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Getting Chummy on Climate Change

A women bicycles through a polluted Beijing on Jan. 23. Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images.

Lost amid the high power diplomacy over North Korea’s nuclear threats, but perhaps provoked by the more immediate risks to Chinese citizens breathing dangerously foul air, the United States and China have agreed to step up their cooperation on climate change.

Emerging from Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Beijing last weekend, but mostly unreported, the world’s two biggest energy consumers and greenhouse gas emitters and both non-ratifiers of the Kyoto protocol decided to add climate change to their Strategic and Economic Dialogue. That’s the highest level exchange between U.S. and Chinese officials short of presidential summits.

Placing such a priority on climate change “would have been unimaginable two years ago,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, who handled China issues in the Clinton White House and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

A joint communique issued April 13 during Kerry’s visit to Beijing said, “Both sides recognize that, given the latest scientific understanding of accelerating climate change and the urgent need to intensify global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, forceful, nationally appropriate action by the United States and China — including large scale cooperative action — is more critical than ever.”

How this cooperation will work in practice remains to be seen, but clearly China’s rulers are trying to respond to increasing pressure from angry citizens over dirty air, especially since pollution numbers soared way beyond acceptable levels during Beijing’s “airapocalypse” last winter. China’s new leaders promised the public major action to reverse the problem.

But skeptics remain. One Asian diplomat suggested that during the Strategic and Economic Dialogues, when U.S. officials raised such issues as human rights, the Chinese could propose talking about climate change instead.

But environmental analysts such as Jennifer Turner of the China Environment Forum have pointed out that China is in a vicious triangle of growing energy demands, largely met through coal, intensifying pollution and water shortages that make substitutions such as fracking for natural gas and oil more problematic.

And deepening the problem, said Lieberthal at a conference this week, is that any further rise in global temperatures could melt glaciers in China’s major water source of the Tibetan plateau as well as potentially inundate sea-level cities including Shanghai.

There’s already considerable inter-action between Chinese and U.S. non-governmental organizations dealing with climate and environmental issues, Turner said at a recent Wilson Center conference. And up to now, Chinese authorities have given local environmental NGOs considerably freer rein than to other civil society organizations.

According to one veteran China hand, the government and ruling party could take that relaxed approach because they considered environmental activists politically harmless.

But now that pollution has soared to the No. 1 issue among the general public, right up there with corruption, China’s leaders clearly have recognized the potency of the problem. How many citizen challenges they are ready to accept in the process of controlling it may yet be another matter.

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he writes dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.

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