When I was last in China, in 2019, I met an entrepreneur named Gao Jifan, who told me a story that I’ve been reflecting on during President Biden’s climate summit this week.
Back in the 1990s, Gao received a letter from an old friend who was living in the United States. The letter included a photo clipped from a newspaper, showing President Bill Clinton as he announced a plan to outfit one million homes with solar power.
“It was like a light bulb,” Gao recalled, as we were sitting in his office in Changzhou, about 100 miles northwest of Shanghai. Clinton’s initiative caused Gao — a chemist by training — to think that he should start a company to meet the coming demand for solar equipment. That company, Trina Solar, has since made Gao a billionaire.
For the inspiration, Gao is grateful to the U.S. But he is also befuddled by the American approach to climate change.
the sharp policy changes from one to the next. Those changes, he added, had hurt the solar industry and other clean-energy efforts: If the U.S. took a more consistent approach, the global struggle to slow climate change would be easier.
A ‘lost four years’
Many Americans have come to believe a different story — namely, that U.S. climate policy hardly matters compared with the actions of China, India and other countries that account for a growing share of emissions. As some congressional Republicans have been asking this week, why should the U.S. act to slow climate change unless other countries do so first?
But that view is not consistent with history, either the recent history of climate diplomacy or the broader history of American influence.
“There aren’t many other areas of policy where we say, ‘Why don’t we let everyone else lead, and we’ll follow?’” as Nathaniel Keohane of the Environmental Defense Fund says. The U.S., for all its problems, remains the world’s most powerful country. When it wants to influence the policies of other countries, it can often do so, especially when those countries see it as being in their own interests to change.
more reliant on coal than Biden administration officials wish. But the U.S. can often have an effect. Relative to many other issues, in fact, climate diplomacy is sometimes easier: President Xi Jinping has largely rejected U.S. entreaties on Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea, but he has been willing to deal on climate change.
President Barack Obama and Xi came to multiple agreements that involved both countries moving to reduce emissions. They started small, with the relatively narrow topic of refrigerants, and expanded from there. As my colleague Brad Plumer says, “There’s a reasonable argument the Obama administration’s and China’s joint agreement on climate change in 2014 helped set the table for the Paris climate agreement.”
Crucial to these efforts was a U.S. willingness to act at home: It’s much easier to agree to take economic risks when your main global competitor is doing the same. And the U.S. still leads the world in per-person emissions, about 75 percent above China, according to recent numbers.
The Trump administration slowed global efforts on climate change by dismissing it as a threat and allowing more pollution at home. A Chinese official last week mocked the U.S. for “the lost four years.” The Biden administration is now trying to reverse course, with an emissions-reduction goal that’s larger than many advocates expected.
The cynical view — that the U.S. can only follow, not lead, on climate policy — has it backward. As Gao told me, one of the biggest obstacles to progress on climate change has been the lack of consistent American leadership.
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