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The Planet Can’t Afford a Coronavirus Feud

The United States and China, despite current tensions, have to work together on fighting global warming. It’s the only way.

Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

It could have been an opportunity to set aside differences and work together. Instead, the coronavirus outbreak has further strained relations between the United States and China. In the past few months, the world has been treated to senseless squabbling over xenophobic virus-origin theories, what to call the virus, and which leader’s initially dismissive response to the outbreak was more reckless.

The two states’ inability to join in battle against the coronavirus doesn’t augur particularly well for a future beyond the pandemic. And there will be a future, however great the ravages of the virus. But it will be a future marked by a graver, more enduring crisis—planetary warming. Even more than the emergency we face today, the outcome of the climate crisis will depend on U.S.-Chinese collaboration.

China and the U.S. together are responsible for more than 40 percent of the total emissions of greenhouse gases warming the planet (China 27 percent, the U.S. 15 percent). Alone, either country has the capacity to push global temperatures beyond the catastrophic two degree Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) increase over pre-industrial levels; but neither country alone can keep temperatures from exceeding two degrees Celsius. A U.S.-China partnership that sees the climate crisis as a common enemy, and in which the two countries push and prod each other to take meaningful action against it, is essential if humanity is to avoid the worst of the environmental calamities associated with global warming—including a predicted uptick in epidemics like this one.

In the past few years, disputes over Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, trade, the South China Sea, and now the coronavirus have chilled relations almost to a freezing point. Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the U.S. grows louder with each passing day. But relations between the two great powers weren’t warm in 2014–2015, either. Despite China’s mounting presence in the South China Sea and U.S. accusations of Chinese theft of intellectual property and violation of human rights, Presidents Obama and Xi, sensing some common ground on climate, met face-to-face, first in Beijing in 2014 and then in Washington in 2015, to discuss steps their countries would take to tackle the climate crisis. The cooperation and unexpected progress went a long way in setting the tone that would result in the success of the Paris accord in late 2015.

Today, climate specialists give us the next 10 years to reduce global emissions by at least 45 percent if we are to prevent catastrophic heating. The next U.S. president, consequently, must be prepared to move quickly and aggressively toward decarbonizing the planet. At home, this means pursuing the aspirational goals outlined in the Green New Deal; abroad, it means joining forces and working collaboratively with China—regardless of differences on other policy matters. This prospect is a lot less extreme than some politicians currently make it out to be. The U.S. followed a similar path with the Soviet Union over nuclear proliferation during the Cold War. And in all the recent anti-China clamor here, we’ve paid too little attention to the progressive environmental vision Beijing has been developing.

Given the smog that continues to assail China’s skies, and the country’s unremitting appetite for coal, it’s perhaps understandable that we’ve overlooked the environmental remediation planning going on today in Beijing. But read, for instance, the 20-page program for building an “ecological civilization,” issued in 2015, side by side with the recent House resolution on the Green New Deal. The common ground is stunning. The goals they share include: reducing and eventually eliminating pollution and greenhouse gases; expanding renewable energy resources; upgrading power grids to “smart grid”; requiring all new buildings to meet strict energy-efficient standards; guaranteeing universal access to clean water; promoting organic and sustainable farming; afforesting or reforesting large tracts of land; and developing new-energy vehicles, affordable public transit, and a nationwide network of high-speed rail. If, in the case of China, you think this is just rhetoric, remember that the country currently invests more annually than any other country in renewable energy development, has the world’s most extensive high-speed rail network, is the largest manufacturer of and market for e-vehicles, and in 2019 afforested an additional 6.73 million hectares of land.

Of course, there is much China and the U.S. can and should do on their own. And some competitiveness, in fact, can be a spur to innovation. But there are areas where the urgency and scale of the problem beg for cooperation. Leading scientists from the two countries should be collaborating on how best to suck carbon dioxide out of the air (carbon dioxide removal, or CDR), how to store renewable but intermittent energy like wind and solar affordably and effectively, and how to reform agriculture and ensure the global food supply against severe heat waves and droughts. Energy experts and policymakers from the two countries should be drawing on China’s recent experience in implementing and managing a carbon trading system to deliberate the appropriateness of a global carbon pricing system. And oceanographers, engineers, and economists addressing the vulnerability of coastal cities like New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou should be collaborating on flood-adaptation techniques and technology. The U.S. president—in an act of global leadership—might even propose the establishment of a U.S.-China Climate Change Commission, along the lines of the California-China Climate Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, where climate scientists, researchers, economists, and policymakers from the two countries come together.

Such cooperation might generate some amount of goodwill between the two countries where there’s been so little of late. And perhaps that goodwill would seed collaboration and constructive negotiations in other critical areas. The lesson that the present discord over the coronavirus pandemic teaches us is not that collaborating with China on global warming can’t work. Presidents Obama and Xi showed that it can. It’s rather that, in facing a global crisis like climate change, we are better served by a president who is capable of, and dedicated to, finding common ground with others, whatever the differences separating us may be.