In spite of the fact that President Obama is facing an uphill battle – in his own party – on domestic climate change legislation; and, with China taking every opportunity to hide behind their “developing” status, both the US and China used the UN General Assembly to ramp up rhetoric on climate change. To misquote the Bard, “methinks they doth protest too much.”
With every new splashy promise made, the December climate change conference in Copenhagen is threatening to become little more than a public relations event with little real concerted action. More climate talks are on the agenda for the G20 in Pittsburgh, but Obama and his team should avoid making the push for global leadership on climate change into a new breed of arms race because its a battle that the US cannot win.
Paying Lip Service is Costly – China, India and other developing countries want the US-led West to subsidize their carbon reduction efforts. If the West balks and no comprehensive global agreement emerges, the US could still find itself saddled with costly commitments made in going toe-to-toe with China in order to demonstrate leadership. For example, at the UN, President Jintao made the headline-grabbing promise to plant enough new trees in China to cover the area of Norway. Jintao also promised to get China to 15% renewable energy within 10 years, a much more ambitious timeline than any US plan. While it may not represent the kind of economy-crippling commitment that China fears will result from a global agreement, these programs will be costly, and Obama has his hands full just trying to pay for health care.
Democracy’s Dilemma – Not only is Obama hamstrung by health care, an increasingly troublesome war in Afghanistan, and an economy that is still teetering; but, he also has the mettlesome matters of bipartisanship, political pressure and budget restraints. While a strongly Democratic House could barely pass a weakened climate bill, Jintao and the Chinese have a one-party system overseeing a command economy that gives the Chinese a lot more adaptability as circumstances dictate in Copenhagen, in the world press, and on the geopolitical landscape.
The World Won’t Grade on a Curve – The Chinese are already crying foul over efforts to stifle their economy for the sake of climate change action and the world community is not expecting much from the world’s fastest growing economy and most voluminous emitter. Commitments like those above are enough to make a splash and convince the world that China really is trying. By contrast, Senators from Obama’s own party are refusing to discuss the prospect of domestic climate change legislation unless it includes trade protections. That kind of opposition in his own party makes a lot of his words ring hollow while the Chinese will certainly be able to deliver on whatever proposals they float. There are no handicaps in this game, so even if they overshoot on a much lower standard, the Chinese promise to steal Obama’s thunder.
Conventional wisdom says you should never enter a land war in Asia. The same might be said for wars of words.
[photo credit: Flickr]