Opinion | International

China needs to collaborate, not seek political concessions at Glasgow

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

China has a strange approach to winning global respect as a great power. Its so-called "wolf warrior" diplomats' truculent language about other countries plagiarizes North Korea's invective stylebook. When faced with legal proceedings to extradite a private sector Chinese executive from Canada for trial in the U.S., the Chinese government kidnapped two Canadian businessmen, jailing them on fabricated charges until hours after the case against the Chinese business executive was resolved.

Most recently, as world leaders prepare for COP-26, a major climate change meting and summit in Glasgow, Scotland, starting Nov. 3, the Chinese foreign minister said Chinese cooperation on climate change could not be separated from the "broader relationship" with the U.S. and called on the U.S. to improve relations with China. In other words, forget your concerns about the origins of COVID-19, China's human rights abuses, and its actions in the South China Sea and Hong Kong, if you want China to contribute to fighting climate change.

Some may be tempted by the suggested Chinese quid pro quo. Climate change, after all, is increasingly understood to be an urgent challenge to global security and prosperity. As the largest current emitter of the greenhouse gases driving global warming, China's cooperation is needed to significantly cut these emissions - so why not ignore its violation of accepted norms of international behavior, many of which it has committed to following, to obtain its cooperation in dealing with climate change?

Because, simply put, China is in no position to blackmail the global community on climate change. It is, in fact, more vulnerable to the negative consequences of climate change than many other countries. So collaboration on dealing with climate change is not a favor China may deign to give to others, but is, rather, something China needs - and urgently. 

The World Economic Forum reported in 2019 that "641 of China's largest 654 cities are affected by regular flooding, particularly those on the coast." A number of inland Chinese cities experienced record floods in 2020 and 2021, with the China Daily reporting as recently as Oct. 19 that floods were "ravaging" areas of the Yellow River. The Chinese Meteorological Administration reports that climate change is increasing a pattern of extreme weather events in the country, including extreme heavy precipitation events that produce inland flooding.

Meanwhile, China's long coastline is vulnerable to the rising sea levels. The World Bank reports China is one of the two countries most vulnerable to permanent coastal inundation from rising sea levels. A recent study predicts that if climate change remains unchecked, China will experience the highest national coastal flood costs of any nation - greater, for example, than for the U.S. or Japan. A 2020 study of climate-change-related financial risks predicts that even if climate change is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, sea level rise by 2100 would inundate the seaports and airports of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Shenzhen and displace a large number of people (at 4 degrees Celsius, all of China's major coastal ports and airports would be inundated and in Shanghai, for example, 80 percent of the population would be displaced).

Swiss Re, a leading global reinsurer, underscored Chinese vulnerabilities to climate change by giving China the highest climate economics risk score of any major country. One reason for that is the country's building spree in recent decades, inland and along the coast, was carried out generally without regard to the impacts of a changing climate. Another reason is, as the China Daily reported, climate change poses a significant challenge to the stability and sustainability of food production in China, which another analysis indicates could drop by some 9 percent by 2050.

Chinese government and Communist Party officials are under domestic pressure to act on climate change. The Chinese public is increasingly affected by, and therefore aware of, the impacts of climate change, such as urban flooding, heat waves, and stronger coastal storms. China has begun to invest in significant climate adaption efforts, such as its "sponge city" program, which seeks to mitigate flooding in targeted urban areas, and even President Xi has spoken of the need to address climate change with action in China. But Chinese officials are also concerned about climate activism among young people, which they demonstrated by detaining some participants in a 2020 Shanghai climate protest that was part of a global protest.

Climate activism could become a growing problem for Chinese authorities as climate impacts are increasingly felt in China.

There is no reason for the U.S. or other countries to bargain with China over human rights or other issues for its climate cooperation.

China faces significant vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change, and its future prosperity and stability are as linked to addressing the cause of climate change as any other nation's. In short, if China wishes to avoid radically mounting economic costs, popular dissatisfaction and potential political unrest at home, it must join the U.S. and the rest of the world in tackling climate change - at Glasgow and beyond.

Kenneth C. Brill is a retired career Foreign Service Officer who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush Administrations and was the founding Director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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