The new climate change agreement between the U.S. and China is of moderate immediate significance, given that we have yet to see whether either country can come through on its ambitious pledges. But it is of enormous political significance. The very fact of the agreement, between rival superpowers whose relationship is otherwise prickly at best, starkly illustrates the magnitude of the threat.
The deal also shows the consistent misunderstanding in American public discourse over the nature of the problem. For an example bordering on comical ignorance, look no further than the enraged clowns in the Republican Party, whose elected officials have been howling that China has played the U.S. for a fool. The assumption is that no country in its right mind would give up the benefits of carbon pollution unless, of course, the country was run by hippie zealots.
As usual, lost in this petty rigmarole is the bigger picture. If Republicans would only allow themselves to absorb the true scope of the problem, they would see why it's not so completely incomprehensible for China to be on board. They would also see that, all things considered, the U.S. is the party that got off easy.
Climate change is the mother of all collective action problems. It is a colossal threat to human society that will take unprecedented cooperation across nearly the whole world to confront. But on the flip side, it is also a huge opportunity to save our civilization as we know it — if the global community can secure deals to lower emissions.
No country knows this dynamic better than China. China now emits nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as the United States, and about 30 percent of all worldwide emissions. Let that sink in for a minute. This is both a huge threat and a huge opportunity. The Chinese could torch the entire planet's carbon budget by themselves. But it also means that a huge slice of world emissions are concentrated in one nation, as opposed to spread out over dozens of smaller ones, dramatically simplifying the political problem of reaching an international agreement.
The U.S., China, and the EU (which also recently announced an aggressive emissions reduction plan) alone account for well over half of all emissions. Therefore, strong action on their part will put the world much of the way towards the needed emissions trajectory. It would also set an excellent example and make it politically easier for smaller nations to cut their emissions.
And make no mistake, China is very seriously vulnerable to climate change. It could gut the nation, taking the ruling Communist Party down with it. Fifty million or more Chinese citizens could be displaced by rising seas in the coming decades. Drought and desertification, both fueled by climate change, will cause havoc with China's water supply and farmland, which are both already insecure. Additionally, China's reliance on filthy coal power is responsible for jaw-dropping environmental problems, causing a reported 670,000 deaths annually, and many times that number of respiratory illnesses.
All this points towards a massive Chinese self-interest in slashing emissions as fast as possible. Yes, under the new agreement, America will cut its emissions by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, while China's will peak by 2030. But Chinese emissions are rising quickly at the moment (making them harder to cut), and China is still quite poor, so it's only fair that it gets a bit more breathing room. As I've argued before, America still emits vastly more on a per-capita basis, and is well-positioned to make emissions cuts that won't hurt much.
In other words, the Republicans are full of it. It's bad enough that Senate Majority Leader-designate Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is complaining that China is required "to do nothing at all for 16 years," as if China has a switch that slows carbon emissions overnight. When you factor in the rate of current emissions and the greater impact cutting them will have on the Chinese economy, China has agreed to a much more aggressive policy than the U.S. And when you throw in China committing 20 percent of its energy portfolio to non-carbon sources, it's easy to argue that the U.S. got the "better" end of the deal.
Of course, conservatives can be relied upon to oppose any action on climate change, regardless of content. They're annoyed because this deal cuts the legs out from one of their favorite excuses to do nothing: that any action by the U.S. will simply be offset by the sneaky Chinese. For some reason — perhaps because the Republican Party is riddled with people who don't accept climate science? — they have failed to anticipate that China might act in its own best interests.