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I'm Charlie, and I research energy, the environment, and Asian affairs at UC San Diego's School of Global Policy and Strategy.

Trump, Climate Change and the Yellow Peril

Trump, Climate Change and the Yellow Peril

Earlier this year, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump responded to questions regarding a tweet in which he claimed that global warming was a Chinese hoax concocted to harm American manufacturers.

In a Jan. 18th, 2016 interview on Fox News, he claimed that his tweet was meant as a joke. But he went on to say that “China does not do anything to help climate change. They burn everything they can burn. They couldn’t care less […] In the meantime, they can undercut us on price.”

Mr. Trump’s remarks echo a long-standing Republican argument: If China – the world’s largest carbon emitter – cannot be trusted to combat climate change, why should the U.S. make sacrifices to cut carbon emissions unilaterally?

But years of evidence show that China is actually taking a proactive role in addressing climate change. So how come Republican assertions that China won’t reciprocate on climate change still resonate so strongly with voters?

A Proven Track Record

One year before the Paris climate talks, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Beijing and announced a landmark agreement to set carbon emissions reductions targets for each country. China pledged to reach its peak carbon emissions by 2030 or earlier, and President Obama announced that the United States would reduce carbon emissions by 26% to 28% by 2025, relative to 2005 levels.

Republican lawmakers immediately panned the deal. Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma – who later became chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works – called China’s commitments “hollow and unbelievable.” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said of the deal, “it 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 across the country.”

But what Republican leaders had failed to notice was that China already had a proven track record of action on climate change – a record arguably more ambitious than that of the US.

In 2010, the Chinese government released its 12th five-year plan, a comprehensive document that outlined its national social and economic goals every five years. The plan included targets to increase forest coverage, expand the share of non-fossil fuels in the country’s energy mix, and reduce the carbon intensity of GDP – a figure that indicates the amount of carbon emitted per dollar GDP – all by 2015.

To achieve these targets, the government created a renewable energy subsidy that by 2014 had financed clean power projects to the tune of $20 billion. It set energy saving targets for each province and sector, and in 2014 set aside $5.6 billion to support energy efficiency programs. Local officials were informed that progress on meeting energy savings targets would be considered in their overall performance evaluations.

The plan also included market mechanisms to combat climate change, such as a cap-and-trade program – a job-killing anathema in the eyes of Republicans and centrist Democrats – in seven cities and provinces, with an aim to deploy a nationwide market in 2017.

“They’re Drilling a Hole”

Back in the US, in the run-up to the Republican convention, Republican hopefuls took turns summoning the Chinese climate change bogeyman:

Marco Rubio, 9/16/2015: “America is not a planet. And we are not even the largest carbon producer anymore: China is. And they’re drilling a hole and digging anywhere in the world that they can get a hold of.”

Donald Trump, 6/28/2015: When Obama gets up and said it’s the number one problem for our country, and if it is, why is it that we have to clean up our factories now and China doesn’t have to do it for another 30 to 35 years?”

Chris Christie, 5/7/2015: “[The U.S.] can’t be acting unilaterally…when folks in China are doing things to the environment that would never be done in our country.”

Carly Fiorina, 5/4/2015: “Every one of the scientists that tell us that climate change is real and being caused by man-made activity also tells us that a single nation acting alone can make no difference at all.”

Yet evidence continued to roll in suggesting that China had in fact made remarkable progress on combating climate change.

By the end of 2015, China had deployed the most wind and solar power of any country, with over 146 gigawatts of wind capacity and 43 gigawatts of solar. Bloomberg reported that China led the world in clean energy investment, with $110.5 billion invested in 2015. The U.S. was a distant second.

Moreover, statistics suggested that Chinese climate programs were yielding results. Government reports showed that China met or exceeded most of its 12th five-year plan climate change targets, including energy intensity, carbon intensity, and growth in non-fossil energy sources. China’s coal consumption has now fallen two years in a row as the country’s economy transitions away from heavy industry.

While Chinese official data should always be read with skepticism, other evidence lends credence to these findings. China’s coal production and imports have plunged, and the government has enacted a moratorium on coal mine construction and a ban on new coal-fired plants in some regions. China has made painful cutbacks to address overcapacity in energy-intensive industries like steel production.

All indicators point to a China that is invested in addressing climate change, rather than opposing it. How then to explain this gaping chasm between fact and Republican party orthodoxy?

The Yellow Peril

Hostile interpretations of China and the Chinese people have long been used for political gain. British opium merchants in the 1830s published articles depicting the Qing dynasty as short-sighted, self-serving, and incapable of respecting international order so as to justify the First Opium War. American industrialists scapegoated Chinese workers in the United States in the 19th century to deflect blame for depressed wages, eventually leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1885. Characterizations of China as a recalcitrant global power, or as a job-stealing troublemaker, remain rife in foreign media coverage of the country.

Yet one of the most deeply ingrained narratives about China is the Yellow Peril, a popular 19th century literary trope that framed the Chinese as malefactors bent on wreaking vengeance on European colonialists and achieving world domination.

This narrative is as strong as ever. Pundits and authors regularly prophesy China’s world domination, which is one reason Republican lawmakers are so bent on tying this fiction into the climate change debate. By fashioning China into a climate change adversary, Republicans can argue that mitigating climate change is a zero-sum game, where losing means the dawn of a red planet.

And facts be damned, that’s a message that voters find easy to hear.

Donald Trump’s depiction of climate change as a Chinese hoax fits neatly into the story, invoking a scheming Chinese plot to steal American jobs and achieve world domination. If there’s a “joke” in there, as he claims there is, it stands on the shoulders of Fu Manchu.


In March 2016, China’s policymakers passed their 13th five-year plan. Looking ahead to 2020, the plan ratchets up the country’s carbon and energy intensity targets and sets the stage for the rollout of a nationwide carbon trading market in 2017. International analysis suggests that not only are China’s targets manageable, they put China on track to meet its Paris climate commitments.

China will likely continue – through trial and error, no doubt – to reduce its carbon emissions while simultaneously striving to overcome other thorny environmental problems, such as air, soil and water pollution. And government support for emerging industries like solar, wind, and energy storage will continue to make China less reliant on heavy industry, and more competitive in the global innovation economy.

But you won’t see Donald Trump tweeting about it.

 

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