Joint Conference with Nanjing-Hopkins center: Sino-US cooperation and the environment

Recently, Fulbright and the Hopkins-Nanjing center for American studies held a conference celebrating 30 years since the opening of Sino-US relations. The topics discussed varied widely: from security issues, America's ability to equip a growing China, Sino-American cultural exchange, and (one of my favorite topics) Chinese online nationalism and its influence on Sino-US relations.

But by far, the topic that included the most discussion and exchange of ideas, was the issue of environment and our current energy crisis as it relates to Sino-US relations. The discussion on the environment began with a presentation by a young Chinese girl who essentially argued that while we all need to worry about climate control and the energy, all the finger pointing at China is unfair and unfounded. Her main points included: first, per capita, China has cummulatively contributed less towards climate change and environmental problems than most developed countries. Furthermore, China is a developing country, and Western countries, already enjoying high development, should allow China to catch up. Another argument included the fact that in many ways, the West essentially started this problem as they were developing over the past century.

After her presentation, many others began discussion about this point, claiming that finger pointing was not conducive to an international resolution to solve our problems. Then an elderly professor loudly claimed that we could sit here and talk about cooperation and the importance of balancing environmental concerns with China's development, but all of that wouldn't matter in 30 years when Shanghai and Beijing were both under water. His blunt pronouncement spurred a very lively disucssion about steps that need to be taken to solve our crisis, and what roles the US and China should take in the solution. Another professor supported this opinion, and said, in a more leveled tone, that much of the apologist attitudes meant to counter the finger pointing in essence drive discussion into just discussion with no action. In other words, this problem needs to be moved to the front burner.

I'm no scientist. I admit that I know very little about the problems associated with climate change, especially the environmental science behind the problems. But in Tom Friedman's book Hot Flat and Crowded, he quoted a few Montana farmers that claimed they didn't need any statistics or Ph.D. scientists to tell them climate change is happening; they see it around them every day. Similarly, I don't need anyone to tell me the damage China is doing to their air; just flying in and out of China gives a very clear picture of the pollution hazing over the country. Another participant at the conference echoed similar sentiments; she said that when Chinese people tell her that pollution in China is not serious, she only has to site her degrading health as proof of the problematic air she breathes (having been sick more times this year than in the last 4 years combined, I can empathize).

That being said, it does seem that the more we, or China, apologize or make excuses about China's current environmental practices, the more that talks disintegrate into inaction. Cultural sensitivity is important, as is accomodating China's need for development, but that does not excuse lazy/subpar practices. China has a surplus of money to invest in cleaner air and efficiency, and as evidenced by the Beijing Olympics, when China wants to get things done, it certainly gets things done. The problem is convincing China to not take shortcuts that would spur quick economic development while neglecting the environment (i.e. poor quality cars, overuse of air conditioner by neglecting central heating, subsidized gasoline, etc.)

At the same token, Americans need to start setting and example. It is frustrating to the average Chinese (and the environmentally conscious American) to see our wateful and ignorant habits while we tell the Chinese to be more conscious. At the same time, the Chinese can't live like Americans for 20 years before they begin to turn around their policy.

So the conclusion that we came to at the conference (which I agree with) it is more than cooperation at this point. We need to put aside finger pointing and excuses, and we need to worry less about economic growth (we don't all need 3 story houses with 15 TVs) and more about being environmentally conscious. This isn't meant to understate the gravity of economic hardship, especially among poorer people in both countries, but we need to begin to think of greener practices as a long term investment and not just focus on quick fixes.

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