Those secret US / China climate talks in full

by | May 19, 2009

Today’s Guardian has a big splash announcing that “China and US held secret climate talks“.  According to Suzanne Goldberg,

A high-powered group of senior Republicans and Democrats led two missions to China in the final months of the Bush administration for secret backchannel negotiations aimed at securing a deal on joint US-Chinese action on climate change, the Guardian has learned.

The report continues that the track 2 talks were orchestrated by the Carnegie Endowment’s Bill Chandler, who says that “My sense is that we are now working towards something in the fall… It will be serious. It will be substantive, and it will happen.”

Hmm. For all the breathless talk of “secret” dealings and “backchannel” negotiations about which “the Guardian has learned”, you have to figure that the talks probably weren’t that secret if Radio Free Asia was able to report fully two months ago that,

China has raised hopes for environmental cooperation with the United States despite differences that emerged during a Washington visit by leading officials this month. 

On March 18, Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development Reform Commission (NDRC), stressed a positive outlook for cooperation on climate change at a Washington meeting co-hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Global Environmental Institute of Beijing. After years of disagreement over which country bears greater responsibility for global warming, Xie, China’s top climate negotiator, voiced readiness to discuss joint action.

If you’re wondering where Bill Chandler is coming from on climate change, then this 2007 interview with CFR  is worth a look (n.b. his heavily sceptical view of Kyoto’s crappy Clean Development Mechanism); more up-to-date and in depth is this 2008 article entitled “Breaking the Suicide Pact: US-China Cooperation on Climate Change” (see also this summary on China Stocks Blog).

There’s a lot of good stuff in the article, with a particular focus on cooperation on best practice technologies and innovation in new ones.  But here’s what gives me pause: “Both countries could reach a deal – without a treaty – that could unlock the global stalemate”.

Without a treaty? Hmm. Chandler’s article is full of sensible proposals for confidence building measures between the US and China.  But none of these can substitute for a global system of binding, quantified targets, if the world wants to be sure of stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations at any given level.  Initiatives like this are useful – but if we learned anything from the Bush Administration, it’s that there’s always the risk of them becoming figleaves.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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