A China-US Smackdown at Copenhagen?

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Much of the conversation at the Copenhagen climate summit this week has focused on the two big gorillas of climate change: the United States and China. As I’ve noted, each country has been pressing the other to do more than they’ve been willing to do to address climate change, and each has been angling to be in a position to blame the other in case the talks fail. And on Friday, it got a little personal.

Two days earlier, US climate envoy Todd Stern, referring to the development of an international fund to help poor countries cope with climate change, said at a press conference, “I don’t envision public funds—certainly not from the United States—going to China.” Stern also dismissed the effort of some developing nations to push the United States to join the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set specific emissions reductions for industrialized nations—but not for major developing nations, such as China and India.

So when Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei held a press conference this afternoon, I asked for his response to Stern’s remarks. He went ballistic—in diplomatic terms. He said of Stern, “I don’t want to say that the gentleman is ignorant,” but he added that Stern “lacks common sense” or is “extremely irresponsible.” He noted that industrialized nations have a legal obligation to provide climate change funding to developing nations. But he did not say whether China, a major economic power, expects to receive any of this money for its own efforts. Pressed by another reporter, He remarked that small island nations should be the priority for such assistance. But he was dodgy on the issue of China receiving assistance: “It doesn’t mean China is asking for money.” He also said that the $10 billion proposed by the United States for the next three years is not nearly enough. He suggested that developed countries should devote 0.5 to 1 percent of their GDP to this program. “I doubt the sincerity of developed countries in their commitment,” he added.

After the press conference, I asked He if China would just come out and say that it didn’t expect to get any money from the United States for climate change programs—especially given that China’s position is that other developing nations are in greater need. And I added, a Chinese statement of that sort would help President Barack Obama at home, as he tries to sell both any agreement reached at Copenhagen and the pending climate change legislation in the Senate. He said China could not make such a declaration. “Funds should go from the developed nations to developing nations,” he said. He smiled and continued: “I cannot renounce that principle.” In other words, China is holding on to this bargaining chip.

With other reporters clamoring for He to expand or explain his comment about Stern, the Chinese official paused as he left the briefing room and said, “Mr. Stern is a friend of mine. What he said about the Kyoto Protocol and China not getting any funding from the United States is shocking. It goes against the principles we are talking about.” And he would say no more. Surrounded by Chinese officials, he walked off, looking like a diplomat who believed he had just landed a blow.

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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