Conventional wisdom seems to be that Obama needs to secure a domestic climate bill and then take that bill to international climate talks in Copenhagen this December as a demonstration of good faith.

I very, very much doubt there will be a climate bill signed into law by Dec. But there’s something else that the administration could do to demonstrate American seriousness: a partnership with China.

The Bush administration laid some of the groundwork for such a deal with its Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. That pact contained few details and never produced anything beyond happy words. Some people — and by some people I mean me — viewed it as a way of appearing to do something without actually doing anything. Nonetheless, the process and relationships established in its early operation have opened the way for someone more serious to step in and hit the ground running.

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Enter Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She is visiting China this week, climate envoy Todd Stern in tow, and climate is reportedly high on the agenda.

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There’s reason to believe that China, which has long been locked in a dysfunctional relationship with the U.S. whereby both countries use the other as an excuse for inaction on climate, is finally coming around to the need to get cracking. Droughts are killing northern China; floods are swamping southern China; Chinese agriculture stands to take an enormous hit in coming years. The problem is becoming a present economic calamity rather than a future “environmental” threat. Last week Zhou Wenzhong, Beijing’s ambassador to the U.S., said that “China and the United States have many shared interests and extensive areas for cooperation on energy and climate change.” This week foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said, “We would like to work with the U.S. to make concrete progress on this issue.”

In turn, Stern said last week:

Secretary Clinton is keenly aware that the United States, as the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases, and China, as the largest emitter going forward, need to develop a strong, constructive partnership to build the kind of clean energy economies that will allow us to put the brakes on global climate change. We need to put finger-pointing aside and focus on how our two leading nations can work together productively to solve the problem.

So the ground is laid.

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The obstacles are well known, of course, and haven’t gone anywhere. China’s per-capita emissions are still a fraction of the America’s; economic growth remains crucial to social stability in China; demand for energy is skyrocketing in positively mind-boggling fashion, and coal is still the cheapest way to meet it. Meanwhile, members of the U.S. Congress fear carbon restrictions that aren’t matched by China will put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage and export jobs overseas.

How to move forward? If Clinton and Stern are looking for advice, there’s plenty to be had:

What these reports and recommendations have in common is that they do not begin by pushing for mandatory greenhouse gas restrictions, which are by far the most difficult point of contention between the two countries. Instead they seek to build on areas of common interest and advantage. “Climate change evokes philosophical disagreements, whereas clean energy evokes economic opportunities,” says Brookings co-author David Sandalow. A few common threads emerge from this hail of expert counsel:

  • Keep meeting — set up a formal process for meeting regularly and benchmarks for marking progress.
  • Clean energy technology sharing — in practice, this is going to mean billions spent in the U.S. developing and commercializing carbon sequestration to be exported to China. But renewables, efficiency, and smart grid technologies will be involved too. (And of course technology sharing can go the other direction too!)
  • Capacity building — right now China’s central government is (somewhat) on board, but its ability to enforce environmental policy in the provinces is limited. It needs institutions to implement, monitor, and enforce green regulations.
  • Measurement and monitoring — both countries, but especially China, need better methods and technologies for tracking and quantifying their emissions.
  • Foster local partnerships — individual regions of China and the U.S. have and should continue sharing information and conducing joint initiatives.
  • Do something splashy — key to making a difference in Copenhagen, and generally, is doing something that captures the public imagination, a high-profile treaty or target. It could be about vehicle fleets, solar deployment, or battery development. It just needs to be big and ambitious.

Of course, all of us, um, people living on earth would like to see the U.S. and China agree on mandatory CO2 reduction targets. But given the accrued distrust and incredibly high stakes, that will probably have to wait for Copenhagen. But Copenhagen will be a lot smoother if the U.S. and China convince the world that the divide between developed and developing countries need not be intractable.