The perils of a bipolar planet

The perils of a bipolar planet

In November 2014, Presidents Obama and Xi stood up in Beijing and declared to the world their intent to take on responsibility for their nations’ part in the climate crisis. The words flowed easily; after all, such an agreement – in Chinese parlance – constituted a win-win for both sides, but also for universal humanity. 

From the outset, however, there were a number of problems with this initiative that have been largely overlooked. First, the topic of climate was selected because, in the thinking of both governments, it constituted a low-friction area where the two nations could demonstrate cooperation. Second, the way they went about the announcement indicated to the world that a new era of bipolarity had already begun. It might be useful to remember that both the US and China had in the past taken reactionary positions opposing a climate deal, especially one that might be legally binding. Yet the two leaders were unabashed in declaring their intention to lead the world down a new green path. 

For the Obama administration, which only became vocal about the climate crisis during its second term, this offered an opportunity to drive consensus at home even though the climate crisis is deeply politicized. Obama’s hope was that he could exercise global leadership and engage with the People’s Republic of China even while the US had pivoted toward Asia out of growing concern with the PRC’s spectacular rise and growing economic and political influence. This arrangement presented a golden, though myopic, opportunity for China as well. Xi Jinping could now “officially” declare domestically and globally that the new superpowers were the US and China. He could also demonstrate that the PRC was leading by example, especially in light of the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 which constitutes China’s singular vision for the growth of the developing world. 

Still, the joint US-China announcement was shortsighted and short-lasting. After the election of Donald Trump, the US announced its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and moved from engagement to pivot to what is now an outspoken antagonism toward China. More importantly, it had been the wrong message to send to the world, because the climate crisis demands more multilateral collaboration and not a divided planet where cooperation is an afterthought aspiring to modest progress on specialized problems. Failing to acknowledge the work of other parties in the success of the Paris climate deal and especially that of the European Union was both gauche and telling for what a model of climate action relying on US-China leadership might mean for the rest of the global community. 

In an ironic twist of events that often accompany these kinds of messianic pronouncements, the bold declarations of 2014 ended up in the dustbin of history. Today, a new election is under way in the United States and the results at the ballot box will produce starkly different outcomes for climate and global cooperation. 

For those in the United States who yearn for a set of policies that effectively address the climate crisis, the Democratic ticket’s assurance that the US will rejoin the Paris Agreement and that some form of a Green New Deal will be in the cards brings glimmers of hope for a future that otherwise looks increasingly unstable. Forest fires, extreme weather events, Covid and accelerating biodiversity loss are all clear indicators that the balance has tipped dangerously against the climate we have known and under which we have thrived. 

No doubt a United States engaged in climate policy formulation would be welcome globally. Nonetheless, a timely word of caution is in order in the event that Joe Biden is elected. Under no circumstance should he be tempted to use climate as a photo op to stand together with Xi Jinping on an international podium in order to de-escalate current tensions with the PRC. The climate crisis is not a soft issue, it is in fact the most serious challenge for the global collective, and cannot be used as fodder for geopolitical competition. It does not constitute a peripheral issue to economic and normative differences. It should be at the heart of what informs how our world should operate moving forward. And, moreover, the climate crisis requires multilateralism on steroids and not a demonstration of bipolar competition. 

I have in the past argued that the European Union should be working closely with China to help developing countries grow and pursue their development goals while fulfilling their nationally determined contributions. For better or for worse, it is Europe and China that have cultivated the most significant, long-lasting and dynamic ties to the developing world. The two actors are already in an institutionalized dialogue that has produced many positive results on climate and other major issues. They have also been major advocates for multilateralism. If the United States returns to the climate table, it would need to first re-engage with its allies and partners that it has forsaken for quite some time, and subsequently engage with its adversaries if it holds any ambitions in helping to construct a global strategy that responds to the climate crisis. While technological fixes and a dramatic change in the energy mix are part of the solution, the problem remains complex and multifaceted, ultimately requiring both a far-reaching political and economic transformation of the existing global system. 

The climate crisis is too far gone for new photo ops and piecemeal approaches to offset the damage already done. My hope is that in the new year, after the dust has settled one way (and presumably not another), the major powers will see the climate crisis for what it is: an opportunity to work together and lead by example in a world that no longer has the luxury to act as if the planetary crisis is not a peril to everyone.

Sophia Kalantzakos is Global Distinguished Professor in Environmental Studies and Public Policy at New York University and currently a long-term affiliate at NYU Abu Dhabi.

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