Last time I was in China, in 2019, I met an entrepreneur named Gao Jifan, who told me a story I was reflecting on during President Biden’s climate summit this week.
In the 1990s, Gao received a letter from an old friend who lived in the United States. The letter included a photo cropped from a newspaper showing President Bill Clinton announcing a plan to equip one million homes with solar power.
“It was like a light bulb,” Gao recalled as we sat in his office in Changzhou, about 100 miles northwest of Shanghai. Clinton’s initiative led Gao – a chemist by training – to think he would have to start a company to meet the impending demand for solar equipment. That company, Trina Solar, has since made Gao a billionaire.
For inspiration, Gao is grateful to the United States, but is also confused by the American approach to climate change.
“There is a really conflicting policy,” he said. He rattled off the names of recent presidents – Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump – and waved his hand back and forth to describe the stark political shifts from one to the other. These changes, he added, have damaged the solar industry and other clean energy efforts: if the United States takes a more coherent approach, the global fight to slow climate change would be easier.
A ‘lost four years’
Many Americans have come to believe a different story, namely that US climate policy doesn’t really matter much compared to the actions of China, India, and other countries that account for a growing share of emissions. As some Republicans in Congress asked this week, why should the US take action to slow climate change unless other countries do it first?
But this view is not consistent with history, nor with the recent history of climate diplomacy, nor with the broader history of American influence.
“There aren’t many other areas of politics where we say, ‘Why don’t we let everyone else lead and we’ll follow?'” As Nathaniel Keohane of the Environmental Defense Fund puts it. The United States, despite all its problems, remains the most powerful country in the world. When it wants to influence the policies of other countries, it often can, especially when those countries see change as in their best interest.
Climate is just such a problem. Leaders in many other countries understand that climate change and extreme weather conditions can cause them problems. Leaders also see clean energy as a growing sector and want their companies to be leaders.
The United States cannot simply dictate the terms. Both China and India, for example, will continue to depend on coal more than Biden administration officials want. But the United States can often have an effect. In fact, compared to many other issues, climate diplomacy is sometimes simpler: President Xi Jinping has largely rejected US pleas on Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea, but has been willing to address climate change.
President Barack Obama and Xi have come up with multiple deals involving both countries moving to reduce emissions. They started small, with the relatively narrow topic of refrigerants, and they have expanded from there. As my colleague Brad Plumer puts it, “There is a reasonable argument that the joint agreement of the Obama administration and China on climate change in 2014 helped set the table for the Paris climate agreement.”
Central to these efforts has been the willingness of the United States to act at home – it is much easier to accept to take economic risks when your main global competitor does the same. And the United States still leads the world in per capita emissions, about 75% above China, according to recent numbers.
The Trump administration has slowed global efforts on climate change by dismissing it as a threat and allowing for more pollution at home. Last week, a Chinese official mocked the United States for “the four years lost”. The Biden administration is now trying to reverse course, with an emissions reduction target that is larger than many supporters expected.
The cynical view – that the United States can only follow, not lead, on climate policy – is backward. As Gao told me, one of the biggest obstacles to progress on climate change has been the lack of consistent American leadership.
More on the climate:
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Modern love: His mind could rationalize polyamory, but his heart rebelled.
Lives lived: Gregory Edward Jacobs, known as Shock G, was the frontman of Digital Underground, a hip-hop group that had a string of hits in the early 1990s and introduced their audience to Tupac Shakur. Shock G died at 57.
ARTS AND IDEAS
It’s time for the Oscars
After an awards season of largely virtual events, the Academy Awards return this Sunday, with a red carpet and an in-person ceremony. Here’s what to watch for:
More diversity. This year’s Oscar nominations are the most diverse of all, with 70 women nominated in 23 categories and nearly half of the acting nominations go to people of color.
A historic best director? Chloé Zhao – the front-runner, who directed “Nomadland” – would be the first black woman to win, as well as the second woman ever. (The first was Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” in 2010.)
A posthumous honor? Chadwick Boseman, who passed away last year, is in the running for best actor for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. In a roundup of predictions, The Times’ Kyle Buchanan writes, “It’s hard to imagine voters won’t take their only opportunity to give Boseman one for a flashy role that showcased the late actor’s immense range.”
A close race for the best actress. Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”) and Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”) are the top contenders.
Watch some of the nominated movies using this streaming guide. And test your knowledge of the Oscars or fill out a 2021 nerd.