US, China, and International Climate Change Relations

By Masih Babagoli  

In light of Earth Week, the discussion topic on April 9th was on climate change relations. Our Energy & Environment Center Leader Sam Place, and body member Charles Harper focused the conversation on the relationship between developed countries, like the US, and the developing countries, like China.

How do we escape from the “doomsday” that scientists are prophesizing? How should the US Congress enter this issue of sustainable development? What are the best ways at slowing down climate change? And most controversially, are we justified in telling developing countries that they cannot go through the same path that developed countries have taken because of the contributions that the conventional path makes to global issues of climate change?


This last question was the main topic of discussion for our meeting. Some argued that it was not justified for developed countries such as the US to dictate the course of development for countries – such as China – that are undergoing industrialization right now. The main premise of this argument was that by forcing China to change the way that it is developing, for example by replacing its agricultural technologies with greener though less efficient ones, the United States would be reducing the standard of living of Chinese people.


Through that lens, it is not justifiable for the United States to be depriving other individuals of a better quality of life when Americans were able to enjoy the same luxuries without a responsibility for its emissions. We might claim to have sustainable technology, but that is nothing more than rhetoric if implementing this technology is at odds with the economic wellbeing of a nation.


Those who argued that we can and should dictate a change in course of development of countries undergoing this transition focused on the macro impacts. Climate change, economic inequity, and other problems that fall under the umbrella of sustainable development are dire global issues – and these dire global issues need to be addressed immediately. Therefore, we cannot wait for developing countries to go through the process because we just don’t have the time. It is not Americans versus Chinese; it is humans against their own fate.


Many argued that we have a moral obligation as a developed country to export the lessons that we have learned in undergoing industrialization and development in a traditional path. Now that we know what shouldn’t be done, we need to inform others. However, some might frame this exportation of knowledge as imperialistic. But can it be viewed that we – as a developed nation – underwent “growing pains”, and now we are just helping others so that they don’t have to go through the same pains? Isn’t that a good deed?