The US and China are holding the fifth round of their annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and the two sides will also hold a small meeting to discuss the climate change issue. It is expected that both countries will translate their bilateral consensus into practical and operational steps to follow up. Undoubtedly, if the top two emitters are able to further their negotiations, it will further inspire global climate mitigation.
Nowadays the US has a more aggressive position on climate change than during the Bush administration. Since the Obama administration came into power, the climate change issue has re-emerged as a priority for the United States. Starting with his first presidential campaign, he called for a mandatory federal carbon emission reduction based on IPCC conclusions. When that initiative failed during Congressional legislation work, Obama promised to reduce carbon pollution through executive action. Recently, the US Climate Action Plan once again put the Obama administration into the spotlight.
What reasons prompted Obama to take such actions? And, how far he will go? Firstly, his attitude towards science has caught our attention. Obama has respected the IPCC’s scientific research, and has consistently recognized the scientific evidence of human-induced climate change. Meanwhile, his voting records show that he has a firm belief in environmental protection. But more importantly, a “grand strategy” has been formed in Obama’s mind. At the beginning of his first term, Obama made it clear that his administration would combine climate change and energy issues with technology, employment and other economic issues in order to re-construct the US’ leadership role in global climate negotiation, as well as to restore the US’ global leadership. When re-elected, Obama once again stressed the urgency and importance of combatting climate change and developing clean energy technologies in his inaugural speech, State of the Union Address, and other public statements.
Obama’s “grand strategy” originates from his deep understanding of the international situation changes. In the context of slow economic recovery, will the US choose to secure the supply of fossil fuels to recover from the economic crisis? Or, in response to the economic crisis, the US tries to build a new foundation for the future prosperity? In other words, whether will the US continue the traditional economic growth model or seek a new one? Answers to those questions depend on how to look at the challenges facing the 21st century, and which factor will determine the world power balance in the future.
From a long-term perspective, some countries are rising, and at the same time the relative decline of the U.S. economic, political and military strength is inevitable. Thus, power transfer will be resulted in the existing international system. In order to maintain the relative strength as well as its influence on the world, the US has the urgent need to find a new opportunity to revive the national economy, promote economic competitiveness, and to rebuild the country’s image.
Obama has seen such an opportunity on the climate issue. Obama is convinced that the 21st century is a new era different from the traditional one, clean energy will be alternative to fossil fuels, and clean energy technology will become the important element of the country’s core competitiveness. He stated that “…the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.” Given the challenges of climate change and its interrelationship with many other issues, especially energy security, development strategy, conflict prevention and other important issues, the Obama administration intends to make the climate change solution a powerful engine for technological innovation, economic growth and international cooperation.
Because of his “grand strategy”, since the beginning of his first presidential campaign, Obama has put a spotlight on global warming. Domestically, the Obama administration set out to regulate greenhouse gas emissions with the president’s executive orders, such as setting standards for vehicle fuel economy and power plant emissions. Internationally, the US has returned back to the table of global climate negotiation and launched several other multiple mechanisms to address climate change. In particular, United States has continually put global warming at the center of the US-China relationship, raising the climate issue in almost every significant bilateral meeting.
The Obama administration’s efforts and achievements have gona above and beyond any efforts in US history. U.S. energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions decreased significantly. From a global point of view, the US has the largest decline of greenhouse gas emissions in the world since 2006. In 2012, US greenhouse gas emissions have dropped by nearly 12% compared with that in 2005, from 5.999 billion tons to 5.288 billion tons. Foreseeably, it is not difficult for the United States to achieve its commitments in Copenhagen. Although those efforts above cannot stop global warming, not even match the historical responsibility, economic and technological strength of the United States, this limited progress is an important and necessary step to achieve the “grand strategy”. In this sense, the US actions have very positive significance for global efforts to mitigate climate change.
Zhao Xingshu is Associate Professor, Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences