What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago, during the runup to what became the Paris Agreement, it was cooperation between the United States and China that largely set the direction for global efforts on climate change. The two countries funded joint research projects and exchanged best practices with regulators and academics. Most visibly, in 2014, just a year before the Paris Agreement was adopted, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a summit in Beijing at which the two nations pledged to each other the actions they would take. That pledging approach is a centerpiece of the Paris Agreement — today, nearly every country on the planet has a pledge, and most have updated them to reflect new efforts.
Today that cooperation is gone. The only high profile actions between the world’s two most powerful nations seem to involve acrimony and disagreement, like the angry confrontations in March when U.S. and Chinese officials met in Alaska to take stock of their relationship or the repeated efforts by U.S. officials, including Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, to get China to commit to more climate action. There are hints that quiet diplomacy is making a bit more headway — it usually does, especially when diplomats need to signal to interest groups at home that they are being tough — but the toxicity between the nations is palpable. For the U.S., the road to climate cooperation no longer runs through Beijing. And it doesn’t help that the U.S. itself is having a hard time putting together its own credible plan for emissions control.
All of this is terrible news for serious action on climate change, but what can be done? In this month’s edition of Issues in Science and Technology, the magazine of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, I offer some answers in an essay co-written with Valerie J. Karplus and M. Granger Morgan. Our interest is in finding places where the two powerhouses in science and technology can cooperate — a big agenda that includes much of what is most important for progress on climate change.
Although less visible than cooperation on topics like arms control and trade agreements, science and technology is the centerpiece to making progress on topics like climate change. That’s because deep cuts in emissions are impractical without a lot of new technology. And while the whole world benefits from that technology, progress in just a handful of markets defines the global technological frontier. With only a few places that matter most, cooperation …….