03/17/2011 06:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

China vs. US: Shape of Things to Come?

There are those who predict that China will eventually eclipse us as the world's most powerful nation. I don't subscribe to that hypothesis unless certain rhetoric we are hearing from both sides accurately represents the future course of the two countries.

What rhetoric am I referring to?

Zhou Shengxian is the 62-year-old environmental minister of China. The following are some of his recent policy declarations.

"We must not any longer sacrifice the environment for the sake of rapid growth and reckless rollout, as that would result in unsustainable growth featuring industrial overcapacity and intensive resource consumption."

"Facts have proved that prosperity at the expense of the environment is very superficial and very weak. It is only delaying disaster."

Zhou goes on to vow that climate change will be considered in issuing permits for new factories, and points out that his government plans to build a high speed rail system that will connect cities with populations over 500,000 so as to reduce vehicular traffic.

Contrast his philosophy with that of some of our elected Republican officials. The comparison is embarrassing as well as troubling. For example, virtually all of the 83 newly elected Republican House members reject a scientific consensus and mounting evidence that global warming is for real. Failing that, they dismiss rising temperatures as merely a natural phenomenon of no significant consequence. They also reject the notion that carbon pollution is hazardous to health, thereby removing any dramatic counter-argument to their bogus contention that environmental regulation is a job killer and impediment to economic development.

Republican lawmakers are intent on cutting federal subsidies to solar, wind, and other renewables, characterizing these alternative energy sources as currently too exotic to have more than a marginal symbolic effect. [Meanwhile, China has more astutely read the energy tea leaves and become the world's biggest and lowest cost manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels.]

House Republicans mock any governmental efforts to incentivize Americans to reduce driving in favor of mass transit, biking, or walking. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a potential GOP presidential candidate, complains that Obama Administration fiscal policies would intrude upon the "free market" by forcing Americans towards more energy efficient cars and propping up renewable energy to make it more cost-competitive. He calls President Obama's energy policy "more of an environmental policy" as though "environment" was a dirty word.

Finally, you have many congressional Republicans maintaining that our landmark network of environmental regulation is an impediment rather than facilitator to economic progress and should be relaxed.

Talk is cheap, of course, which is fortunate for our side. Republicans' relatively dismissive approach to environmental protection is not shared by the majority of the country, and future elections should likely reflect this.

As for China, it has fallen far short of Zhou's lofty rhetoric up to now, as it continues to battle monumental pollution. Nevertheless, its authoritarian government can impose desperately needed radical reforms virtually overnight (at least in theory) in the name of conservation. What democracy could announce a cap on total national energy use as China has done in its recently released five year plan?

Rhetoric notwithstanding, both nations will ideally choose an environmentally sustainable path to the future, thereby providing a crucial roadmap in survivability for the rest of the world to follow.

Edward Flattau's fourth book Green Morality is now available.