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The Tribalist Threat to Climate Action

The rise of tribalism is threatening to lead the world to a future of great-power conflict and runaway climate change. The only way to mitigate this risk is to negotiate a new social contract that addresses inequality head-on.

HONG KONG – Two global struggles – Cold War II and the fight against climate change – are colliding. By agreeing to hold a virtual summit before the end of this year, US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have signaled that they want to prevent relations from deteriorating to the point that miscalculation could lead to armed conflict – a risk that recent tensions in the Taiwan Strait have highlighted. But Biden and Xi must also ensure that their great-power competition does not hamper cooperation on the existential threat of climate change.

The upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow represents a major opportunity for the United States and China to show their commitment to confronting that threat. There is reason for hope. Since 2015, when COP21 delivered the Paris climate agreement, the dangers of global warming have become impossible to ignore, owing to five of the hottest years on record.

Moreover, both the US and China have set ambitious climate goals. Even the corporate sector seems to have woken up to the risks of inaction – and to the opportunities the green transition represents. China alone may have to spend up to $47 trillion to reach its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2060. That is a lot of investment that could be directed toward companies that deliver innovative solutions.