Hu is in first…

The speech by China’s president, Hu Jintao, to the U.N. pledging to meet “carbon intensity targets” should be a wake-up call to the United States on several levels. First, it shows that while the United States dithers, China has not only moved ahead in green technology, they have also moved ahead in terms of shaping ...

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580654_090922_roth2b2.jpg

The speech by China's president, Hu Jintao, to the U.N. pledging to meet "carbon intensity targets" should be a wake-up call to the United States on several levels.

First, it shows that while the United States dithers, China has not only moved ahead in green technology, they have also moved ahead in terms of shaping the global debate about how to reduce carbon emissions and enhance efficient energy use. We can argue about the level of their targets. (They, predictably, are far too low.) We can argue about their methods, their desire to shift responsibility elsewhere or even their sincerity about aggressively pursuing their goals. But we can't argue with the fact that with Hu's comments they edged ahead of the United States in terms of seizing the initiative at this week's climate talks.

The speech by China’s president, Hu Jintao, to the U.N. pledging to meet “carbon intensity targets” should be a wake-up call to the United States on several levels.

First, it shows that while the United States dithers, China has not only moved ahead in green technology, they have also moved ahead in terms of shaping the global debate about how to reduce carbon emissions and enhance efficient energy use. We can argue about the level of their targets. (They, predictably, are far too low.) We can argue about their methods, their desire to shift responsibility elsewhere or even their sincerity about aggressively pursuing their goals. But we can’t argue with the fact that with Hu’s comments they edged ahead of the United States in terms of seizing the initiative at this week’s climate talks.

Second, in a related vein, it shows that where the United States fails to lead, others are willing to step in. In fact China, whose leaders were visibly discomfited when earlier this year it was suggested that they were now part of the G-2 with the United States, seems to relish both being out front on this issue … and leaving the U.S. stammering about the problems of having to work with the Congress.

Third, it just shows how out of touch the U.S. Congress is on climate. The scientific world gets it (see today’s FT piece on the weight of scientific studies.) The governments of most of the rest of the world’s countries get it. But we keep making up excuses as though somehow Mother Nature would slow down out of respect for Senate protocols.  These do-nothings are great at coming up with excuses and with compromises that suck the meaning out of any legislation. But in this case, the consequences are global — impeding progress in combating a critical threat and, at the same time, dramatically undercutting American prestige.

That China’s formulation of “carbon intensity targets” is not the emissions caps that we and the Europeans have been urging on them is of consequence, but it is not central. Their commitment to reducing the output of carbon associated with each dollar of GDP is at least a respectable initial proposal. At least their words and their body language … not to mention their quarter trillion dollar national investment in green technology … say they are taking this seriously. They are not simply fiddling while the atmosphere burns (or at least warms up measurably) as are their counterparts on Capitol Hill.

How galling must it be to be U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern, a dedicated, earnest agent of change, a guy who really wants America to lead, who is held back by “realistic” estimates of what Congress will permit? Hopefully, the Chinese action and the efforts of other countries this week will cause the administration to shift strategies. They too should have a proposal on the table and they should push for what they think is needed.  And then, they should go sell that on the Hill. If Congress won’t lead, they must.

Fortunately, Congress’s primary excuse on this front — that China will drag its feet — is now gone. They will no doubt quibble with the Chinese method and intent. But watching from this seat, they will seem mighty small in doing so and many, whose goal was really to cater to special interests like that minority of businesses who are still not taking this seriously, will seem utterly derelict in their duties.

China will need to do much more than Hu will promise this week. But he and his government deserve credit for reminding the U.S. Congress what leadership can be about.

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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