On a hot day this summer, Chinese President Hu Jintao and a group of state leaders appeared at a public function wearing short-sleeved shirts, rather than their normal business suits. According to the state press, the casual attire wasn’t just a new fashion statement: China’s top brass were leading by example, encouraging Chinese workers to dress in light clothing in order to reduce the use of air conditioners in office buildings.

Fashions do change. Outright denial of global warming is out of vogue. Instead, the climate change do-nothing set is sporting this season’s new line: “Why should we bother trying to fight climate change when China won’t do anything to reduce its emissions?” (Conservative communications consultant Frank Luntz even insists that the “‘international fairness’ issue is an emotional home run.” Emotional home run? One might ask what a win looks like in his game?)

How to counter this flawed logic? Hu Jintao’s climate-fighting wardrobe choices aside, here are three ways:

1. Since when have we looked to China for leadership — moral, technological, fashionable, or otherwise?

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Or, to avoid any taint of xenophobia, you can frame this a little more positively: We need to lead, and do what’s right — and help other countries to follow us, not wait for them to lead. Al Gore has pioneered this sentiment:

We in the United States of America have a particularly important responsibility, after all, because the world still regards us as the natural leader of the community of nations. Simply put, in order for the world to respond urgently to the climate crisis, the United States must lead the way. No other nation can.

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Add to that Rep. Jay Inslee’s constant refrain: “it should be America’s destiny to lead the world in fighting climate change.”

See also: John McCain, John Edwards, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, Gordon Campbell, and Rudy Giuliani.

It’s not just talk. U.S. sluggishness is a roadblock to meaningful progress worldwide. As Rob Watson — the C.E.O. of EcoTech International, which works on environmental issues in China — put it: “The Chinese are not going to take anything we say seriously if we don’t set an example ourselves.”

2. Right now, we are leading China — but in the wrong direction!

The growing middle class in China and other budding economies around the world are looking to the U.S. and Europe to figure out how to live with their newfound prosperity. Thomas L. Friedman calls it a global explosion of “new Americans” — millions of carbon copies of ourselves. Adopting western lifestyles and consumer behavior, these “new Americans” are imitating our clothes, cars, houses, toys, and tastes — and our energy habits.

What if we offered them an alternative, more efficient model to imitate? Sounds like a win-win to me.

3. Sure Chinese emissions are growing — but they’re already seizing opportunities that we aren’t.

Yes, China’s rapid growth is quickly making it the world’s largest carbon-dioxide emitter; but the country’s leadership has also unveiled a set of aggressive emissions reduction policies to counter the impacts of its rapid growth.

New Chinese passenger car efficiency standards, for example, are expected to result in one of the most fuel-efficient passenger vehicle fleets in the world — with estimated averages of 34 miles per gallon in 2005 and 37 mpg in 2008. In contrast, this year the U.S. Senate agreed to mandate an increase in fuel efficiency standards to 35 miles per gallon — by 2020.

In fact, China’s reforms — in transportation and major industries — are on track to cut 168 million tons of greenhouse gases annually by 2010, according to the Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP). It’s not much compared with the 6 billion tons of carbon-dioxide China emits each year. But it comes close to the Bush administration’s goal of reducing U.S. emissions, voluntarily, by 183 million tons a year by 2010. CCAP has a good myth-busting overview of the measures China is taking here (PDF).

China is also finding prosperous new niche markets, selling clean-energy technologies to the rest of the world. From the Christian Science Monitor:

In a bid to cut energy costs, boost energy security, and reduce air pollution, [China] could be essentially creating the largest greenhouse-gas-reduction plan on the planet. Indeed, if the nation’s leaders follow through, it may be the US playing catch-up with China — not the other way around.

And the Chinese are no dummies when it comes to smart business opportunities. From Pew:

… China is seizing the economic opportunities of the clean energy sector. In one example, by 2005, China had the world’s third-largest solar cell production capacity, with 30 major Chinese solar cell manufacturers comprising about 30 percent of global market share and employing some 250,000 people.

In short — when the do-nothing set tries to use China as an excuse for inaction, don’t let them get away with it. The game of follow the leader requires a leader. We’re not providing that leadership now — which means that we’ve got the responsibility to step it up a notch or two.

(P.S. More China myth-busting from NRDC here; Grist here; and Pew Climate here.)