On Tuesday night, when news broke that the U.S. and China had jointly announced plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions, I predicted that Republicans would argue the terms are unfair. American emissions have already declined by 10 percent from 2005 levels, and we have already committed to reducing them further to 17 percent by 2020. Now Obama has added another, more ambitious goal for 2025. China, meanwhile, has until 2030 to peak its emissions, not even cut them, and to generate 20 percent of its electricity from renewables.
Sure enough, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) complained on Wednesday, “The agreement requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years while these carbon emission regulations are creating havoc in my state and other states around the country.”
Conservative pundits are spouting the same talking point and variations thereon. Fox Business blowhard Stuart Varney called the agreement “a total cave on the part of President Obama to his Chinese counterpart.” Fox News host Heather Nauert complained, “I’m wondering if we got steamrolled a bit.” Right-wing talk-radio king Rush Limbaugh declared, “Obama has just agreed to put immediate penalties and shackles on the U.S. economy,” and “exempted the [Chinese] from the same restrictions until 2020 or 2030.” Even The New York Times’ Ross Douthat, one of the smartest and most intellectually honest conservative commentators, while acknowledging the deal’s strengths, called it “somewhat better from the Chinese perspective than from ours.”
These complaints are nonsense for three reasons — one factual, one logical, and one moral.
Factual: It is not true that China doesn’t have to do anything for the next 16 years to ensure its emissions peak and its energy sector is 20 percent clean by 2030. Building up energy generation capacity takes time. As New York’s Jonathan Chait observes, “McConnell seems to believe China can do nothing until then, and perhaps pull a huge New Year’s Eve 2030 all-nighter frantically replacing thousands of coal plants with nuclear and solar.” For China to achieve its goals, it has to get started immediately. And it won’t be easy: As The Washington Post explains, “[China] must add 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero-emission generation capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to the total electricity generation capacity in the United States.” That is far from nothing.
Logical: Senate Republicans have made it impossible for Obama to sign a binding treaty to reduce emissions, because they wouldn’t vote to ratify it. So now that Obama has made a non-binding agreement with the world’s largest carbon polluter, they criticize it for … not being a binding treaty. Speaking on Fox News, Peter Brookes of the Heritage Foundation cynically asked, “How are you going to monitor it? Is there any enforcement? Will the Chinese abide by the agreement?” No sir, there is no enforcement mechanism, because your favored party would never vote for an agreement that contained one. But we can track progress — as China builds wind farms and solar arrays, they won’t be invisible.
Moral: The complaint that it’s unfair for the U.S. to have to start cutting emissions sooner than China is morally obtuse. Conservatives are dismissing out of hand the importance of inequality, historic exploitation, and the greater burdens that come with greater privilege. While China has recently passed the U.S. as the world’s largest annual greenhouse gas emitter, the U.S. — with its smaller, richer population — still emits several times as much as China per capita. We have also emitted nearly four times as much CO2 in total since the Industrial Revolution. Millions of Chinese live without basic amenities that most Americans take for granted. The average Chinese income in 2010 was $7,500, compared to $47,000 in the U.S. China is a superpower, but it’s still a developing country. It is only appropriate that we should start reducing our emissions before China does. What would be unfair is to declare that China and the U.S. should have exactly the same obligations. But that’s the Republican position. It’s an international extension of the same self-righteous attitude conservatives display on domestic issues from affirmative action to reparations.
Our deal with China does have its weaknesses — primarily, the fact that it doesn’t ask enough of either country to get emissions on a trajectory to avoid catastrophic climate change. If China adopted a nationwide carbon tax, for example, experts think it could peak emissions even before 2030 and at a lower level. But that’s not the criticism climate-denying Republicans are making. And we can’t let the enemy be the perfect of the good: More ambitious targets may seem more feasible to China once it has started on the right path.