One month after U.S. and Chinese officials publicly attacked each other at their first summit of the Biden administration, the two governments issued a rare joint statement on April 17 saying they share a major goal: tackling “the climate crisis… with the seriousness and urgency that it demands.”
The commitment offered a big reason for optimism about the global fight against climate change. Coming just before President Joe Biden’s high-profile international climate summit on April 22 and 23, the pledge suggested that the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases can stay on the same page on climate issues even as they argue over a sprawling array of other subjects, from human rights to business practices.
That’s precisely what other countries and many experts want ― particularly as Biden crafts a foreign policy that is largely skeptical of China, reflecting the views of most U.S. officials and lawmakers from both parties, and as Chinese leadership grows warier of Washington.
Smaller nations that cannot do as much to limit global warming with their own policies are relying on cooperation between the two world powers as the planet’s best hope to prevent a temperature rise of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial average temperatures. Once that limit is crossed, frequent catastrophes like dramatic flooding and severe weather events become inevitable, scientists say.
To Armando Varricchio, Italy’s outgoing ambassador to the U.S., Biden’s outreach to China on climate is a vital first step.
“We salute the fact” that John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy for climate issues, traveled to China, Varricchio told HuffPost in an interview last week. “We really welcome his personal engagement. You cannot tackle climate change unless China, as one of the greatest polluters, comes to the table and shares the same concern.”
It is in [China's] own interest and the interest of the Chinese people to tackle what is becoming a very, very serious problem domestically. Climate change is a great opportunity for that big nation to show responsibility. Armando Varricchio
Varricchio hosted a Feb. 19 event with Kerry to commemorate the U.S.’s reentry to the Paris agreement on slashing global emissions.
Some national security analysts have suggested that by prioritizing climate issues in U.S.-China relations, Kerry could push Biden to make concessions to Beijing on matters like ambitious Chinese territorial claims ― and Republicans are keen to present Biden as soft on Beijing.
Varricchio ― whose country will co-lead this year’s United Nations climate change conference ― said he doesn’t buy the narrative that climate diplomacy is a sign of American weakness on other fronts and that U.S.-China disagreements might stymie collaboration against global warming.
“Kerry’s visit takes place after… saber-rattling, but now we do know for sure that China wants to find a channel of communication,” the ambassador said.
“This will offer China the opportunity to show their readiness to be part of global governance. This is something that China desperately wants. I reverse the narrative: climate change as an opportunity rather than leverage” that can be used by either side in negotiations on other concerns.
The Chinese government has recently emphasized to officials across China that it wants to hit its highest level of emissions by 2030 and then begin slashing them with the goal of reaching net zero by 2060. President Xi Jinping added heft to those statements in a speech published on the front page of the state-run People’s Daily last month saying that peaking emissions this decade offered a “big test” of the Communist Party’s ability to govern.
On Tuesday, Chinese state media said Xi will participate in Biden’s climate summit, along with the 39 other world leaders invited.
“There is no reason why we shouldn’t give credit to China that it is in their own interest and the interest of the Chinese people to tackle what is becoming a very, very serious problem domestically,” Varricchio said, citing the environmental toll of China’s dramatic economic growth in recent decades. “Climate change is a great opportunity for that big nation to show responsibility.”
U.S.-China climate cooperation will not determine how each of the countries designs its own policies to limit emissions. But experts say that by collaborating in how they use their international sway, particularly in their dealings with other nations, Beijing and Washington can jointly make a big difference in capping the extent of global warming.
Amid Kerry’s diplomacy, China skeptics are busy, too: Within weeks, the U.S. Senate is expected to take up hawkish bipartisan legislation targeting China’s global influence, and activists are pushing the Biden administration and private companies to work to end China’s brutal mass detention program in the western region of Xinjiang.
Varricchio, whose nation became the first top Western economy to join a global Chinese infrastructure effort but has also supported European Union sanctions on Beijing over human rights concerns, said designing a balanced approach to China is possible.
“You cannot avoid having good trade relations with the largest market on earth,” the diplomat told HuffPost. “The point is that you want to have a level playing field, you want to share rules, and then you don’t want to isolate trade and business relations from the broader agenda.”
“We cannot and we don’t want to close our eyes in the face of open and blatant violations of human rights,” he added. “This is not something different, this is part of a broad agenda with a great power like China ― it is a complex equation.”