Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:52 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:52 | SYDNEY

Clinton in China: Climate change goes mainstream

24 February 2009 14:29

Fergus Green is a lawyer and former Lowy Institute intern. He has worked on Sino-US relations at CSIS and as a research analyst at an energy and resources consultancy.

During last year’s US presidential campaign, I argued that, based on the candidates’ respective policy statements toward China, an Obama Administration would be better placed to engage China effectively on emissions reduction measures. But in light of the sheer number of political, security and economic issues that traditionally preoccupy relations between the two powerful nations, I feared climate change could become crowded out of the bilateral agenda.

So I have been encouraged by Secretary of State Clinton's prioritisation of climate change during her recent visit to Beijing. 

In remarks prior to her East Asia trip, Secretary Clinton signalled her intention not only to raise climate change with China’s leaders, but to make it a centrepiece of the Obama Administration’s efforts to cooperate with Beijing. Secretary Clinton candidly revealed that traditional areas of US concern such as human rights and Tibet would be de-emphasised so as not to detract from cooperation on climate change, the global financial crisis and shared security challenges such as North Korea.

During her visit, Clinton was as good as her word. Regarding climate change, discussions focused on ways to expand bilateral cooperation to develop and deploy clean energy technology, particularly in renewable energy, carbon capture and storage and energy efficiency in buildings.

In her meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, the parties agreed in principle to establish a broad 'strategic and economic dialogue' to be chaired jointly by Secretary Clinton and US Treasury Secretary Geithner, in which such climate-related cooperation will be a central theme.  

Accompanied by new US Climate Change Envoy Todd Stern, Clinton visited an efficient, gas-fired power plant built with US technology to highlight the potential for deeper cooperation in these areas, and later participated in an online discussion on the topic hosted by the China Daily. Clinton was keen to stress that expanded cooperation must be at all levels of government, business, academia and society.

Clinton’s visit reveals a number of things about how the Obama Administration intends to approach climate change.

Most importantly, the prioritisation of climate change underscores the seriousness and urgency with which the Obama Administration intends to address this challenge. The fact that climate change was one of only three agenda items raised by Secretary Clinton with Chinese leaders on her first visit to Beijing during her first overseas tour marks the long-awaited emergence of climate mitigation – hitherto largely pigeon-holed as an (inferior) 'environmental' issue – as a mainstream focus of US diplomacy.

As befits this newfound emphasis, Secretary Clinton also accepted that the US, as the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, must cut its own emissions if emerging economies like China are to make valuable, if not equal, contributions. We’re still waiting for substantial action on the part of the US, but at least the Administration’s rhetoric has moved beyond the finger-pointing that has characterised much of the debate on both sides of the Pacific.

The subjects of Clinton’s climate discussions with the Chinese also reveal something of the specific policy focus of the Obama Administration's climate change diplomacy. The focus on energy technology collaboration (as opposed to multilateral negotiating stances, targets and carbon pricing) suggests a flexibility on the part of the Administration regarding the instruments for pursuing mitigation.

One hopes this flexibility reflects a recognition that more nuanced global instruments will be required to supplement the cumbersome UN climate process, and is not an attempt to distract from the hard reality that more fundamental regulatory and social changes are needed in both countries to transform the way energy is produced and consumed.

The climate change focus of Clinton’s visit also provides insights into the influence of certain figures in the Obama Administration. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia & the Pacific Kurt Campbell has led groundbreaking projects analysing the global political and security implications of climate change, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the prioritisation of the issue throughout Clinton’s Asia trip owed much to his influence.

The presence of Climate Envoy Todd Stern on the trip suggests his office will have a high profile. Clinton also explained during her trip that Energy Secretary Dr Steven Chu is keen to explore with the Chinese ways of expanding university-to-university cooperation in developing energy technologies and intellectual property. Prior to his appointment, Dr Chu was involved in the production of a recently released Pew Center/Asia Society Roadmap for accelerated US-China clean energy cooperation, which appears to have helped shape the Administration’s thinking.

Finally, the subjects chosen for discussion, the downgrading of human rights concerns and the general tone of Clinton’s Beijing visit also reveal much about the Obama Administration’s China strategy. Clinton repeatedly emphasised her desire to engage China in developing solutions to the mutual challenges of the 21st century, reflecting a conviction that developing trust through intensive dialogue and practical collaboration will strengthen the relationship, making it easier to address long-standing differences and emerging points of conflict.

Might we be witnessing the ascendancy of a 'the good, the bad and the ugly' strategy – cooperate on the good issues to improve the bad and manage the ugly? As Australians dependent on friendly Sino-US relations for our security and prosperity, a modus vivendi along these lines would be welcome.

Clinton’s climate discussions in Beijing were only small first steps down a long road towards an effective set of solutions to climate change. That road remains littered with a depressingly large array of obstacles. The two countries also need to agree on their obligations under any new post-Kyoto multilateral framework and introduce painful structural reforms to their domestic economies and societies.

But insufficient as they are, the steps taken by Secretary Clinton to engage the world’s largest and fastest growing greenhouse gas emitter are absolutely necessary if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change.

Photo by Flickr user Andreas E J, used under a Creative Commons license.