December 15, 2009
During the Bush years the developing world got more vocal in blaming the West for a spate of global challenges, including climate change. The West in turn showed a greater willingness to treat developing countries as more equal partners. That’s the upside.
But somewhere along the way, the South lost sight of its own contributions to the world’s ills. It slipped into an old impulse – play the victim – and gave it new form – don’t budge and insist that the West clean up the mess.
This does not bode well for global progress; solving the big challenges of the 21st century will require greater cooperation between nations.
And yet the West learned to hold its tongue, short of which it risked further tarnishing its image as the hypocritical oppressor and alienating potential allies.
Nowhere has this confining new dynamic been more obvious than in America’s dealings with China. (See “Washington Feeds Beijing’s Psychological Edge.”)
But in Copenhagen this week, the US has sent a clear message to the rest of the world: If you want to be more equal partners, fine, but you’ll have to pull your weight. No excuses. As we show greater commitment to fighting climate change, we will expect the same in return.
With a sense of moral legitimacy that Bush lacked, the Obama Administration is confidently delivering the message. America’s top envoy for climate change, Todd Stern, flatly rejected the notion that the US should give aid to developing nations as reparations to poor countries. He shot back at the Europeans for demanding too much. And in a move that was said to shock negotiators, he said the US would not help China fund a shift to clean technology. China, after all, is sitting on $2 trillion in reserves.
The developing world can find all the reasons it wants for why the West should shoulder the bulk of the burden, but, as Hillary Clinton noted in a New York Times op-ed: “The simple fact is that nearly all of the growth in emissions in the next 20 years will come from the developing world.” China alone is expected to produce 60 per cent more greenhouse gases than the US by 2020. Washington has not ruled out assistance to the world’s poorest countries but a fresh dose of frugality appears to be part of the package.
Copenhagen is proof of another point I have made on this column page: that the West has less to fear in confronting China than it often imagines. Washington has bluntly told Beijing that its emission targets are too low and that it won’t sign any treaty on climate change unless China agrees to strict outside verification of its emission levels. More broadly the US is showing it will no longer clump China together with the rest of the developing world. “I do not envision public funds, certainly not from the US, going to China,” Stern said. There’s talk in Washington that China’s refusal to accept verification measures could lead to punitive tariffs on Chinese goods entering the US.
Beijing could respond by refusing to set high emission targets. But doing so runs the risk of severely damaging China’s global reputation and ultimately its bargaining power. Put another way, you can’t produce the bulk of the world’s carbon emissions, resolve to do nothing about it and expect the world not to resent and resist you.
Consensus must remain the aim in Copenhagen. Washington for its part is attempting to redefine what that means.