Kerry must understand – the climate crisis lives in a developmental context

In the following article, submitted to us by Keith Lamb, the author argues that the current China visit by John Kerry, the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, provides an opportunity for the two countries to cooperate in an area that is vital for the future, indeed the survival, of humanity. However, he notes that approaching this issue in isolation is not feasible in the long-term. The fight against climate catastrophe has to be combined with that for development as well as against war and for peace. The Global Development Initiative (GDI), proposed by President Xi Jinping, provides just such a holistic template and approach and is already reflected in numerous agreements between China and other countries of the Global South.

“How can we achieve our global climate goals without having Beijing working with us? We can’t, it’s that simple! There’s no way any one country can solve this crisis and particularly if we’re large emitting nations.” This was the answer of US climate envoy John Kerry being interviewed on MSNBC. He went on to claim that China and the US had agreed to separate climate, which affects us all, from the many other bilateral Sino-US issues.

This sensible recognition that there is a wider commonality binding humanity together is a welcome change from the hegemonic “America first” and faux human-rights rhetoric too often emanating from US circles. When it comes to climate and cooperation with China, Kerry went on to say that, “it’s not a question of the US giving away something, by cooperating we all gain something.”

This pragmatic win-win attitude should serve the diplomatic and well-mannered Kerry well on his current July 16-19 trip to Beijing, where he will discuss the climate crisis and hopefully promote a successful COP28 climate change conference, due to be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Coming after the recent visit by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, it may also serve to thaw Sino-US tensions.

However, for real climate cooperation, which seeks the salvation of our planet and humanity, the many Sino-US tensions to which Kerry alludes cannot be bracketed off indefinitely. These tensions include the trade war, sanctions, interference in China’s domestic affairs, not least regarding Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the US’ military containment of China.

To illustrate this point, climate talks have been suspended in the past, due to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. The weather balloon debacle led to Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceling his Beijing visit. The pushing of China’s red lines, the threatening of China’s integrity, and the China threat hysteria all push the world closer to the possibility of environmental annihilation, as the US plays a fool’s game of ‘chicken’, risking nuclear catastrophe.

Even without this dire outcome, according to Brown University, the US military is responsible for twice the amount of greenhouse emissions as all the cars in the US. War causes incalculable damage to the environment due to factors such as fuel infrastructure destruction and the use of depleted uranium.[1] In Ukraine, we have seen how the destruction of energy infrastructure has led to renewed use of coal and the purchasing of expensive and environmentally damaging US fracked gas by Europe.

Kerry evidently believes Ukraine is merely a temporary setback to solving the climate crisis.[2] If Ukraine was a singular exception of US-led or sponsored conflicts he might have a point, but there have been many wars and the US’ aggressive posture and indoctrination of its citizens, which constantly advertises new “bogeymen” to be defeated and “victims” to be saved, points to further conflicts in the future.

As such, global security cannot be simply bracketed off from environmental catastrophe and climate change. The same goes for global development, which stands in direct opposition to hegemonism that has proven, through the use of war and other coercive means, to seek win-lose outcomes, where the Global South loses out in its fight for development.

When, in pursuit of development, China, as part of a necessary compromise with global capital, sacrificed environmental considerations to a considerable degree, Sino-US relations reached a high point, as the US expected China to remain technologically subservient. However, as China developed its technological base, becoming a leader in clean energy, electric vehicles, and public transport, the US has become increasingly belligerent, fearing that China threatens its dominance.

However, it’s not a question of the US giving away something. China’s system, which has the ability to lead capital for the good of all, has helped foster the green technology that all humanity needs. Through sanctions, chip wars, and the decoupling of the best Chinese minds from the best US universities, we all lose something.

Consequently, we need whole-process multilateral solutions to solve the climate crisis, which factor in development and poverty alleviation. China has shown the way in this regard.

The Global Development Initiative (GDI) was proposed by Xi Jinping at the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2021. It is a platform that promotes people-centered development and seeks to inject impetus into the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which include both poverty alleviation and environmental protection.[3]

The GDI is not just a talking point, and, while the initiative was proposed by China, it is supported by the majority of countries.[4] As of May 2023, China has signed 46 South-South cooperation documents on climate change with 39 developing countries.[5] There have also been 52 South-South cooperation training sessions on climate change.

In November 2022, China and Mongolia issued a joint statement pledging to strengthen cooperation on desertification prevention and support for Mongolia’s plan to plant one billion trees. In  the same month, China and the International Bamboo and Rattan Organization (INBAR) launched the ‘Bamboo as a Substitute for Plastic Initiative’, which is essential for cleaning up the scourge of plastic pollution.

When it comes to funding, China has added an additional US$1 billion on top of the existing US$3 billion for South-South cooperation assistance. This is just a start, there is still much to be done. Two initiatives in progress that are especially pertinent when it comes to Kerry’s visit are the GDI’s current quest for the establishment of an international coalition for energy and of a global network for sustainable forest management.

While Kerry says the US cannot do without China, likewise, China cannot do without the US. And the same can be said for the rest of the world, which needs them to cooperate. The GDI is open to all, and the US should join this initiative, which places climate change within its rightful context of development, which in turn cannot be achieved without lasting peace.

[1] The UN has numerous reports detailing the environmental costs of conflict. See here, here, and here.

[2] See Kerry’s speeches here and here.

[3] For a basic introduction to the GDI see here, here and here.

[4] Many heads of state express support for it and as early as January 2022 the Group of Friends of the GDI at UN was launched with 60 countries.

[5] See from page 26 of this document.

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