The Biden administration recently announced a $2 trillion infrastructure plan with climate solutions at the center. Yet some argue that solving climate change requires more than a big budget, and conventional Washington wisdom holds that America cannot solve climate without the help of China. This is not only wrong; it’s dangerous.
Somini Sengupta wrote in The New York Times that if President Joe Biden “wants to be known as the first climate president of the United States, he will have to engage his biggest rival on the world stage: President Xi Jinping.” This echoed five foreign policy experts, including former State Department officials J. Stapleton Roy and Susan Thornton, who wrote an open letter last summer in The Washington Post arguing that “China’s engagement in the international system is essential … to effective action on common problems such as climate change.” Joseph Nye, an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, recently agreed. So do many conservatives. Nicholas Burns, who was undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Bush administration, has stated, “To do something on climate change, we will have to work with China.” Elizabeth Economy, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, agrees, stating that “the United States and China could … partner to address a global challenge,” namely climate change.
At first glance these calls make sense, given that Chinese CO2 emissions continue to rise, and that the climate crisis can’t be solved without Chinese action. To be sure, China should take action. But the United States should not and does not need to compromise its vital interest in pushing back against Chinese “innovation mercantilism” to get China onboard. That’s where the conventional wisdom about China goes wrong.
“Cooperation theory” is premised on two faulty ideas: The first is that we need to spend valuable diplomatic capital China to act. In fact, China has a greater stake in addressing climate than the United States. It has greater population density (including many people living in low-lying coastal areas) and lower living standards, two factors that will make dealing with climate change more difficult.
The second idea is that the only way to solve climate change is for all countries to take expensive steps to limit greenhouse gas emissions and that the United States needs to pressure China into doing this. But as long as clean energy continues to be more expensive than dirty energy, carbon-neutral commitments will be hard to achieve. One key reason is that the populace of virtually every country — including rich, climate-focused nations like France — has made it clear they are not willing to pay more for energy in order to move away from fossil fuels.
So the only way to solve climate change is by accelerating technological innovation that enables clean energy to be cheaper and better than dirty fuels — in areas like new generations of batteries for vehicles and grid storage, biofuels, clean industrial fuels, and new kinds of solar power generation. If innovation makes clean energy cheaper and better than dirty energy, then even developing nations (and China) will want to switch so they can save money.
China certainly can play an important role in this, particularly because as the Chinese clean energy system grows it could provide an opportunity for companies around the world to test out their systems. However, if past clean technologies like wind and solar are any guide, then it is likely that China will ultimately shut out foreign businesses in favor of its own national champions.
There may be issues where we need to make tradeoffs with China to get its cooperation on common problems, but climate is not one of them. Engaging China with climate hat in hand will do nothing to address climate change, and worse, it will reduce the leverage the United States needs to pressure China to dismantle its predatory innovation mercantilist regime, which weakens our economy and national security.
We saw this same movie in the Obama administration. A signal moment came during Obama’s first official trip to Beijing, in November 2009, when he downplayed U.S. economic and political grievances and instead stressed how important it was for China to help America fight climate change, emphasizing that he was looking forward to deepening the partnership “in this critical area.” Chinese leaders must have thought they had died and gone to heaven. It was at this point that they had the opportunity to take advantage of this president by rope-a-doping him on concessions over their innovation mercantilist practices like intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer and massive industrial subsidies. And so they did.
We can’t afford to make this mistake again. There is a wide array of areas where Biden will need to press China, especially its innovation mercantilism. Trading off those demands to pressure China on climate will do nothing more than weaken the U.S. hand.
Robert D. Atkinson is president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
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