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Foreign Policy

The World Is Too Hot to Act Cold

May 04, 2021

Mother Teresa once expressed an aspiration for the world: “If each of us would only sweep our own doorstep, the whole world would be clean.” Globally, we have lots of sweeping to do in order to embrace the fact that we are one planet and one humanity.  

There is only one planet Earth and we are all on it together! The Earth unites every part of humanity – every nation and human being – despite political differences. The heat of the sun, the very air we breathe and the water we drink do not adhere to political borders or political rhetoric. And we are literally feeling the heat to take better care of planet Earth- NOW! 

April 22, 2021, marked the 51st anniversary of Earth Day. It also kicked off a vital summit for all humanity – President Biden’s virtual climate change summit. The summit included 17 countries responsible for 80% of global emissions and gross domestic product. Biden laid down a marker pledging to halve the U.S.’s carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. 

Chinese leader Xi Jinping joined Biden’s virtual summit on climate change. In a statement from China, he hoped the conference promoted “a global joint response to climate change and that Beijing is ready to cooperate with the U.S. on the basis of mutual respect.” 

The U.S.’ return to the climate crisis debate calling for a "decade of action" is welcome. It is also being received with sideways glances from allies who were left to fill the void when American leadership vaporized under Trump. Will the U.S. keep its promise? It is certainly a question on everyone’s mind. President Biden used the two-day session – symbolically opening on Earth Day – to put the U.S. back on the side of science, and at the front and center of the global effort to address the climate crisis after four years of backpedaling under the anti-science administration of Donald Trump.  

Earth Day is meant to celebrate life on Earth and the systems that support it. Yet, because of man-made activities, the Earth may not be able to support humanity going forward without global intervention.   

On the first Earth Day in 1970, people in the U.S. came together to say enough is enough. Then U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson said Earth Day was intended “…to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda.” 

Now, over 50 years later, there is more awareness around environmental issues, but clearly not enough action has been taken on the existential threat of climate change.  

Heating Up 

Will the Biden Climate Summit be a pivotal point for the world? Will the two greatest greenhouse gas offenders (U.S. and China) get serious about addressing climate justice efforts before it is too late?  

According to the U.S. rhetoric, China is an existential threat to democracy and the American/democratic way of life. So, too, is climate change. The irony is that China and the U.S. – the two top emitters of greenhouse gases that impact global warming – each need the other to cooperate in order to address the world-wide “existential threat.” Yet, the geopolitical divide between the U.S. and China today is at its coldest point since Nixon went to China in 1972.  

Each nation will need to find sensible ways to uphold their respective “national interests” while addressing the true existential threat of our shared climate emergency — or national interests won’t matter in the long run. Many of the summit participants made new pledges to cut emissions. 

Efforts to find common ground between the U.S. and China were center stage as President Biden hosted the virtual summit. This may well have been the proverbial test to see whether China and the U.S. can walk and chew gum at the same time in cooperating on climate change as they simultaneously battle over such contentious issues as rare-earth minerals, trade, Hong Kong and Taiwan hegemony, cultural genocide in Tibet and Xinjiang, cyber-attacks and 5G tech, foreign interference, and sparring in the South China Sea.  

Given the geopolitical climate in which the two nations find themselves, it was seen as an extraordinary feat that Biden’s climate envoy, former U.S. senator and Secretary of State 

John Kerry, was able to produce a joint statement with China. Prior to the summit, the two biggest polluters agreed that the two nations were “committed to cooperating with each other.” 

Former Vice President and climate activist Al Gore applauded the statement from China’s President Xi Jinping at the climate summit, saying it represented progress and a positive step for the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. 

President Biden is pressing on U.S. job creation and “building back America better.” In the days leading up to the global leaders’ meeting, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is falling behind China in the race to seize economic opportunities created by attention to climate change. With President Biden’s foreign and domestic agenda intertwined with job creation, the importance of ensuring all communities and workers benefit from the transition to a new clean energy economy couldn’t be clearer. The understated theme is that the U.S. understands it cannot complete or win any global competition with China if it cannot lead in the renewable clean energy revolution. 

The Summit Is Over: Now What? 

So, what did the summit produce? The goal was to galvanize efforts by the major economies to tackle the climate crisis. The need and desires are evident, but the specific solutions and sacrifices are much more elusive. Given the stilted nature of a virtual summit, the expectations were initially low. At best, the effort reinforced Biden’s message that America is back in the international climate ring, attempting to persuade the world toward a greener future with America’s cooperation. At this time, it is less about specific deals or actions. 

In time, however, will China once again make promises that few expect they will keep? The burning question for the Chinese Communist leadership is this: Can China keep their economy red-hot while curtailing the warming gases that fuel their economy but simultaneously threaten the entire planet?  

Most saw the summit as more of a dry run for the planned November UN climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, in partnership between the UK and Italy. The November meeting will include 200 governments where they plan to spell out what each is willing to do to keep planet Earth from becoming hotter, more combustible, and a less hospitable place to live. The stakes continue to rise, but real results are needed as the climate clock continues to tick. 

Climate change could be a vessel for a common way forward between the U.S. and China, even as we change the confrontational relationship between our two nations that is ripe for a cooling off. With cooler heads, the climate change issue is destined to emerge as an arena where China and the U.S. seek the big C’s: collaboration, cooperation, and coordination in the competition for global influence. 

The existential threat of climate change is playing out amidst the global competition for the jobs and technologies of the future – a bullseye for a global transition away from the fossil fuels that had dominated for centuries, helping create the current climate threat we all face today. Climate must be tightly woven into all decisions going forward. 

The U.S. and China Need to Lead 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the world was “on the verge of the abyss,” and action is need to combat climate change. 

The U.S. needs to heed the wake-up call that China’s economic rise has signaled. Today, those old methods of chest-thumping will not force other nations to dutifully fall in line. 

The need for cooperation on global health, peace, stability, economic growth, technology, transformative public/private investment, debt restructuring/forgiveness and climate change is clear. We need world leaders able to compartmentalize the major issues that they disagree on and focus instead on our planet’s survival. The fate of all of humanity hangs in the balance. 

Tackling the climate crisis now is essential to the world and the Earth that we leave to future generations.  

Stay tuned to Glasgow: Global leaders must keep the focus and demand action for one planet and one humanity.  

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