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响应: Georgetown Students Share Thoughts on Exchange with Peking University

When Climate Politics Create Cultural Divides

Advait Arun


I’m surprised at how much common ground my small group of three Georgetown students found with our three Peking University (PKU) counterparts. We doubted the long-term efficacy of U.S. and Chinese leaders’ protectionist policy turns, criticized the vaccine “diplomacy” that has left so much of the world’s population unvaccinated, and affirmed that U.S. and Chinese citizens shouldn’t treat each other as enemies. To be sure, we disagreed somewhat over U.S. and Chinese visions of multilateralism and development. And, unfortunately, we ignored issues of human rights and militarism, topics on which I also suspect we held some different opinions.

Over the topics we did discuss, though, I found in my Peking University counterparts an encouraging willingness to reflect on and critique Chinese policies. Most impressively, they produced exhaustive lists of the actors — states, NGOs, civil society groups, international organizations — that influenced each global governance issue we discussed.

So, when our PKU counterparts emphasized that changes in individual and corporate choices were key to tackling climate change, my Georgetown group was shocked. Our counterparts envisioned a world in which transnational companies voluntarily transition to carbon-neutral production; individuals switch to AliPay because the company plants a tree per transaction; and everyone buys electric cars, sleeps without air conditioners, chooses public transportation, and uses less plastic. The PKU professor who concluded our discussion on climate change even announced that his next trip to the United States would be by boat, to avoid airplane emissions. They thought that their individual actions wouldn’t be in vain.

This clear divide in opinions was one that I initially had no idea how to bridge.

Individual changes seem ethical — but they’re not the changes that the planet deserves if its people are to avoid climate catastrophe. AliPay’s tree-planting scheme won’t change Shanxi or West Virginia coal economies. By gutting public transit options, most U.S. cities have prevented citizens from traveling in anything but cars. And traveling by boat instead of plane seems like moral grandstanding when just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions. In fact, the same banks that pledge to prevent Amazon deforestation have continued to finance billions of dollars in dirty investments.

In this world, I argued to my counterparts, individual actions mean nothing. After all, three decades of climate anxiety in the U.S. haven’t created any mass sustainability movements among citizens and corporations. Solutions to the above problems require government action and radical policy reforms, not voluntarist civil society-level changes.

But it’s not that our PKU counterparts discounted committed government action as irrelevant: one of them detailed how China’s central government penalized local officials who didn’t meet climate goals, how every bureaucrat now had to meet stringent green reporting requirements, how Chinese regulators are challenging carbon-intensive industries. Our counterparts praised Chinese subsidies for electric vehicles and solar panels as essential to a green transition, while agreeing that the U.S.’s politicized discussions of climate change prevented similar kinds of useful regulations. Is their attraction to individual action hypocritical?

It was easy for my Georgetown group to prefer ambitious government-led policy change over our counterparts’ seemingly misguided focus on individual actions. But our counterparts’ knowledge of Chinese climate policy illuminates the simple fact that China already has a green industrial policy; for all intents and purposes, the United States still has none. Though Chinese climate policy can be legitimately criticized for being too accommodating to coal, too authoritarian, too slow, it’s hard to accuse Chinese leaders of neglecting the problem.

Our counterparts didn’t neglect China’s climate transition problems, either. They lamented how too many Chinese people think that green transition policies are a Western conspiracy to restrict economic growth, and highlighted how corruption stymied more effective climate regulation. And, as China’s recent coal crunch proves, the Chinese economy still overwhelmingly relies on fossil fuels. At the very least, though, maybe it’s easier to be optimistic about the efficacy of individual action when one’s government is already doing the hard work of crafting a green transition.

I have no idea if this is true, but it’s my best guess. After all, our counterparts fundamentally believed that changes in individual behaviors meant something. While we Georgetown students demand the U.S. government take even simple steps to make the planet safe for future generations, our Peking University counterparts have leapt ahead of us: they are encouraging changes in individual behavior to ensure that future generations are safe for the planet.

At any rate, our counterparts’ critical observations and appreciation for our arguments suggest that I would be mean to assume that their conviction is silly. Even if I cannot instinctively trust their faith in the efficacy of individual action, there’s no better way to find common ground than to learn to appreciate the way they think, and to try and understand how they got there.

Advait Arun (SFS'22) is a senior in the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service majoring in International Political Economy.