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The Limits to US-China Climate Cooperation

The world desperately needs the United States and China to collaborate in addressing climate change, but no one should harbor any illusions. The best to be hoped for is that the two superpowers are disciplined enough to avoid endangering humanity’s survival as they jostle for geopolitical advantage.

CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – Despite their increasingly bitter rivalry, the United States and China have recently been sending the right signals regarding potential cooperation on combating climate change. The joint statement issued after the mid-April meeting between John Kerry, US special presidential envoy for climate, and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, indicates that the two governments may be trying to use collaboration on climate policy to prevent their relationship from devolving into outright enmity. But the path ahead is strewn with geopolitical landmines.

It is not difficult to understand why the US and China are behaving responsibly at the moment. Both countries view climate change as an existential threat and have a strong interest in cooperation. And Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping know that open intransigence or obstructionism on this issue would cost them dearly in terms of international public opinion.

During the Cold War, the ideological struggle between communism and capitalism divided the world and cemented alliances. But in the coming decade, ideology alone is unlikely to win the US and China many friends. The Communist Party of China no longer has any real ideology to speak of, while political polarization and Trumpism have tarnished America’s luster. Instead, as climate change puts human survival at risk, leadership in tackling the problem will shape international alliances.

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