Donald Trump has been the president-elect for mere months, and already he’s begun to charter a poor course when it comes to good relations with China. He has taken a phone call from the president of Taiwan and openly questioned the need for a One China policy, doing more than his fair share to ruffle some feathers across the Pacific.
But his biggest slight may be yet to come: abandoning China in the fight against climate change. To do that would place substantial strain on China’s own efforts against climate change, destroy a catalyst for improving relations, and send a message of apathy to a country that stands to lose more than most to rising sea levels.
Throughout his campaign and since the election, Trump has signaled he will significantly alter, even reverse, America’s climate policy. He has appointed Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy and Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency. He has also brought up a desire to back out of the Paris Climate Agreement. As the world’s two largest polluters, China and the United States have a huge part to play in that agreement. For the U.S. to back out, to shirk its commitment, would place an even greater burden on China to lower its emissions in order to reach the agreement’s stated goal, so much so that the goal probably wouldn’t be met.
This is very bad for China. Many of its coastal cities could be in danger of being overtaken by the ocean as sea levels rise with the temperature. Even if the agreement’s objective, limiting global temperature increases to an average of two degrees Celsius, was met, cities like Shanghai, Tianjin, and Shantou will still see huge swaths of land submerged and large numbers of people displaced. If temperatures rise 4 degrees, the predicated outcome if the Paris Agreement fails and no meaningful action is taken, then some of those cities may disappear completely. If that were to happen, 76 percent of Shanghai’s 24 million people will become climate refugees.
The global influence China might gain by becoming the world leader on climate change would be overshadowed by the fact by this disastrous outcome. The cost of dealing with its population crisis would almost certainly hamper its rise to the status of economic superpower. Inaction by Trump would condemn China and the Chinese people to environmental disaster on a massive scale, and this would certainly go a long way toward worsening relations.
This abandonment would also occur in the midst of other, deeper conflicts about which America and China do not see eye to eye. The South China Sea is one such dispute, a territorial disagreement in which America claims China is overreaching by declaring islands and waterways there to belong to it. Just this week, the region reentered the spotlight as China sent its aircraft carrier, accompanied by five warships, into the South China Sea to project its power. In fact, the New York Times reports, “In the weeks since Mr. Trump’s election, Beijing has increased pressure on the United States, placing weapons on disputed islands and seizing and underwater United States Navy drone from international waters.” The drone has since been returned, but it’s nevertheless clear to see that China has little interest in a good relationship with Trump’s administration if he maintains his current posture. Climate change denialism might be the last nail in that coffin.
For America to deny climate change outright would mean for it to deny the causes of China’s mass displacement, and even death. It would signal a callousness toward the needs of another country and a shift toward a potentially disastrous brand of isolationism. To deny climate change is to tell other countries, “Not only are we willing to hurt ourselves on behalf of our scientific ignorance, we’re willing to hurt you, too.”
Furthermore, from an international relations perspective, the biggest benefit to a climate alliance between China and America arguably isn’t even the planet-saving reforms it could produce. Rather, the incentive to cooperate would serve as a catalyst for warming relations between across the board. It’s difficult to be partners in one area and to be diametrically opposed in another. If both make curbing climate change their overriding priority, lesser disagreements will need to be resolved for the sake of preserving that partnership.
Indeed, the climate change denialism that Trump is inviting into the White House might also mean an end to the number of other climate initiatives on which America and China are currently cooperating. President Obama went a long way toward using climate change as an avenue to bring America and China closer diplomatically. With Russia posing a rising threat to Europe and the Middle East, the last thing America needs now is a reignited rivalry with China, too.
But Trump might not see it that way — or he just might not care. Disregarding climate change, even going so far as to blame it on the Chinese themselves, is a great way to piss off the country and do environmental and economic damage both at home and abroad.