Can America prevent a global warming cold war?

At the 11th hour of climate negotiations in Scotland last week, the U.S. and China released a “Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s” outlining increased cooperation on a wide range of climate and clean energy topics. The communique’s careful language was redolent of Cold War détente documents, increasing a sense that climate change bargaining with China, Russia and other adversaries is becoming like Cold War nuclear nonproliferation negotiations: failure could be catastrophic, so enhanced cooperation is crucial, but often slow-going.

Yet, the climate crisis doesn’t permit the luxury of time. Leading science finds that to limit devastating near-term climate impacts, and reduce risks of runaway warming, China especially must cut its emissions as soon as possible this decade, not just in the long-term.  So far, however, despite the new declaration, and climate discussions this week between President Joe BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has made no such commitment. In fact, Chinese coal use just reached an all-time high.

This has not gone unnoticed at the White House. At the beginning of the Glasgow talks, Biden himself expressed frustration at the lack of engagement from leading autocracies.  “The disappointment relates to the fact that Russia, not only Russia but China, basically didn’t show up in terms of any commitments to deal with climate change,” Biden said.  “It’s going to require us to continue to focus on what China’s not doing what Russia is not doing or what Saudi Arabia is not doing.”  Former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPolitics must accept the reality of multiracial America and disavow racial backlash To empower parents, reinvent schools Senate race in Ohio poses crucial test for Democrats MORE also criticized China and Russia for their “dangerous lack of urgency.”  

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At the same time, most democratic nations — the U.S., EU countries and others — have not only committed to deeply cut their greenhouse emissions, they have actually begun to enact policies to decarbonize their economies.  Even as the Glasgow climate conference was underway, Congress passed and Biden just signed an infrastructure bill containing about $230 billion in clean energy and climate funding, nearly three times the climate heft of Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan.  Democrats also still hope to pass an additional $550 billion clean energy and climate package as part of reconciliation legislation, attempting to fulfill Biden’s commitment to reduce U.S. emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. 

The European Union has committed to even deeper emissions reductions, 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and has enacted a nearly $1 trillion “Green Deal” EU clean energy plan.  Leading democracies from Japan to Canada to the UK have made similar emissions reduction commitments and begun to take many policy actions. 

Notably missing, however, is anything close to commensurate climate action by the world’s major autocratic countries. China is the world’s largest annual greenhouse gas emitter with 28 percent of the global total, an amount twice the U.S. and indeed greater than all developed nations combined. China’s continued emissions growth is effectively preventing a bending down of the global emissions curve needed to keep warming not only under 1.5 degrees Celsius, but even the far riskier goal of 2 degrees, the very goals leaders pledged to meet in Glasgow.  

Likewise Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and other autocratic nations with large emissions have done little or nothing to limit them. A visit to Moscow by Special Presidential Climate Envoy John KerryJohn KerryKerry calls out countries that need to 'step up' on climate change Those on the front lines of climate change should be empowered to be central to its solution To address China's coal emissions, the US could use a little help from its friends MORE earlier this year has yet to spur Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinOvernight Defense & National Security — Quick vote on defense bill blocked again Kremlin claims Ukraine may try to win back rebel-controlled regions by force Blinken threatens coordinated sanctions on Russia over Ukraine MORE’s regime to any serious climate efforts, despite Russia being the world’s fifth largest emitter. And recent investigations find Russia is the world’s largest emitter of methane, a powerful climate pollutant that Biden has made a top domestic and global priority, and which over 100 nations (but not China and Russia) have pledged to reduce.

This glaring geopolitical disparity in climate action between democracies and dictatorships is occurring even as climate protection is becoming a premier global security issue. Just last month a major Pentagon, White House and U.S. intelligence agency report found that left unchecked climate change could destabilize whole populations, economies and nations. No wonder Biden has increasingly put more international responsibility for climate change within the National Security Council, on which Kerry now has a permanent seat. 

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All this suggests that the U.S. and its allies need to reconceive the climate problem in clearer geopolitical terms. Inaction by a few major nations — China, Russia, Iran, India, Brazil and Saudi Arabia in particular — can effectively prevent solutions. More positively, since nearly 80 percent of global emissions are from the G-20 countries, action by all of the largest nations can set the stage for success.

In previous political eras, such realizations on climate inaction by autocrats would incubate the kind of bipartisan unified U.S. response that emerged during the Cold War, with Democrats and Republicans as roughly equal partners. But the radicalization of the Republican Party on climate, including under the sway of former President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBaldwin calls Trump criticism following 'Rust' shooting 'surreal' Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mary Trump files to dismiss Trump's lawsuit over NYT tax story MORE, has limited such bipartisanship. 

Still, in recent months, as devastating domestic climate impacts have mounted, there have been at least nascent signs of a climate rethink by some Republicans, especially when the issue is framed in the context of geopolitical competitiveness. During the lame duck session after the 2020 election, Republicans in Congress helped pass legislation to cut the emissions of HFCs, a super climate pollutant, and 19 Republican senators backed Biden’s infrastructure bill. But perhaps most telling, this year a $250 billion bill aimed at innovating American energy and other technology to compete with China passed the Senate on a bipartisan basis with 68 votes.

Trade policy may be another potential avenue of American leverage. As the U.S. decarbonizes, enacting “carbon tariffs” on imports from nations like China whose goods are more carbon intensive than U.S. products is proving conceptually popular in both parties. Biden included this possibility in his campaign climate platform, and allies like Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsHouse passes bill to expedite financial disclosures from judges Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Dems seek to preserve climate provisions Democrats wrangle to keep climate priorities in spending bill  MORE (D-Del.) have proposed carbon tariff legislation as have some Republicans. Yet, while the threat or actual adoption of trade sanctions could in time force emissions action by China and others, such efforts will likely be slow, may face World Trade Organization hurdles, and could backfire by undermining more immediate cooperation.

A climate détente involving mutual emissions reductions by the U.S., China, Russia and other autocracies may still be possible, as the U.S.-China declaration envisions, but right now it’s long way off.  Instead, we are on the precipice of a global warming cold war. The question is: will democracies exert the needed pressure on the world’s dictatorships to compel rapid climate action, before it’s too late?  If not, the hard-earned climate progress democratic nations are making will not be nearly enough to protect the fragile climate we all share.

Paul Bledsoe is a strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute and a professorial lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy. He served on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMaxwell accuser testifies the British socialite was present when Epstein abuse occurred Epstein pilot testifies Maxwell was 'number two' in operation Federal judge changes his mind about stepping down, eliminating vacancy for Biden to fill MORE.