgeable China ‘expert’ and former Australian Prime Minister highlights, “The internal politics of the Chinese Communist Party also radically impact the course of Chinese economic policy, foreign policy, and national security policy.” 

President Xi has shown domestic policy and foreign policy are not ‘clinically separate domains.’ To name just two issues, China’s slowing economy and continued COVID flare-ups are hurdles to China’s ambitions. President Xi gained some international applause earlier this year by pledging to climate change advocates that China would stop building coal-fired power plants abroad. Although a welcome gesture, this needs to be followed by the same commitment domestically to have the needed impact.  

Perception and Reality

China and its people care about how they are perceived in the world, and they will be center stage once again as the 2022 Winter Olympics, officially the XXIV Olympic Winter Games, unfold in Beijing from February 4 to 20, 2022. Coincidentally, and perhaps ironically, the motto of the Olympics is: “Together for a Shared Future.”

Yet, there are rumblings of a boycott by Western counties of the Beijing Olympics over a multitude of issues ranging from Chinese threats to Taiwan, tensions in the South China Sea, continued trampling of Hong Kong rights, and allegations of severe human rights abuses – even referred to as genocide in China's Xinjiang region, home to the Uyghur Muslim minority population. There is pressure from a large coalition of human rights groups that argues that participating in the Beijing Olympics would be turning a blind eye to Chinese abuses and could be seen as an endorsement of the Chinese Communist Party’s “authoritarian rule.” 

The Glasgow climate summit is a pivotal point for the world. Will the two largest greenhouse gas offenders (U.S. and China) get serious about addressing climate justice efforts before it is too late? 

It is rumored that President Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, won’t attend the summit in person. President Xi has not left the People's Republic of China since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. He has joined video calls with global leaders and there is hope he will do so here, if rumors ring true.

If President Xi is not physically present, China will be represented by veteran climate envoy Xie Zhenhua, who has already held preliminary talks with President Biden’s special climate envoy John Kerry, a positive indication of Beijing’s commitment to the climate mission.

The top two climate envoys are huddling in London before the summit begins, hopefully hammering out a deal that will help cool the world if not relations between the two top economies and greenhouse gas emitters.

The U.S. is challenging China on a multitude of issues while at the same time seeking cooperation with them on the threat of climate to the world. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi challenged the U.S. strategy of sticking China in the eye at every turn but keeping an “oasis” for climate cooperation. “Surrounding the oasis is a desert”, Wang said, “and the oasis could be decertified very soon.”

Electrify The Climate Summit

China could enhance its standing in the world if they use the summit not to simply lead on climate change but go a step further and propose a “healthy world pledge” to come together on global health, peace, stability, economic growth, technology, transformative public/private investment and global debt restructuring/forgiveness.

Shock the world, China. Throw down the challenge and ask the world to follow. Lay out a ‘Nixon goes to China’ olive branch and ask the world to join you. Such a move would make your Olympic motto, “Together for a Shared Future,” very real for the world to see.

We have to hope that the Chinese truism is true: that Chinese leaders do think in the long-term.

If the two global leaders act boldly, our grandchildren and great grandchildren may enjoy the shade of the trees of hope that Presidents Biden and Xi plant for our collective futures. 

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