China, U.S. may lead climate fight

China, U.S. may lead climate fight (credit: Emily Giedzinski/) China, U.S. may lead climate fight (credit: Emily Giedzinski/)
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Externalities are the extra costs and benefits to a party that did not foresee them. Externalities may represent something very simple, but, on the grand scale of politics and international relations, they present a unique and systematic way of looking at the UN’s recent talks regarding climate change. This year, some of the world’s largest polluters, namely the United States and China, have made key changes in environmental politics.

Domestically, President Barack Obama has been widely documented for flexing his executive power, leading by example, and treading his own path. Although this behavior has been met with controversy, it seems as if he is willing to take the global community further into climate conversation. China, with new president Xi Jinping, has finally taken steps to clean up its own backyard, at a time when Beijing’s smog levels are reaching hazardous and unbearable levels. This year, Xi Jinping and his cabinet formally “declared war on pollution,” according to Reuters. This declaration comes after years of China calling itself a “developing economy,” which demanded a slackened restriction on emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

In the game of politics, it seems like most nations see proactive climate change policy as a competitive disadvantage, bringing with it extra taxes, less production, and more risky investments in research and development. One way externalities can be cut from the economy is to realign interests. The world needs this realignment regarding environmental economics.

According to Columbia University Professor Scott Barnett, governments “keep coming up with ideas like pledges, which imply that you can, by some kind of central planning, ordain a collective outcome, and the world doesn’t work that way.” He also stated that the UN has “not found the means to change the incentives to get the countries to actually adopt limits, essentially on emissions.”

One way to realign environmental and political interests would be to create an independent body to fund research and development while monitoring the situation on a global scale. The result would be a coalition fund, made up of governments, businesses, financial and development banks that are ready, according to the UN, to “mobilize up to $200 billion” toward environmental interests. The UN, in creating this coalition fund, has built a new body that has interests different than those of an independent state or business.

Obama has also called upon himself, his cabinet, and the United States to lead the world in fighting climate change. Additionally, in his speech at the UN, he called on China to take on a greater role in the fight. China has already begun to fight pollution on a domestic level, providing itself with a platform to join the United States in leading the effort to slow climate change.

Both nations have wasted valuable time in squabbling over the “responsibility” of global climate change, but only now have they both adopted a direction in policy. Moreover, although some countries have already adopted significant policies, like Switzerland and Singapore, the United States and China must start taking decisive action if there is to be any significant action on a global scale, both because of the scale of their emissions and because they should serve as policy-examples for developing economies.

However, both the United States and China face significant hurdles in getting the effort started. Despite climate change rallies drawing around 400,000 supporters to New York, where the UN Climate Summit was being held last week, climate change remains an issue that does not particularly concern the majority of voters. CNN states that only 24 percent of Americans “list climate change as a national problem that they worry about ‘a great deal.’” Moreover, China’s large, sprawling, and corrupt system of Communist Party officials suggests that any comprehensive, across-the-board climate change policy would be met with ineffectiveness and inaction.

Ultimately, both countries are taking steps to change the game of environmental politics, but both also face further challenges in leading the charge against climate change.