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Will Biden’s China Hawks Destroy His Climate Ambitions?

All executive departments and agencies are now gearing up to fight climate change. But you can’t fight climate change without China.

Antony Blinken speaks as Joe Biden looks on.
Mark Makela/Getty Images
Antony Blinken, Joe Biden's pick for secretary of state

On Tuesday, an otherwise fairly boring confirmation hearing heralded a remarkable victory for climate policy. In response to several questions about climate, 74-year-old former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, now poised to become Joe Biden’s treasury secretary, called climate change an “existential threat” and said she would appoint someone at a “very senior level” to focus on rising temperatures. She pledged, as well, to create a “hub” for examining the risks global warming poses to the financial system. With Inauguration Day looming, few paused to note the importance of this moment: Starting with this administration, the U.S. Treasury Department will help write climate policy.

It won’t be alone. Numerous executive departments are now gearing up to fight climate change. Defense secretary nominee and retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III pledged at his own hearing to appoint specialized climate staff and work to bring down the military’s carbon footprint. Antony Blinken—Biden’s State Department pick—agreed with Senate Democrats Tuesday who peppered him with questions about the need to use the department to take on the climate crisis, which he called an “existential threat.” Biden has pledged he’ll move immediately after his inauguration to revoke the Keystone XL pipeline permit and reenter the Paris climate agreement, as well as prevent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. His administration, at least for now, seems to be sticking with its “all-of-government approach” to climate change. That’s welcome news for the planet. The trouble is that what else that greener government is doing—on foreign policy, especially—could stand in the way.

Biden’s swearing-in may inaugurate a new era of U.S. climate politics. The great hope of many greens through the Trump era was to have something, anything, called climate policy, and get someone who didn’t deny the very reality of climate change into the Oval Office. But with this bare minimum now achieved, there are a lot of different ways to pursue climate policy having as much to do with quality as quantity. And while grafting a climate lens into every agency is clearly an improvement on the last four years, not all forms of that policy help build a more habitable future.

Newly in Democratic control, the U.S. government’s stated climate commitments have begun to loosely resemble those of a center-right Western European government. That is to say, they’re grossly underwhelming considering the pace of change needed and yet more ambitious on the issue than any administration’s in U.S. history. And Tuesday’s confirmation hearings seemed to display a Cabinet where climate change and decarbonization are treated less as political issues than administrative mandates. It’s an attempt, in some sense, to depoliticize climate change, weaving it seamlessly into the ordinary functions of a government and above the messy realm of democratic decision-making. It’s also an attempt to restore a mythical vision of pre-Trump Beltway life, when eager groups of post-partisan, dealmaking technocrats could tackle any problem thrown their way. If some of the substance of that era has changed for the better—the new technocrats are much more concerned about climate and less concerned about the deficit—much of the style remains intact.

To a certain extent, decarbonizing through administrative choices rather than through Congress is a matter of necessity. Every corner of government really does need to be engaged in bringing down emissions. And at least for now, the main opposition party mostly maintains its stance that the planet isn’t warming—at least not enough to warrant any action. Our antebellum electoral system that hands GOP minorities undue power will make translating the administration’s promises into legislation extraordinarily difficult in the short term. Courts stacked with Federalist Society apparatchiks—including the highest one in the land—pose still more barriers, as does the prospect that Democrats may well, per tradition, lose the House as soon as 2022. It’s not nothing to have the leadership of the United States, European Union, and China—the world’s three largest economies—aiming to zero out emissions in the next couple of decades. But it could still easily all add up to a world warmed by well over two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

That’s especially true if those countries can’t work together. And that’s where Biden’s Cabinet picks don’t inspire much confidence, even as they pledge to take climate change seriously. Blinken’s opening statement seemed plucked from the Bush era. “American leadership still matters,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. “The reality is the world simply does not organize itself. When we’re not engaged … one of two things is likely to happen: Either some other country tries to take our place … or maybe just as bad, no one does.”

Blinken was mainly talking about China; he expressed hopes to rally other “similarly aggrieved” nations against the country. “President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China,” he said. “I disagree, very much, with the way that he went about it in a number of areas, but the basic principle was the right one.” When asked about the U.S. making climate finance available to the world, Blinken again routed his concerns back to China. “We want to make sure we’re not doing anything to encourage countries to facilitate dirty technologies around the world, which is something we see from China.” (He didn’t mention the fossil fuel exports Obama’s State Department enthusiastically encouraged through the Global Shale Gas Initiative, or the U.S. Import-Export Bank’s $34 billion worth of support for dirty energy projects during his administration.)

The U.S. relationship with China is probably the most consequential one of the twenty-first century. Strategic cooperation between Washington and Beijing—which recently pledged to go carbon neutral by 2060—is widely seen to have been a necessary precursor to the Paris climate agreement. Yesterday’s hearings seemed to dampen hopes of restoring that particular aspect of the Obama legacy. Ginning up a new great-power conflict with China seems to be a rare source of bipartisan compromise among U.S. politicians, self-conscious about the prospect of U.S. decline on the world stage as it screeches past 400,000 deaths from Covid-19. That bipartisan comity alone could make aggressive posturing toward China a priority for Biden, even as he looks to dial back Trump’s most belligerent rhetoric: leaning into conflict abroad in the name of healing at home.

There are some notable divides within the administration on this. John Kerry—Biden’s climate envoy, housed on the National Security Council—has taken a much less hawkish approach to China, prioritizing collaboration on climate amid tense disagreement on other matters. It’s not a popular view. “I hope you’re never tempted to give in in your strategy with regards to China in order to obtain a climate advantage that Secretary Kerry might be promoting,” Mitt Romney told Blinken with a smile on Tuesday. “Your State Department commitment to confront China, I think, is of great significance and hopefully the priority.”

Like Blinken, Yellen hoped to rally other countries “to take on China’s abusive, unfair and illegal practices,” in contrast to Trump’s unilateral actions. Austin struck a confrontational tone, too: “Clearly the strategy will be arrayed against the threat, and China presents the most significant threat because China is ascending.” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines relayed in her hearing yesterday that Biden sees China as a “global competitor” and, in areas like trade, as an “adversary.”

A Biden administration can productively fight climate change or it can edge toward another Cold War, but probably not both. “The governing elites of the U.S. and China are now trapped in a zero-sum structure of competition,” researchers Jake Werner and Tobita Chow wrote recently. “The longer the limited space in the global economy continues to push the two up against each other, the greater the risk that this ‘competition’ will develop into a spiraling cycle of mutual insecurity and a self-sustaining escalation of nationalist hatred.”

Whether the U.S. warships in the South China Sea run on hydrogen won’t matter for the planet if conflicts there and on other fronts help to make bilateral cooperation on climate impossible. The U.S. doesn’t need to withdraw from all healthy competition on green manufacturing or give the Chinese government a pass on human rights atrocities—including in solar supply chains. But if we’re to avoid a trans-Pacific race to the bottom while decarbonizing, the world’s two biggest polluters do need to work together to raise the global floor on wages, labor, and humanitarian standards as they green their economies. And if its goal really is to decarbonize rapidly, the U.S. will need to import an enormous amount of clean technology from China, developed in part through industrial policy Biden has said he’ll tackle in office. Sharing what works—whether that means battery technology, more sustainable agricultural methods, or the first forms of truly cost-effective carbon sequestration—will be one of the most important principles of international relations going forward. It’s good to get all departments of the executive branch involved in fighting climate change. But to really reap the benefits, those departments’ other priorities shouldn’t be working against that common goal.