By David Doniger

There are many powerful statements from American scientific authorities and American business and political leaders on the strength of the science undergirding global warming – so many that perhaps new reports from the National Academy of Sciences, or new statements by the president or congressional leaders, do not always make you sit up and take notice. 

But these remarks, given in Beijing on April 8 by Minister Xie Zhenhua, Vice Chairman of China’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), made me sit up and take notice. The NDRC is one of the strongest policy making institutions in the Chinese government and is responsible for directing China’s climate change policy. Minister Xie is the senior Chinese negotiator in international climate treaty talks. Here, in an unofficial translation, is how he describes what we face:

Global warming is an actual phenomenon both observed meteorically and perceived in our daily life. The climate change that concerns the international community mainly refers to the changes in atmospheric components caused by man-made greenhouse gas emission that triggers climate change featuring global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report indicates that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere had been up from 280 ppm before industrial revolution to 379 ppm in 2005. Over the past one hundred years, the average ground temperature across the world has increased by 0.74 °C, and in the coming 100 years, it is likely to go up by another 1.1-6.4°C

Scientific research indicates that climate change will bring out grave consequences. It matters to the earth’s future and matters to the survival and development of human beings. Climate change gives rise to frequent climate disasters, accelerated melting of glaciers and accumulated snow, unbalanced distribution of water resources, and threatened bio-diversity; climate change will also lead to sea level rise, natural disasters such as floods and storms can hit the coastal areas with huge blows, small island countries and coastal low-lying land are even under the threat of being drowned; climate change will also exert adverse impact on agriculture, forestry, herding, fishing and other economic activities. It will also exacerbate disease transmission; jeopardize social-economic development and people’s physical health. The adverse effects of climate change have been inflicted upon us. According to the study of Stern, a British economist, the world’s population suffering climate-related disasters every year had climbed up from 2% in 1975 to 4% in 2001 or 250 million, of which 96% is from developing countries.

Other researchers point out that if temperature rose by more than 2°C, 15%-40% of the species on earth are likely to die out.  If temperature rose by 3-4°C, 150-200 million people would be reduced to climate refugees by the mid-21 century, and the scale of economic destruction would be equivalent to that of the two world wars and the Great Depression combined.  

These figures depict a horrible disaster. Even though there might be some exaggerations, the stakes are high once there are catastrophic consequences and they are irreversible. Human beings and the earth cannot afford such disasters. As a result, even though scientists are still arguing intensely about the cause of climate change, and there are still lots of uncertainties in science, no one dare to risk the fate of the earth, and no one dare to bet on the future of mankind. For political decision-making, we’d rather believe that climate change is real than otherwise.

Minister Xie’s comments are emblematic of a huge change occurring in China.  For years too many American politicians defended doing nothing by pointing at China’s supposed unwillingness to act.  And China tended to do the same, pointing at us. 

Today China’s leaders get it – they see the threat climate change poses to their own well-being.  And more importantly, they see the opportunity in the clean energy economy of the 21st century. 

China and the other large developing nations shifted position dramatically in climate treaty talks.  The huge breakthrough in the agreement that President Obama hammered out in Copenhagen was that both developed and developing countries – more than 70 countries responsible for 82 percent of world carbon pollution – stepped up with international commitments to reduce their own carbon emissions. 

The challenge for the U.S. is to shift from a race to the bottom to a race to the top.  It’s the only way to stave off the climate disaster, and it is the pathway to our own competitiveness and prosperity.  President Obama gets it.  He is acting under existing laws – the Clean Air Act and our clean energy laws – to begin curbing U.S. carbon pollution.  The standards issued earlier this month under the Clean Car Peace Treaty are a huge achievement – one made possible by the leadership of California and other states.  And the Recovery Act includes the largest clean energy investments our government has ever made.

But the president knows we cannot make the sustained reductions in carbon pollution that we need, we cannot assure our energy security, and we cannot make the transformation to the clean energy economy, without comprehensive new legislation that limits carbon, spurs clean energy investment, and cuts our dependence on foreign oil.

Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman are leading a bipartisan effort to pass the comprehensive climate and energy legislation that President Obama is calling for.  They are expected to table a draft bill later this month.  What happens in the U.S. Senate in the weeks that follow is absolutely critical. 

There will be those in Congress that still respond by denying the science and pointing fingers at China.  But they should take a fresh look.  China’s leaders understand both the threat and the opportunity.  Do ours?