Climate War Games

Tackling climate change will require the U.S. and China to move beyond their historic impasse on reducing emissions, explain Hachigian and Sussman.

Chinese girls bike through Tianamen Square in Beijing. Pollution in the city will be an issue during the upcoming Olympics, despite Chinese efforts to improve air quality in the weeks leading up to the games. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Chinese girls bike through Tianamen Square in Beijing. Pollution in the city will be an issue during the upcoming Olympics, despite Chinese efforts to improve air quality in the weeks leading up to the games. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The year is 2015. Worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases have soared even though in 2009 the newly elected president of the United States began to take radical steps to reduce U.S. greenhouse gases and persuaded America to join the international community in signing a new climate agreement in Copenhagen.

But now, with global warming posing a greater threat than even the worst doomsayers had predicted—desertification moving apace in Asia, Africa, and the U.S. Southwest; coastal flooding and increasingly intense typhoons and hurricanes wreaking havoc in the tropics; and rising numbers of “climate refugees” in the developing world—the UN secretary general calls a meeting of the United States, the European Union, China, and India, the world’s largest economies, to forge another deal to reduce emissions even further.

And what happens? Nothing. Why? Because China and the United States (along with India and the EU) cannot reach agreement on emissions targets for China.

At least that’s how it turned out in a climate war game sponsored by the Center for New American Security and the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. last week. Whether or not the war game outcome might one day resemble reality, it serves as a sobering reminder of the challenges we face as we head into an intense year of climate negotiations leading up to the international climate conference in Copenhagen in late 2009.

An important lesson learned, or confirmed, is that the United States and China are now the indispensable countries in forging a global climate change agreement and must come together for any viable solution. A related lesson is that the barriers to forming a common understanding now are huge and will be difficult to overcome. Both countries worry about giving up more too much and making a deal that crimps their own economic growth. Both are suspicious of each other and resist accountability for the rise in greenhouse emissions, even while their scientists warn of the threat of rising global temperatures.

The United States claims that because China is now the world’s largest emitter and an emerging economic powerhouse, it must shoulder a major burden in reducing emissions. China argues that, in comparison with the United States, it is a relatively poor country with much lower emissions per capita. China notes that the bulk of the greenhouse gas buildup in the atmosphere is the result of heavy fossil fuel use in the developed world over many decades, and that the contribution of the developing world to cumulative greenhouse gases is small.

While neither of these perspectives is wrong, they run the risk of undercutting any hope of progress in forging a new climate framework. So how can we avoid a tragic impasse in real-life global climate negotiations resulting from U.S. and Chinese finger-pointing and misunderstanding? Here are some dynamics that, if they come to pass, can lead us to climate salvation.

The United States acts

Right now, we can only pretend that the United States will show the leadership that is desperately needed on the climate crisis. The Bush administration spent the last eight years blocking progress and driving deep wedges between America and our more progressive partners in the EU. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy remains wedded to fossil fuels and the inefficient consumption of energy. It’s no wonder that China and India feel no need to compromise when U.S. leaders remain so intractable.

Because the United States is the world’s largest economy, was the number one emitter of carbon for decades, and is still much more affluent than developing countries, Washington must take the global initiative. If America commits to reduce its emissions by 80 percent by 2050 under a mandatory carbon cap-and-trade system and transform its economy to reach that goal, the political dynamics around international negotiations can shift so dramatically that they are nearly impossible to imagine today.

China acts

As is happening in America each day, more and more Chinese people and leaders are beginning to understand the implications of climate change, particularly as they see and feel the evidence before their very eyes. The consequences to China could be devastating. China’s heavily populated coastal areas could be inundated by rising sea water, overcome by heat waves, and battered by tropical storms. Drought and desertification could increase elsewhere in China, causing water shortages and reducing food production.

Moreover, as its leaders well know, to sustain its economic growth over the long run in light of constrained energy supplies and higher fuel prices, China will need to become much more energy efficient. The consequences of environmental degradation and rising energy costs are already harming the Chinese economy, not to mention its quality of life. For their nation’s own well-being and economic self-interest, China will benefit by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

Both China and the United States act

Both the United States and China recognize that clean energy technologies can help them tackle the effects of global warming. For the Chinese, advanced, low-carbon energy technologies such as carbon capture-and-storage systems can help the country continue to tap its vast coal reserves. This is true as well in the United States.

Both countries also import lots of foreign oil. Working together to produce more fuel-efficient and climate-friendly vehicles, increasing production of biofuels, and expanding mass transportation systems would reduce their dependence on increasingly scarce fossil fuels and reduce the costs of energy.

What’s more, China does not want to be an outlier in the international community. The Beijing Olympics are such a big deal to them exactly because it puts them at the very center of the globe—where many Chinese feel they deserve to be. So if everyone else, even the Indians (as happened in the climate war game) and other developing countries, lined up against them, they would be hard-pressed to resist.

The future, of course, is more complex and unknowable than any game could ever predict. The China of 2015 could look a lot like the China of today, or very, very different. Perhaps a worldly, socially conscious elite will rise and make global warming their cause. Perhaps China’s next leaders will be exposed to this issue so often in international forums that they will accept China’s responsibility to act.

Or perhaps rising oil prices and the severe environmental harm and pollution caused by heavy reliance on coal will persuade Chinese technocrats that its current energy system is unsustainable. At long last, that’s what’s happening in the United States this election year, suggesting that by 2015 America will be well on the road to a low-carbon economy.

President Bush will be in Beijing in a few days, basking in the likely haze. Too bad he won’t be thinking about or mentioning any of this.

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. She is the lead co-author of a major report the Center will publish on China next week. Robert Sussman is a Senior Fellow at the Center and contributed the chapter of the report on energy and climate change. The new report will appear on the National Security page of the Center’s website.

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Nina Hachigian

Senior Fellow