Global warming does not worry China, a fact that partially accounts for Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s shabby treatment of President Obama at the Copenhagen climate conference last month.
In an opinion column in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, one insider was quoted as saying, “The truth is this: China wrecked the [Copenhagen] talks; intentionally humiliated Barack Obama; and insisted on an awful ‘deal’ so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame.”
Mr. Obama would have seen it coming if his intelligence briefers had read the Chinese newspapers. After all, details of China’s harsh negotiating stance on climate change were published on the front page of Beijing’s Science Times on Sept. 7, 2009, in a lengthy article by China’s top expert in paleoclimatology, Ding Zhongli.
The article was significant not only because Mr. Ding is China’s most prestigious geophysicist, but also because he is vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a post that makes him the final word on climate science for the Chinese Communist Party. Mr. Ding’s views substantially shaped China’s policies at the conference.
American politicians would be wise to remember that, while there may be a “robust” (but not unanimous) consensus among American scientists that human-source carbon dioxide emissions are the major cause of global warming, there is no such view in China. Indeed, so far as Mr. Ding is aware, “the idea that there is a significant correlation between temperature increases and concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide lacks reliable evidence in science.” Instead, Mr. Ding avers, “if it is just as geophysicists believe: global temperature change is related to solar activity … then human activity is not the only cause.”
So why the controversy? Last August, Mr. Ding published a study of historical carbon emission statistics from various nations around the world and drew this unremarkable correlation: the more energy a nation generated by burning fossil fuels, the more rapidly its economy grew. Being a politician as well as a scientist — he is vice chairman of the communist-run Democratic Alliance — he grasped its propaganda value.
Mr. Ding now purports to be upset that “developed nations” of the West, after emitting carbon gases into the atmosphere for over a century, suddenly insist that poor “developing” nations — including China — now share the burden of mitigating “predicted dire consequences” of global warming. He deduces that the secret motive for the climate controversy among the Western powers “is to restrain the growth of the developing nations and to preserve their own preferential position.”
Science Times opined: “Data calculated and provided by Mr. Ding’s Research Task Force lets us see quite clearly the hidden murderous intentions of some countries.”
At the negotiating table in Copenhagen, Science Times concluded, China must go on the offensive against those countries to protect its “right to develop.”
China’s negotiating strategy, explained Science Times, is based firmly on two key concepts: “per capita emissions” within an “historical context.” That is, each Chinese citizen has the right to generate carbon emissions equal to any other single person on the planet; and those emissions must be considered over the historical timeline of 1900-2050, with national emission quotas calculated only on the basis of accumulated per capita carbon generation from 1900 to 2005.
This was precisely China’s position at Copenhagen: China demanded that the United States, Europe and Japan cut carbon emissions immediately and continue reductions over the next 40 years, while China — and any other “developing” country — may continue to increase emissions until such time as they reach the total 150-year “per capita aggregate” that the Western citizens — both dead and alive — have enjoyed thus far.
All this illuminates the broader propaganda and competitive trade aspects of China’s climate change strategy. Given the deep skepticism of the Chinese Academy of Science’s top climatologist and the prominence accorded his views in the Academy’s publications, it is clear that no one in the Chinese Politburo is truly anxious about the climatic consequences of global warming.
This is not to say China intends to ignore the issue. Far from it. China intends to keep on gaming the Kyoto Protocol’s “Clean Development Mechanism” (CDM) scheme under which the wealthy nations pay the “developing” nations, including China, for reductions in predicted growth of carbon emissions. China is already the biggest beneficiary of the CDM’s carbon credits. Yet Beijing is adamant that the developed countries refrain from “carbon taxes” on their imports of China’s “high-carbon” manufactured goods.
The Chinese government is also eager to dominate world markets for alternative energy technologies like wind power, solar panels and high-power batteries by subsidizing Chinese factories that are in competition with German, Japanese, Spanish and American producers. And at Copenhagen, the United States apparently agreed to help raise $100 billion over the next decade to help “developing countries” — apparently including China — in their “common but differentiated responsibilities” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Mr. Obama’s hearty embrace of China’s transparently meaningless “commitment” to reduce its “carbon intensity” by the year 2020 is a leading indicator of the administration’s willingness to play along with China’s nonsense. “Carbon intensity” is, after all, the proportion of carbon emissions per unit of GDP, and if China’s GDP continues to grow as it has for the past 30 years — in double digits — China’s absolute carbon emissions will grow dramatically. China wins either way. If global warming becomes catastrophic by 2050, China will have continued its economic development unabated and will blame the West; if global warming turns out not so bad, China’s competitors in the West will have hobbled themselves irreparably. For these reasons, it is easy to discern China’s fingerprints all over the international climate change fiasco.
• John J. Tkacik Jr., a retired Foreign Service officer, was chief of China analysis in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research during the Clinton administration.