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Bargaining with China Today to Save the World Tomorrow

As tough jobs go, few are tougher than John Kerry’s. He has to weigh future harm against current crime, a moral balancing act that few leaders have ever faced. The former Secretary of State, at the age of seventy-seven, signed on as President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, tasked with trying to get the rest of the world to step up its game on climate change. He was largely responsible for last week’s Earth Day virtual summit, and the first big test of his work will come in Glasgow, in November, when the world’s leaders gather for the most important climate talks since the Paris accords conference, in 2015.

It would be hard enough to get the world marching forward on climate if it were the only issue in play: some nations export oil and gas, and some import it; some are poor, and some are rich; some have built coal-fired empires, and others are still burning wood. A few things are breaking in Kerry’s favor: in most capitals around the world, the fossil-fuel industry still plays an outsized role, but now there are new counter-pressures from a burgeoning climate movement, which makes some leaders more pliable. And the rapid fall in the price of renewable energy opens the door to quicker action. So Kerry’s task, considered purely in isolation, is still incredibly difficult, but perhaps a little less so than it used to be.

But although climate change may be the most important event occurring right now—and, indeed, the most important in human history—it’s not the only thing. And that complicates matters considerably. Take the case of China, whose leader, Xi Jinping, joined the Earth Day summit after Kerry paid a visit to Shanghai, following weeks of careful negotiating. There is no way to solve the climate puzzle without lots of help from China—it is now the biggest carbon emitter on earth. Getting it fully engaged as a partner has to be a cornerstone of any effective global climate policy, and it won’t be easy: the country is doing some things right (installing cheap renewable power at a rate not previously seen anywhere) and doing some things wrong (continuing to build coal-fired power). So, diplomacy.

On the day the summit ended, however, China hinted at the price of its further coöperation: acquiescence to Beijing’s policies on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and, perhaps, Taiwan. “Our two countries still have many differences, but still, President Xi attended the climate summit convened by President Biden. So this is an action taken by China at the top level to work with the United States on climate change,” Xi’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said in a streamed address to the Council on Foreign Relations. “If the United States no longer interferes in China’s internal affairs, then we can have even smoother coöperation that can bring more benefits to both countries and the rest of the world.”

Give him points for frankness. And it really puts Washington and the rest of the world in a bind: if we don’t move the world much faster on climate in the next decade, our chances of hitting the targets we set in Paris will disappear and, with them, much of the prospect for a livable world. By some estimates, if we don’t get things under control fast, we might see a billion climate refugees by 2050—a toll of suffering so unimaginable that no event in history comes close. And that kind of suffering might well continue for millennia, on a planet permanently impoverished by spreading deserts and shrinking ice; what happens in the next few years will be written in the geological record. Against all that, what else matters?

Yet to read Ben Mauk’s and Raffi Khatchadourian’s remarkable accounts of the prison state that Xi has built in Xinjiang is to despair. It is “likely the largest internment of ethnic and religious minorities since the Second World War,” Mauk writes. It’s the prototype for a digitized surveillance state that reduces human liberty to almost nothing. Is there really a way to turn away from it—even if, as may be the case, there’s very little our government can do about it? We obviously aren’t going to fight a war with China, not over that and not over its brutal suppression of Hong Kong—nor, at this point, would there be automatic support for fighting a war over Taiwan, even if it’s clear by now what kind of repression that nation would face. But to just ignore these transgressions, because the climate matters more?

Such considerations are complicated by the fact that America doesn’t come with completely clean hands. On climate, obviously, the Trump Administration eroded any hint of American leadership; the spokesman for China’s foreign ministry described the United States’ return to the Paris agreement as less an act of global leadership than of a “truant getting back to class.” Kerry called that statement “not particularly conducive,” which is true—but the statement was also true. And we can be grateful that Biden has begun to move on the task of reducing the size of our vast mass-incarceration system, which disproportionately houses racial minorities, and of redressing the inequalities of our criminal-justice system, but they will long stand as a rebuke to any American ideas of moral leadership.

Still, we have to do something—isn’t that the lesson of the twentieth century? Some have proposed ways around this conundrum—maybe, in addition to Kerry-style “climate diplomacy,” the U.S. should start figuring out how to impose a border tax on carbon, a tariff on the fossil fuel used to manufacture China’s products that could force that nation to cut its emissions if it wants to keep trading with us. (The E.U. will likely propose something similar, later this year, for its dealings with the rest of the world—it’s tired of watching its global-warming policies send manufacturing abroad.) “A coordinated system would make carbon-intensive Chinese goods less competitive and reduce the disadvantages that manufacturers in the United States face from coal-fired Chinese competitors. But more important, it would force China to take decarbonization seriously,” Andrew S. Erickson, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, and Gabriel Collins, of Rice University’s Baker Institute, write in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

The easiest path would be to rest our hopes on internal dissent. Consider Russia: in a slightly lower key, we face the same challenge with Russia as we do with China. On a range of issues, including climate, we need some kind of relationship with President Vladimir Putin, despite the fact that his secret police poisoned his main political opponent and, in the process, undercut the democratic dreams of much of his population. But, as a recent essay in The Nation insists, there remains enough opposition inside Russia to at least complicate Putin’s life and restrain him to some extent. That seems less true in China, where control of the population seems to have gone deeper—and where any effort by outside governments to prod for change becomes an affront to the nationalism that Beijing uses to deepen that control. So another possibility is for the global movement for climate justice to push, simultaneously, for other kinds of justice. Boycotts of the scale required to actually pressure a nation as large as China are excruciatingly hard to pull off, but the pressure on corporations such as Nike and Adidas to avoid benefitting from forced labor in Xinjiang at least points to a route forward.

We need to do something. Over the past few years, the environmental movement has transformed itself into the environmental-justice movement, understanding that taking seriously the concerns of our most vulnerable populations makes society-wide action more likely; it was no surprise to see environmental groups heavily involved in the protests following the murder of George Floyd, for instance. It’s nowhere near good enough to run an oppressive society on solar panels. If that’s true in Minneapolis, it’s true in Xinjiang, as well. The fight for a workable future, which is what we talk about when we talk about climate, is fundamentally a moral fight—we’re sticking up for people who haven’t been born yet. That cannot be done at the peril of people who are presently alive.

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