President Xi of China applauds the Hong Kong security bill

Man up, President Xi

Why not flip the script, and let China lead the world out of the climate crisis?

Artillery Row

Amid the hue and cry of the event itself, then the hand-wringing over two long weeks, and now finally the post-mortems, one key take-away from the Glasgow climate summit surely has to be: do we really believe that Cop 27, in Egypt next year, will get the job done? 

Why are we not thinking outside that United Nations box, when the temperature in the Arctic circle tops 100 degrees, or when we watch wild fires of destruction from Siberia to California, at the same time as floods hit Germany and frosts devour some of the world’s most treasured vineyards in Burgundy?

‘We are digging our own graves’

As a former United Nations Director, I could admire and understand the philosophy that had the UN bring the leaders of Tuvalu, Fiji and the Marshall Islands, all of them facing “a life or death” climate crisis, to Glasgow, to engage with Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and India’s Narendar Modi, all of them responsible for polluting the planet to one degree or another. The principle of all the nations of the world gathering is a laudable one, especially when the crisis is so clearly planetary. Whether it is productive is another matter.

For once, the UN’s Secretary-General Antonio Guterres found his voice, dispensing with the subtle diplomacy that so often wins him polite applause, but yields little action. “Enough of killing ourselves with carbon. Enough of treating nature like a toilet. Enough of burning and drilling and mining our way deeper,” he said, his voice betraying uncharacteristic anger in public. “We are digging our own graves.”

Yet. My mind raced back to the first “Earth summit”, in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. As a journalist I witnessed the fanfare that accompanied a breakthrough conclave of world leaders (some 117 of them, the biggest gathering of its kind). The consensus then was clear, articulated by one American delegate to our TV camera, who felt he was in space looking down on mother earth: “Houston, we have a major problem, and we can only return the earth to all if we turn to all, friends and foes alike.”

One lead voice back then was earth scientist James Lovelock, once NASA expert himself in Houston, the fellow who first advanced the idea that the earth functions as a community and a self-regulating system, the so-called Gaia hypothesis. Now 102 years old, Lovelock ventured the thought recently that the climate crisis required a no-nonsense, semi-dictatorial hand, eco-authoritarianism being his word: “it may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while,” he concluded.

President Xi opted not to attend

That voice finds an echo chamber elsewhere. Think, for example, of Bill Gates: author of a book not so humbly titled “How to avoid a Climate disaster”, its message being that inspirational, ground-breaking entrepreneurs such as he can come up with strategies, for product, for investment, for global change that will pre-empt the disaster. Forget about winning hearts, minds and voters, the Congress in one country, or the Parliament somewhere else. To be fair to Gates, he dedicated years, and plenty of dough, to trying to develop an affordable toilet for all. But his signposting is clear. Let a powerful, semi-autocratic elite handle this, not the masses.

Then I think of a major NGO, long since dedicated to climate issues alongside democratisation, with whom I worked closely at the UN, whose leaders now whisper quietly: “It’s time to have the Chinese take charge, to lead on climate, impose tough decisions on themselves and oblige others to follow.”

If you watched China’s President Xi and his team over at Glasgow, what you saw was the same old, same old. The leader himself opted not to attend, but sent a high-level delegation that waited to 59 minutes after the eleventh hour, to dilute the language on the use of coal along with Modi’s India, while of course concurring with the broader, big-picture language of seeking to reduce global warming to the magic target of 1.5 degrees. It’s easy to put your signature to that when, by common consent after almost 30 years of such summits, the goal is worthy but (how shall we say) not going to happen.

So here’s a thought, especially as just as the Glasgow summit closed, Xi made himself China’s supreme leader, probably for life, having the Communist party in special plenum cast him unmistakeably in the hallowed ground of Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping before him, the “helmsman” of the people and the revolution. Have the Chinese lead, make them accountable as never before, and let them show us their hand in the process.

Biden should dare Xi to flip the script

Enough with Cop 27 in Egypt next year. President Xi, lead us to a summit where you and the other major polluters, India, the United States, Russia, Japan, look yourselves in the mirror and admit that the problem begins with us, and the solution must be found among us. Maybe you are better placed, seeing as you brook no dissent, to make the world’s largest nation live by new rules, then demand others follow suit. Maybe your enemies will see the power of good in your China, not the hand of evil. Maybe the rest of our world will then accept that this is China’s century. 

Not a word of this will have accompanied the zoom call between Joe Biden and Xi this week. More’s the pity. They had so much to talk about beyond Taiwan, and trade, and treating one another like sparring partners. Biden should dare Xi to flip the script, of the West leading on this issue with China cast as the perennial bogeyman, and invite him to play pied piper on the climate crisis, leading by example and shaming all others to follow.

Man up, President Xi. You want to be the world’s number one economy, the number one superpower? Then show us who you are, and what you want. Start with climate, coal and carbon, your use of which is destroying our common habitat. Do it not just because the planet is running out of time, but because the planet has every reason to fear another Cold War unless you learn that which others, from the days of Roosevelt and Churchill on, have taught all of us: To turn power into leadership, is not just for the national interests of China, but for the world. Therein lies the path to being the true superpower, to making this China’s century.

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