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Jason J. Czarnezki

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Boom to Bust: China, the U.S., and the Environment

Posted: 01/18/12 05:30 PM ET

Apart from the significant population gap, the United States and China are remarkably similar countries. Their cultures have an air of informality, their land masses are relatively equivalent and both are highly influential civilizations, albeit for very different reasons. From an environmental perspective, the similarities continue. China and the U.S. rank first and second, respectively, for producing greenhouse gas emissions. Both countries have large domestic coal reserves and use coal to generate the majority of their electricity. They are the world's largest auto markets and oil consumers, each importing more than half the oil consumed domestically.

Perhaps the interconnectedness of their economic systems and environmental health should come as no surprise. The U.S. receives low-cost imports from China, and China remains dependent on the U.S. export market. Similarly, the U.S. has received China's help in financing budget and account deficits, while China uses U.S. Treasury bond markets to store foreign exchange reserves. China's environmental choices also directly influence the U.S. and the world. Twenty of the world's most polluted cities are in China. As stated by Vanderbilt professor Michael Vandenbergh,

China's projected emissions are so large that, when added to the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, Chinese emissions alone may be sufficient to trigger catastrophic climate change even if all other countries approach near-zero emissions levels.

And nearly 30% of the San Francisco area's particulate matter pollution comes from China. The U.S. is equally culpable. Americans have adopted a culture of spending more money and absorbing more resources to accumulate more. Consumerism is the dominant cultural orientation where acquiring goods is the principal cultural aspiration. Put more simply, modern consumerism and environmental problems know no boundaries and have a global reach.

Unfortunately, environment governance and political reform in the U.S. and China have failed over the last two decades. The boom of environmental regulation of 1970s America has busted. No new environmental laws are forthcoming and the Environmental Protection Agency is under attack. The baby boomers, who were the beneficiaries of post-World War II economic and global expansion and investments in American infrastructure, have now largely abandoned public parks and schools, mass transit and modest real estate development to seek shelter in large cars, low-density suburban developments that now dominate the American residential landscape and, ironically, cheap Chinese imported goods. In 1970, while enacting the Clean Air Act, Congress discussed at what near future point the country would phase out the internal combustion engine as if it were inevitable. One cannot imagine such a discussion in 2012.

In China, political reform, in terms of transparency, rule of law and public participation, has seen limited progress, and environmental activism faces the pressure of economic growth and the state. In his book Out of Mao's Shadow Philip Pan discusses the tragedy of the Tiananmen protests in 1989 and how Chinese who felt a glimmer of hope for democratic reform following the economic reforms of the 1980s no longer feel they have the power to reform society. Instead, his subject "focused on his own problems instead of the country's, on work instead of politics, on money instead of justice." Perhaps it is far easier to focus on consumer options in the absence of political ones.

Despite the social activism of American baby boomers, the political goals of Chinese activists and significant economic development by the U.S. since World War II and China over the last decade, environmentalism and activism continue to take a back seat to consumerism and economic growth despite a failing global economy and increased harm to public health and natural resources.

The path to reform must include at least three factors in a responsible partnership between the United States and China as it relates to environmental law and policy. First, the U.S. and China must establish a real bilateral dialogue on climate change. This must include a newfound willingness to engage the climate change issue by the U.S. Congress and a Chinese willingness to establish a domestic cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Second, the United States must continue to support and fund environmental and rule of law programs in China. While China may be developing at a break-neck speed economically, the nation's governance, rule of law and environmental management capabilities are extremely weak -- what one would see in a typical developing country, not the world's second largest economy. These weaknesses have direct impacts on American business and public health in both countries. Third, the two largest economies must promote significant changes in consumer behavior in terms of the demand for goods and the environmental footprints of daily life in each nation. In both countries, economic progress should be based on sustainability and improvement of existing resources rather than simply growth and acquisition.

These reforms would create significant public health gains for both countries, level the playing field for U.S. and Chinese companies, improve advocacy and individual rights in China, promote public participation and environmental activism in the United States and begin to realize the limits of economic models based purely on cultures of consumerism rather than societal needs and social betterment.