The United States and China Need to Cooperate—for the Planet’s Sake

Polling shows Americans want Biden to emphasize climate diplomacy with Beijing.

Then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping and then U.S.-Vice President Joe Biden attend a luncheon in Los Angeles on Feb. 17, 2012.
Then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping and then U.S.-Vice President Joe Biden attend a luncheon in Los Angeles on Feb. 17, 2012. Tim Rue/Corbis via Getty Images

Last month, in one of his first actions as president, Joe Biden signed an executive order recommitting the United States to the Paris Agreement on climate change. The week after that, Biden signed another order taking further steps toward domestic action and international engagement on the issue. Among other things, that order formally established a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy and set a date for a global climate summit to be held on Earth Day in April. These moves follow on the heels of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 and position the world’s leading global powers for a new era of diplomacy, one where climate change can play an increasingly important role.

“Obviously we have some very serious differences with China on some very, very important issues,” said John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy for climate change, last Wednesday. “But climate is a critical standalone issue that we have to deal on,” he added. But the next day in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian argued that climate issues can’t be separated from the overall state of the two countries’ relationship, saying “unlike flowers that can bloom in a greenhouse despite winter chill, (any such cooperation) is closely linked with bilateral relations as a whole.” Public opinion in the United States, however, suggests otherwise. And thankfully many outside of the Chinese foreign ministry believe so too.

In recent years, many have characterized Sino-American relations as a sort of cold war. Some observers have suggested that China’s carbon neutrality pledge was as much an effort to outflank the incoming Biden administration as it was to rein in emissions. On the campaign trail, Biden and then-President Donald Trump sparred over who would be tougher on the Chinese. And there is a view among many on both sides of the aisle in Washington that goes something like this: Biden walks a hard line with Beijing, American industries boom, democracies blossom worldwide, manufacturing jobs return, and voters from Pittsburgh to Phoenix reward the Democrats.

But what do all those people beyond Washington really think? To learn more about that, the Asia Society Policy Institute and Data for Progress surveyed 1,040 people representative of the national electorate. In our poll, respondents were presented with a variety of policy positions related to China, climate change, clean energy, and foreign policy. The picture our data paints isn’t as neat as some might like it to be.

In fact, our research suggests that voters support a number of diplomatic approaches—not just competition but also collaboration—to advance global clean energy deployment and climate action, including by holding China to its commitments.

A strong majority of those surveyed—69 percent overall, including 52 percent of Republicans—want the United States to ramp up climate action if China also does, suggesting that, when refracted through great-power competition, more ambitious policies might find broader support, including among conservatives. Three-quarters of voters think that China should reach carbon neutrality sooner than 2060, for instance.

Although voters appear skeptical about the United States partnering with China, addressing climate change ranks ahead of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and is second only to achieving a reduction in nuclear weapons on a list of issues on which the two nations can cooperate. Forty-eight percent of voters think the United States should partner with China to address climate change while 32 percent believe it should not.

In a similar question, our poll asked which sectors of the economy the two countries should work on together to promote innovation and trade. Clean energy rose to the top—ahead of industrial goods and materials, agriculture, cellular technologies, automobiles, and health care. Forty-eight percent of respondents said the United States should work with China on clean energy innovation and trade, and 35 percent said it should not. There was even support for the U.S. and Chinese militaries collaborating more on the assessment of risks posed by climate-induced natural disasters: Forty-six percent support such a policy, and 38 percent oppose it.

At the same time, our data also suggests that a clear majority of voters—62 percent—want Biden to uphold his campaign pledge to hold China accountable to its climate commitments. For instance, 77 percent of voters think China should reduce its use of coal at home and its support for it abroad through the Belt and Road Initiative—Xi’s signature foreign policy. And to help encourage China forge a new path, a plurality of voters would be supportive of the United States seeking to spur a competitive race to the top by financing clean energy projects abroad (46 percent support), as well as putting a carbon tariff on Chinese goods—even if it heightens the risk of a trade dispute (48 percent support).

So, could the United States and China not only compete but also collaborate on climate change? It’s important to remember that, although it feels like a long time ago now, the two countries did collaborate before the Trump administration came along. In 2014, in a move that would have been considered impossible just a few years before, the United States convinced China to come to the table for the first in a series of landmark announcements on global warming that played an important role in the lead-up to the Paris Agreement, adopted  year later.

Although a similar move might be more challenging today, our data suggests that voters are more supportive of the way Kerry extended his hand conditionally than some commentators suggest, especially if it will result in the Chinese doing more. In fact, reading this poll, one can imagine the emergence of a global climate race—one where the United States and China compete on some fronts, like the financing of clean energy overseas, and collaborate on others, like the assessment of risks posed by warming-induced natural disasters. There is, of course, mutual need for two nations to have the other take the climate crisis seriously—to say nothing of the scientific and moral imperatives. And the geopolitical reality for Beijing is that the strength of Biden’s own domestic agenda and international credibility on climate means they won’t ultimately want to be seen to cut against that.

At the same time, however, a roughly 10-point margin of support for conversation is, admittedly, thinner than the U.S. president might like. It’s significant enough not to be overlooked in these polarized times but small enough that, for Biden at least, there is little margin for error. Biden could sketch out his terms for a balanced framework on climate in his first meeting with Xi. There’s just enough public will to warrant such a move—49 percent in fact. The question, for the U.S. president, is whether he’s able to find a way to do this amongst a fiery bilateral relationship, and in such a way that results in additional action for the benefit benefit of the country and planet.

Julian Brave NoiseCat is the vice president of policy and strategy for Data for Progress. Twitter: @jnoisecat

Thom Woodroofe is the senior advisor on multilateral affairs to the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former climate diplomat. Twitter: @thomwoodroofe

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