The Chinese delegation “rat-f––ed” the negotiations, fumed Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, after yet another day of gridlock.
It was a Friday afternoon in December 2009, and the COP-15 climate conference in Copenhagen was going off the rails.
U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and dozens of other world leaders had assembled in a last-ditch attempt to salvage a deal.
They sat cheek by jowl in uncomfortable straight-backed chairs. The conference table was strewn with empty espresso cups and large leafy plants, piles of dog-eared papers, yellow highlighters, and soggy mozzarella sandwiches.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was absent. In his place, he sent an underling, He Yafei, to sit opposite Obama — but did not authorize him to negotiate.
The sleep-deprived world leaders were insulted. Most eventually lost patience and walked out.
With this gesture, China was not just snubbing Obama, the popular new American president who would fly on to Oslo that evening to collect the Nobel Peace Prize. It was also repudiating the other rich countries that expected China, a developing country, to commit to emissions cuts. In the end, the conference failed to produce a legally binding agreement.
Less than eight years later, on a sunny June afternoon in the White House Rose Garden, Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, displayed even greater contempt for the multilateral climate diplomacy process. Announcing that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which would require it to cut emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2030, Trump argued that the deal would “hamstring” the U.S. economy at the expense of China and other competitors.
The Chinese government, in turn, promised to stick to its Paris commitments but showed its displeasure with Trump’s decision with statements such as, “Climate change is a challenge for the whole world and no country can stand aloof.”
Indeed, for decades, most coverage has framed climate change as a crisis that the international community needs to solve — and which it could solve if world leaders would only muster the political will to cooperate and share the burden. Many politicians claim to believe this, arguing that it is not too late to stop the world from warming 2 degrees or even 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels.
The reality, climate experts and negotiators have begun to admit, is more complicated. For three decades, the bonhomie of United Nations climate change conferences (called “Conference of the Parties,” or COP) masked a ferociously competitive geopolitical tug-of-war. Today, China and the United States are locked in an intensifying rivalry that has expanded from the economic realm into a broader competition for supremacy. As tensions rise, it is getting harder to paper over the structural drivers of climate gridlock.
“The relationship with China was conflictual in the Obama years, but it was not anything like what’s going on now,” Todd Stern, who served as Obama’s special envoy for climate change, told The Wire. “You didn’t have Chinese ‘wolf warriors,’ or a bipartisan consensus in Washington that was as hard edged as it is now.”
Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a leading expert on China’s foreign policy and formerly a senior director for Asia on the National Security Council, agrees. “At this point, each of us sees the other as quite unreliable,” he says. “I don’t think global climate diplomacy has a bright future. U.S.–China bilateral cooperation, especially, is getting pretty much nowhere. It’s a disaster, but that’s the hard reality.”
China and the United States are by far the world’s two largest carbon emitters. Together they account for more than 43 percent of global emissions, and their combined share is rising. No global climate agreement is likely to succeed unless the two powers agree to participate.
The idea of stopping warming at 2 degrees — let alone 1.5 — was never going to happen. Nobody could say that, because the political costs of saying that were high.
David Victor, professor of innovation and co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at UC San Diego
National security and intelligence analysts in the United States and China say that uncontrolled warming could pose grave risks to the planet, and the security interests of the two nations. Yet half a century after scientists first sounded the alarm about the greenhouse effect, the international community has repeatedly failed to reach and stick to a binding deal to mitigate global climate change. While there are multiple reasons for this failure, sources close to the process confirm that one fact matters far more than the others: America and China have never agreed on how to share the burden of decarbonization. Both countries have refused to adopt policies that they fear might slow economic growth at home, and thereby give the other a competitive advantage.
The animosity and distrust cut in both directions. Democratic and Republican presidents alike have argued that there can be no meaningful global deal unless China, by far the world’s largest emitter, makes more ambitious commitments. Chinese negotiators, for their part, argue that the responsibility to fix climate change belongs primarily to developed economies, and above all the United States.
Beyond questions of fairness, there are also practical issues preventing cooperation. Neither side trusts the other to honor its commitments, so even if they make a deal, how can they enforce it?
“The idea of stopping warming at 2 degrees — let alone 1.5 — was never going to happen,” says David Victor, a professor of innovation and co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at UC San Diego. “Nobody could say that, because the political costs of saying that were high. But we’re at 1.2 to 1.3 already, and it’s accelerating.”
In the following months, this series will explore how the U.S. and Chinese governments have begun preparing to adapt to worst-case scenarios of transformative climate change — and how these preparations are quietly shaping the bilateral relationship on a range of issues, from food and water security, renewable energy and critical materials to trade, industrial policy, foreign aid and military basing. But first, to understand how the United States and China found themselves pulled into this warming war dynamic, we need to understand why diplomacy has failed.
SHARING THE BURDEN
Global climate diplomacy turns 30 years old this month. In June 1992, representatives from 154 countries gathered in Rio de Janeiro to sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This historic agreement was the first major international treaty to name climate change as a problem. Its goal was not to completely solve the climate problem, but to maintain consensus and keep up momentum for the next round of negotiations, when more progress could hopefully be made. It laid the foundation for all future multilateral cooperation on climate, including the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement.
But even in these early days, the United States and China had very different ideas about what the global response to climate change should look like. Both competed behind the scenes to shape the process to their national advantage.
In Rio, U.S. President George Bush, fearful of alienating his conservative base, refused to agree to any specific emissions targets or timetables. “This will teach the United Nations not to hold a conference in an American election year,” the Singaporean delegate wryly observed.
Meanwhile, China used skillful diplomacy to win some obscure victories with significant long-term implications. Working with a coalition of developing countries, China secured legal language specifying that rich and poor countries had “common but differentiated responsibilities” to “address the global warming problem.”
China is a growing part of the problem. It must be part of the solution.
Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana
Specifically, the Rio treaty established the principle that developed countries had the sole responsibility to “take the lead.” So-called “Annex 1” countries, including the United States, took on responsibility for providing “financial resources” and technology to help poorer countries decarbonize. “Annex 2” countries, including China, negotiated language explicitly stating that developing countries had no direct responsibilities to pay, since their “first and overriding priorities” are “economic and social development and poverty eradication.”
This concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” or CBDR for short, is rooted in both fairness and pragmatism. When Rio was signed, the United States accounted for 36 percent of global emissions and America’s GDP per capita was nearly 70 times larger than China’s.
But CBDR has since become a sticking point. Today, the world’s first and third-largest emitters — China and India — are Annex 2 countries, and China emits more carbon than the United States, the European Union, and Japan combined. However, China still insisted in all subsequent negotiations that it has no legal or moral obligation to commit to emissions cuts, and that any promises it does offer are purely voluntary signs of good faith.
“If China maintains that attitude, the world is cooked,” says Lieberthal.
Congress also quickly identified CBDR as a non-starter. Just five years after Rio, the Senate unanimously called on President Bill Clinton not to sign the Kyoto Protocol because it exempted China and other developing countries from binding targets. “China is a growing part of the problem,” Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, said in a speech on the Senate floor. “It must be part of the solution.”
Kyoto marked the first time that the economic rivalry between the world’s two largest emitters led the United States to pull out of a historic climate agreement. It would not be the last.
Meanwhile, with each passing year, emissions kept rising.
THE AUDACITY OF HOPE
In summer 2009, with the Copenhagen climate conference just months away, the new U.S. president, Barack Obama, tasked Todd Stern, who had been one of Bill Clinton’s climate advisors during the Kyoto sessions, to restart a dialogue with China.
On Stern’s first visit to Beijing, he made it clear that Obama was open to compromise. Stern wasn’t asking China to commit to specific emissions targets — at least not at first.
The U.S. goal was simply to help China make its emissions “grow slower and start to come down eventually,” Stern told Chinese media. “We understand China’s paramount need to grow and develop for its people. Our demand is that the development, with the available technologies, is based on low-carbon growth.”
The problem was that whichever country made the big early investments in shifting to a low-carbon energy system would inevitably end up paying a premium and subsidizing everyone else.
“The further and faster you want to cut emissions, the more expensive it’s going to be in the short run, and the higher the upfront capital costs are going to be,” says Scott Moore, director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s as simple as that.”
To reduce the incentive to free-ride, Stern and Obama wanted a grand compromise: if China would commit to meaningful targets, U.S. technology and financing would follow.
Instead, Copenhagen was a diplomatic disaster. The Chinese team didn’t just want to avoid having to make commitments; it also wanted to stop other countries from announcing their own emissions commitments. “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked, according to one account. When the Chinese negotiator refused to moderate his position, the usually unflappable Merkel reportedly threw up her hands in frustration.
Given the Obama administration’s respectful approach, “the way China behaved during Copenhagen was pretty shameless,” a former senior U.S. official familiar with the negotiations told The Wire, speaking anonymously to preserve contacts in China.
The Chinese negotiators even tried to block the creation of a U.N. system that would subject their self-reported progress on limiting emissions to international review. Stern dismissed it as “trust but don’t verify.”
If you build trust between two people who are dealing with each other and build some affection on top of that trust, you’re going to have a better chance of finding common ground.
Todd Stern, the former U.S. climate negotiator, on building rapport with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua
The Obama administration didn’t give up. For the next three years, Stern tried to build rapport with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua. He visited Xie’s hometown in China and invited Xie to Chicago, where they went to a Cubs game and had dinner at Stern’s home.
“I don’t want to overdo it: Countries act based on interests, not because their guy likes our guy,” Stern recalled in a 2016 interview. But “if you build trust between two people who are dealing with each other and build some affection on top of that trust, you’re going to have a better chance of finding common ground.”
Xie was amenable to Stern’s advances. According to multiple sources familiar with his thinking, Xie believed climate change was a genuine threat to China and saw an opportunity to soften his bosses’ intransigent position. He also believed that China’s behavior at Copenhagen had hurt its image with other developing countries, particularly the Pacific island nations.
The timing of all this behind-the-scenes diplomacy was fortunate. In winter 2013, China faced an “airpocalypse,” with smog so bad that life in cities such as Beijing virtually ground to a halt. As Chinese citizens began to protest and speak out online, the government realized that it had to take action.
“Xi Jinping has a vision of national rejuvenation,” says Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If you don’t have fresh air to breathe, safe water to drink, uncontaminated soil to farm on, then forget about national rejuvenation.”
Responding to the air pollution crisis would require phasing down some coal-fired power plants near the coast, which would make it possible for China to move toward an emissions peak.
Seeing an opening, the Obama administration pushed to reopen broader talks. After months of frantic negotiation, Obama traveled to Beijing in November 2014 to announce a U.S.-China Joint Statement. For the first time, China agreed to peak its emissions, and it also pledged to draw 20 percent of its energy from zero-carbon sources by 2030. The latter pledge would require monumental investments given the size of China’s economy and its anticipated growth rate.
“There was considerable anxiety inside U.S. circles about whether China’s pledges were some kind of rug pull,” says Rod Schoonover, who at the time was director of environment and natural resources at the National Intelligence Council. “But it seemed to the intelligence community that the Chinese didn’t see this as some game, and that they were taking climate change seriously, particularly for domestic reasons.”
The Paris Agreement, finalized the following year, put these pledges from the two largest emitters in a global context. Other countries made their own national pledges, and countries agreed to a non-binding, long-term goal of limiting warming to below 2 degrees, preferably to 1.5 degrees.
These landmark deals were diplomatic triumphs, but they were just a starting point. According to UN estimates, even if all 192 countries met their Paris pledges, the world would still be on track for approximately 2.7 degrees celsius of warming.
“The idea behind Paris was that it would be a kind of an umbrella of legitimacy under which future pledging could take place,” says Victor, the scholar at UC San Diego. “Anyone who thought Paris itself was going to do most of that work was just nuts.”
The Paris Agreement, Victor notes, was also extremely brittle — made possible partly because of the “accident of history” that in the late Obama administration both sides were actively looking for ways to cooperate.
“The U.S.–China climate relationship was always fragile and was never going to be deeper than the larger political context,” he adds.
This was quickly proven just the following year, when the larger political context changed dramatically with the election of Donald Trump.
“The concept of global warming,” Trump had tweeted in 2012, “was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
“A WHOLE SERIES OF DONALD TRUMPS”
On the 2016 campaign trail, Donald Trump repeatedly pledged to withdraw from Paris if elected. Once he was in office, Obama’s former negotiators warned that if Trump followed through on the threat, the Chinese might permanently give up on climate diplomacy. “It would be taken as something between an incomprehensible punch in the face and the announcement of divorce proceedings,” Stern wrote in a Brookings blog post.
Trump was not dissuaded. In July 2017, he announced that the United States would withdraw, in large part to protect the U.S. economy from unfair Chinese competition.
Under the Paris agreement, “China will be able to increase these emissions by a staggering number of years — 13,” Trump said, in announcing his decision. “They can do whatever they want for 13 years. Not us…This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States.”
It was never clear whether Trump himself actually doubted the existence of climate change, saw the issue in geopolitical terms, or simply didn’t care. “There wasn’t any discussion of climate cooperation,” Matthew Turpin, who served in the Pentagon under both Obama and Trump and was China director on the National Security Council between 2018 and 2019, previously told The Wire. “That wasn’t even a topic of discussion. And nothing was coordinated at a federal level.”
Worse, “there was in the Trump White House a systematic effort to suppress climate science,” recalls Schoonover, who resigned in protest.
China took the opportunity to present itself as a responsible actor on climate. In 2020, Xi Jinping pledged to peak emissions “before” 2030, rather than its previous goal of “around 2030.” One recent study shows China on track to peak around 2025. Xi also pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
These were impressive goals, but many analysts question whether they are politically credible. “Carbon neutrality is possible, but it has to be an overriding economic, political and technological priority for China for the next four decades,” says Moore, from the University of Pennsylvania. “There are a lot of reasons to doubt that this effort can be sustained.”
Even if China meets these commitments, the country could represent nearly 40 percent of global emissions when it peaks. And Chinese negotiators have refused to commit to targets for drawing down emissions after the peak.
For this reason, many U.S. observers are skeptical that China’s long-term promises are meaningful. “It doesn’t matter what the Chinese Communist Party promises to do in 2060, because they’re not going to do it anyway,” argues H.R. McMaster, the former U.S. National Security Advisor. “It’s just the way they operate: to screw you over to gain whatever advantage they can.”
In January 2021, the incoming Biden’s administration hoped that it could resume cooperation with China on climate. Under Biden, the U.S. has re-joined Paris and the president has made climate the centerpiece of his legislative agenda, promising to cut U.S. emissions 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 — a more ambitious target than Obama offered in Paris. Former Secretary of State John Kerry — now the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate — is also holding ongoing talks with Stern’s old negotiating counterpart, Xie Zhenhua.
“The people making policy on both sides are very similar to back in the Obama administration,” says David Victor. “They all know each other. They like each other. And they’d like to do more. But the larger political context right now doesn’t allow them to do much that’s deeper.”
The biggest roadblock is that Biden’s ambitious target is not feasible without the massive clean energy investments in Democrats’ Build Back Better spending package. The legislation passed the House last November but stalled in the Senate.
Another consequence of congressional deadlock is that the United States has fallen short of its pledges to provide climate finance to developing countries. In Paris, developed countries pledged collectively to provide $100 billion annually. The U.S. has been providing less than one-sixth of its share, according to a range of estimates aggregated by the World Resources Institute.
At the COP-26 summit in Glasgow last November, President Biden delivered a rousing speech announcing that the United States had returned to the fold after four years of Trump. Kerry and a large U.S. delegation pushed China to make new and more ambitious pledges. While there were some breakthroughs, like a deal to halt deforestation by 2030, they failed at their main goal. The senior Chinese leadership did not even show up in person.
“A pattern has emerged that is not lost on other countries,” says Kelly Sims Gallagher, former senior envoy for climate change at the State Department and now a dean at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “The United States negotiates climate agreements under Democratic administrations and then Republican successors withdraw. This pattern has led to a lack of trust of American negotiators.”
Indeed, many U.S. conservatives have given up on climate diplomacy altogether, especially bilateral negotiations with China.
“Climate talks are a waste of time,” argues Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from South Florida who founded the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus and is trying to organize his party to embrace a climate action agenda.
Curbelo thinks that unmitigated climate change could have “catastrophic consequences,” but he believes that China and other developing countries will not realistically transition to low-carbon energy sources until they are cheaper and more reliable than fossil fuels. He also doubts that developed countries like the United States will offer them enough financing to make much of a difference, whatever they promised at Paris.
“The COP process is a dead end,” McMaster told The Wire. Like Curbelo, he opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from Paris back in 2017, but now believes the situation has changed. “In a democracy, people aren’t going to vote to transfer capital to developing countries because we feel guilty that we already had our fair share of carbon emissions,” McMaster says. “It’s not going to work politically. It’s just going to create a whole series of Donald Trumps.”
“A GEOSTRATEGIC WEAPON”
China is aware of these constraints, and has little patience for U.S. politicians who call on it to do more. “We do not only make promises, we honor our promises with real action,” Xie icily said to one reporter in Glasgow in response to criticism from Kerry.
“The Chinese bottom-line view is: we can’t count on these guys to follow through on commitments, but they will hold us to any commitments we make,” says Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution. “How much can you count on U.S. policy remaining recognizable between the Biden administration and whatever follows?”
Meanwhile, the tone of climate diplomacy is becoming more openly hostile. Kerry, for instance, is clearly frustrated. Although the details haven’t been disclosed, China seems to be demanding unspecified geopolitical concessions as the price of climate cooperation. “Climate change is not a geostrategic weapon,” he told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after a testy meeting in Tianjin last September.
“The differences of opinion between our countries have been hardened and sharpened,” Kerry noted in another interview. “If climate becomes one of the tools, one of the weapons in the bilateral back-and-forth, we’re cooked.”
The Chinese government seems equally pessimistic. China’s willingness to cooperate with the United States on climate change “cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-U.S. relations,” Wang Yi said in response to Kerry’s remarks. It is America’s fault that climate has become a geopolitical issue, Wang implied, which means that climate could indeed become a “geostrategic weapon” unless the U.S. fundamentally changes its China policy.
We should — and will — continue to work toward a global agreement to get at emissions, the root cause of climate change. But we also have to be realistic about what we might have to do if it doesn’t happen.
Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence
Washington “wants climate change cooperation to be an oasis in the relationship,” Wang added. “However, if the oasis is all surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later, the oasis will be desertified.”
Many observers argue that the U.S. needs to find a way to de-link climate change from the broader relationship, but it is not clear that China is interested in putting climate change on a separate track.
“The Chinese government’s basic position seems to be that as long as the U.S. is giving them a hard time on a broad set of issues — from their perspective — we should not expect a positive climate relationship,” Stern told The Wire.
As a result, in both countries — and across party lines in Washington — a gloomy sense of climate realpolitik has taken hold. Last year, the U.S. intelligence community assessed in a report to President Biden that “the cooperative breakthrough of the Paris Agreement may be short lived as countries struggle to reduce their emissions and blame others for not doing enough.”
“What’s changed is people’s awareness of how much Kool-Aid they were drinking back in Paris,” says Victor.
With no signs of a U.S.-China diplomatic breakthrough on the horizon, both governments are recognizing that the world could be headed toward a climate cliff.
“Both the United States and China are sober about the near-certainty that we will go beyond 1.5 degrees, and potentially considerably beyond that,” Lieberthal says.
As a result, the two governments’ priorities have shifted, and they are now paying more attention than ever before to preparations for a rapidly warming world.
Just as geopolitics is exacerbating the climate crisis, the climate crisis is in turn accelerating geopolitical competition, from the Arctic to the South Pacific. It is intensifying trade tensions and even raising the possibility that countries could weaponize the climate itself with untested geoengineering technologies. A new category of great power rivalry is emerging — not a Cold War, but a Warming War.
Unbridled competition might not be all bad, particularly if it leads to innovation that speeds up the adoption of low-carbon technologies. But it carries enormous, unpredictable risks. Whichever superpower adapts more effectively to climate change could gain a decisive strategic advantage over the other. There are few international norms, agreements and institutions set up to manage this competition and stop climate geopolitics from spinning into direct confrontation.
“We should — and will — continue to work toward a global agreement to get at emissions, the root cause of climate change,” argues Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence. “But we also have to be realistic about what we might have to do if it doesn’t happen.
“The United States needs a serious plan B,” Blair adds. “That means adaptation.”
Eyck Freymann is a contributing writer and a columnist for The Wire. A doctoral candidate in China Studies at Oxford, he is the author of One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World (November 2020) and Director of Indo-Pacific at Greenmantle, a macroeconomic and geopolitical advisory firm. @eyckfreymann