I have a smart friend who could have her own career as a political writer, were she not pursuing a PhD in another field. Earlier this week, she observed:
“So… that joint press conference with the Presidents of the U.S. and China at the [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting] was sort of a big deal.
If I were in charge of an oil or natural gas company, and I had not yet read the writing on the wall and made the switch to investing less in oil and more in renewable…I’d be freaking out right now. I’d be up all night trying to figure out how to divest from carbon-based energy sources and move to renewables ASAP.”
Her assessment of the summit echoes that of a highly credible source, New York Times Nobel Prize-winning economist and Op-Ed contributor Paul Krugman. In a piece published this week, entitled “China, Coal, Climate,” the celebrated thought leader writes, “It’s easy to be cynical about summit meetings. Often they’re just photo op… At best — almost always — they’re just occasions to formally announce agreements already worked out by lower-level officials. Once in a while, however, something really important emerges. And this is one of those times.”
Pundits and lay people alike seem to agree that while we shouldn’t expect an overnight turnaround in global energy policy, the oil and coal syndicate which controls the Republican party, and to a great extent, the conversation about America’s non-approach to climate change, is on notice. Just one little public display requires a shift from the world’s oligarchs from offense to defense. For the first time since the Carter administration, us “tree hugging hippies” have reason to hope that humanity’s high-speed chase toward Earth’s destruction might be derailed.
Baby steps will be taken, but taken they will be. No matter how vague the language or undefined the qualitative steps forward, as Krugman notes, “we have it straight from the source: China has declared its intention to limit carbon emissions.”
Although there is clearly more at stake here than politics, a move like this can fast track the seismic cultural shift Americans are currently experiencing with other issues such as marriage equality or recreational marijuana legalization. As little as 10 days ago, when less than half of the electorate limped to the ballot box to vote red in the midterm elections, the specter of evolution (pun intended) seemed wildly impossible. Headlines such as this followed GOP victory almost immediately: Republicans Vow to Fight E.P.A. and Approve Keystone Pipeline. The party of scientific repudiation announced that infamous climate change denier Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma will lead the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The situation looked bleak. “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel…” impotent.
Of course we’ll have to be patient and assess China’s follow through against its stated intentions. After all, not much time has passed since Hong Kong rebelled against the mainland’s revocation of promised free, fair and independent elections. And it’s not as though the United States has a blemish-free track records for the alignment of words and actions (a slavery infected “Land of the Free” comes to mind). But perhaps in the perverse way situations like this sometimes play out, China and America will keep each other honest. Neither country is a fan of being publicly embarrassed by the other. If the protection of a nation’s sociopolitical reputation is a motivator in upending decades of cynical energy policy, I’ll suppress a wish for better human impulses and concur with Krugman. It’s another long-term setback for the Republican agenda and “a good week for the planet.”