Cold War II: Warm War
Near the top of a recent New York Times piece on negotiations between Chinese and American climate negotiators in Beijing, the authors compare a climate treaty between the two countries to such a treaty between the U.S. and Russia, "with gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions replacing megatons of nuclear might as a looming risk for people across the globe."
By some estimates, the two threats are connected: a nuclear war would unleash 700 million tons of carbon dioxide. And last week, the introduction of an "environmental crime" hotline in China led us to speculate on a Beijing-Washington "green phone" that would replace the old Moscow-Washington "red phone."
The dangers of not lowering emissions now are huge. But is it correct to compare discussions between the US and China over climate change to the standoff between the US and Russia over nuclear weapons? On a general level, overplaying the danger of climate change, as the Times' Andy Revkin has noted, has a tendency to fatigue the public, or numb them into apathy.
Here's one similarity: the secrecy and ambiguousness on both sides. The public behavior of climate officials indicates that both sides are keeping their cards as close to their chest as possible up until talks in Copenhagen.
But unlike nuclear war, the risk on the climate front is that the U.S. and China will choose inaction over action, a business-as-usual approach over something more visionary.
And the comparison gets something bigger wrong: climate change may mean mutually assured destruction, (just like a nuclear war!), but addressing it isn't a matter of a war at all. Even calling it a game seems too pat, too smug.
Instead, forming an agreement on climate change emissions depends on both sides to work together, because greenhouse gases emitted in the U.S. have as much of an impact in the U.S. as they do in China. If one country suffers, so does the other. If one benefits, so does the other.
Well, in theory. China and other developing nations are more likely to suffer from climate change than are developed countries. In this sense, China might have a greater incentive to act on emissions. But as the world's biggest CO2 emitter, it also faces a bigger challenge than the U.S., and may have less money than it needs to tackle that challenge.
That's where the U.S. and other developed countries can step in: by providing aid to China and other developing countries that would be spent on building green technologies, both the US and China benefit.
Also dubious: what the Times says the outcome will be if the two sides can't agree. In the background, says the article, "hover threats of great retaliation in the form of tariffs or other trade barriers if one nation does not agree to ceilings on emissions." While those threats have been tossed around by people like energy secretary Chu, it seems unlikely that the US will be able to do very much at all if China doesn't agree to caps, especially given the intractable trade relationship between the two countries.
If there is no agreement on emissions, however, perhaps the impacts of climate change could start to earn that Times comparison.