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Bargaining with China Today to Save the World Tomorrow

Bargaining with China Today to Save the World Tomorrow

As climate czar, John Kerry has been tasked with a moral balancing act that few leaders have ever faced.

As tough jobs go, few are tougher than John Kerry’s. He has to weigh future harm against current crime, a moral balancing act that few leaders have ever faced. The former Secretary of State, at the age of seventy-seven, signed on as President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, tasked with trying to get the rest of the world to step up its game on climate change. He was largely responsible for last week’s Earth Day virtual summit, and the first big test of his work will come in Glasgow, in November, when the world’s leaders gather for the most important climate talks since the Paris accords conference, in 2015.

It would be hard enough to get the world marching forward on climate if it were the only issue in play: some nations export oil and gas, and some import it; some are poor, and some are rich; some have built coal-fired empires, and others are still burning wood. A few things are breaking in Kerry’s favor: in most capitals around the world, the fossil-fuel industry still plays an outsized role, but now there are new counter-pressures from a burgeoning climate movement, which makes some leaders more pliable. And the rapid fall in the price of renewable energy opens the door to quicker action. So Kerry’s task, considered purely in isolation, is still incredibly difficult, but perhaps a little less so than it used to be.

But although climate change may be the most important event occurring right now—and, indeed, the most important in human history—it’s not the only thing. And that complicates matters considerably. Take the case of China, whose leader, Xi Jinping, joined the Earth Day summit after Kerry paid a visit to Shanghai, following weeks of careful negotiating. There is no way to solve the climate puzzle without lots of help from China—it is now the biggest carbon emitter on earth.
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