(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

No climate talk at Mar-a-Lago: China's president outshines Trump as the world's future energy leader

Failure by the two presidents to discuss climate change leaves China ahead, based on actions if not words


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David Biello
April 12, 2017 11:58AM (UTC)
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific American Much of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago country club in Palm Beach, Fla., sits less than two meters above the Atlantic Ocean, meaning big parts of the resort could rest beneath the waves by the end of this century as seas rise in response to global warming. Already nearby communities like Miami Beach are flooded even when the sun shines, as higher seas push water up and out of the porous limestone underneath the ground in southern Florida.

China is no better off, with cities from Hong Kong to Shanghai at increasing risk of inundation. Other threats such as extreme weather, farms turned to desert and choking smog are all exacerbated by climate change that results from rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air. Even China’s efforts to combat those rising concentrations — in part by switching from burning coal to capturing the power latent in rivers like the Yangtze — falter in the face of global warming, as a result of less water in those rivers due to drought and the dwindling glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau.

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But all that seems to exist in an alternate universe where facts matter, because Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping apparently ignored climate change at their inaugural meeting last week. Although the two leaders apparently found time to discuss everything from North Korea’s nuclear capability to a potential reset of trade relations, climate change was never mentioned, even though Trump might have wanted to take the opportunity to directly fact check his tweet from last year that China invented climate change to cripple U.S. manufacturing.

The silence was not a surprise, however, even if the focus of the summit was meant to be “global challenges around the world.” As Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. State Department, predicted, “I don’t think that [climate change is] going to be a major part of the discussion in Florida.”

That’s too bad, because China and the United States remain the two biggest polluters when it comes to greenhouse gases. Cooperation on climate change provided a rare area of agreement between China and the United States during the Obama administration. And it was in large part due to the efforts of China and the United States that the nations of the world agreed to combat climate change in Paris in 2015.

It is also too bad for the United States — because, ironically, the silence leaves China as the world’s future energy leader. As many see the Trump regime abandoning U.S. leadership in the fight to restrain global warming, China seems willing to step up, at least in rhetoric. “What should concern us is refusing to face up to problems and not knowing what to do about them,” Xi said in a speech to the World Economic Forum in January. “The Paris Agreement is a hard-won achievement which is in keeping with the underlying trend of global development. All signatories should stick to it instead of walking away from it, as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations.”

At the same time, the Chinese have taken the lead in producing clean energy — from topping the world in the production and installation of solar power to building an entire new series of nuclear power plants, making use of the latest technology. Trump’s avoidance of the climate change problem could leave U.S. industry at a competitive disadvantage.

Even the fossil fuel industry in the United States is worried, and urging Trump to remain in the Paris agreement. So are a host of scientists, businesses and even his own secretary of state. Notably, some coal executives are also on board. “Remain in the Paris agreement,” urged Colin Marshall, CEO of coal producer Cloud Peak Energy, in a letter to Trump on April 6. “Technology currently exists that can address climate concerns while allowing us to benefit from reliable, abundant natural resources like coal.”

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But Trump has already signed an executive order forcing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw the Clean Power Plan, which would have cut pollution from power plants. He is rolling back other federal efforts to combat climate change, such as reducing methane pollution from oil and gas pipelines as well as promoting a budget that could eliminate funding for clean energy research. All of which undercuts any serious effort to meet the U.S. commitment under the Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Xi’s China, by contrast, plans to implement a national cap-and-trade system to reduce CO2 pollution this year. And there are already signs that decades-long growth in China’s coal burning has slowed or even stopped, potentially fulfilling the country’s Paris pledge to reach a peak in its pollution by 2030. This change of course is not just aimed at fending off climate change but also at reducing unhealthy air pollution that even government leaders in Beijing cannot avoid breathing.

It remains unclear whether the United States and China will continue cooperating to develop the technology that Cloud Peak’s CEO mentioned, known as carbon capture and storage, which might reduce or even eliminate CO2 pollution. Given those prospects, and the Trump administration’s likely lack of action, perhaps in the future China will cooperate with the European Union — which also has a cap-and-trade carbon market — to impose carbon tariffs on U.S. goods produced from an economy that has no constraints on such global warming pollution.

Nowhere remains safe from climate change. The United States is already feeling the effects, such as weird weather upsetting the plans of American farmers. Those effects will only get worse if nothing is done to stop dumping CO2 into the sky, much less to begin to reduce concentrations that have now reached more than 400 parts per million in the air — higher than that breathed by any members of our fellow Homo sapiens in the last 200,000 years. The global warming challenge is also intimately connected to the global challenges of feeding more than seven billion people, providing drinkable water as supplies dwindle and supplying electricity to billions of people who still do not have it. None of these challenges can be solved in isolation but rather require solutions like clean energy supergrids and microgrids that address energy poverty and reduce climate change pollution at the same time.

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This also holds true even for the items that were on the U.S.-China agenda at Mar-a-Lago, such as the future of war-torn Syria after Trump ordered a cruise missile strike in response to that nation’s use of chemical weapons in its civil war. A shortage of water and food in Syria helped start the horrendous conflict there, forcing refugees to flee the war and the nation — in other words, a deadly fight and flight exacerbated by climate change. The conflict in Syria may serve as a warning from a future in which Trump continues to deny the facts about global warming.


David Biello

MORE FROM David Biello

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Donald Trump Mar-a-lago Nuclear Weapons Scientific American Xi Jinping

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