06/03/2013 12:54 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2013

When Obama and Xi Meet, Make It a Green Summit

In preparing for his first summit with China's president Xi Jinping, President Obama might well peruse the detective novel, Don't Cry, Tai Lake, by Qiu Xiaolong, a Chinese writer and intellectual who teaches at Washington University in St. Louis. Supposedly on vacation, Shanghai chief police inspector Chen arrives in the resort town of Wuxi only to find the famous Tai Lake polluted by runoff from a local manufacturing plant. The plant director is found murdered and authorities have arrested a local environmental activist. So begins a story which deals with one of China's biggest problems -- environmental pollution.

Of course, there are no shortage of weighty issues for Obama and Xi to discuss when they meet at the Sunnylands retreat, the former estate of Ambassador Walter Annenberg, in Rancho Mirage, California on June 7 and 8. They will exchange views on China's growing naval presence in the South China sea, on North Korea's nuclear ambitions, and on cyber warfare and Chinese commercial hacking, but it will not be easy to make significant progress on these issues. Mainly, Obama and Xi will commit to continuing dialogue on them. However, there is one area ripe for cooperative action rather than just talk -- environmental diplomacy.

Both countries would gain from an expansion of cooperative green activities. The US and China are the leading emitters of greenhouse gases, and only a joint effort between the two will provide real solutions to global warming. The costs to the US in weird and extreme weather alone are evident in Oklahoma and the Jersey Shore. Pollution is one of the most pressing problems facing Xi and China's ruling elite. Rapid economic growth has come at the cost of the health and safety of the Chinese people with fouled air, polluted lakes and rivers and poisoned food supplies. Environmental issues are the leading cause of public outcry and demonstrations. The cost to China of environmental damage has been measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Xi Jinping has taken to giving speeches about China's Dream and a more "harmonious" society, but this will have little meaning if reality makes the Chinese people sick.

Environmental diplomacy between the US and China does not start from scratch. During the Bush administration, the EPA signed a memorandum of understanding with China's Ministry of Environmental Protection creating a framework for collaboration on air, water, and waste pollution, as well as the implementation of environmental laws. In 2008, a Ten Year Framework for Energy and Environmental Cooperation was signed, and in 2009, Secretary of State Clinton and Energy Secretary Chu signed an agreement with China to expand the Framework and establish a strategic dialogue on climate change. Unfortunately, this early spirit of cooperation did not translate into productive US-China action on climate change at the UN conference in Copenhagen, and neither government has made much of an effort since to highlight common environmental issues.

For the past decade or more, a few US non-profits, operating largely under the media radar, have been collaborating with China on environmental issues. The World Resources Institute has a Climate energy project which partners with Chinese universities. The Climate Works Foundation supports a China Sustainable Energy program. With the assistance of the Natural Resources Defense Council, China built its first LEED certified building to house its Ministry of Science and Technology. The China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, promotes research and dialogue on environmental issues. Occidental College where I teach (and where President Obama studied) has a partnership with Nanjing University on the environment, including the development of common courses and exchange of student and faculty. Other US universities have initiated similar relationships with Chinese counterparts.

A number of US and Chinese companies are engaged in the development and commercialization of green technologies including electric and hybrid cars, solar energy, wind energy and photovoltaic batteries. President Obama said during the 2012 campaign, "As long as countries like China keep going all out on clean energy, so must we." Obama has presented it as a form of friendly competition, but it would not be hard to envision a joint US-China research effort to develop "clean" coal, given the large polluting role that coal burning power plants play in both countries. Common efforts to develop safe nuclear energy might also be on the agenda--and certainly, the US could benefit from the Chinese experience in developing a high speed rail network.

At the Sunnylands summit, Obama and Xi could expand on these existing efforts by announcing a high level US-China Commission on Energy and the Environment, headed by leading private and public figures from both countries, to support greater environmental cooperation. An ambitious agenda for such a group is outlined in "A Road Map for US Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change," a report prepared by the Asia Society and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. My students have also produced a working paper on US-China environmental diplomacy which I have shared with friends at the National Security Council.

To kick start the work, President Obama might announce green scholarships for Chinese students to attend leading US graduate schools of environmental science. He and President Xi could engage high profile individuals like basketball stars Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin as environmental ambassadors. The two leaders could also pledge to sponsor joint national celebrations of Earth Day in 2014.

Support for great US-China environmental diplomacy could spark an expansion of cooperation at all levels of US and Chinese society. A commitment to common green values might help to assure that neither the Chinese Dream nor the American Dream become ecological nightmares. I'm a realist about summit outcomes, having organized one for Clinton and Yelstin in Helsinki, but I always hope for some out-of-the-box thinking. Diplomacy is an art as much as it is political science.

Even if Obama and Xi don't seize the moment in Rancho Mirage, I'm guardedly optimistic that my state of California will exhibit leadership in this area. Governor Jerry Brown recently made a well publicized visit to China, taking a ride on the high speed rail train and asking Chinese companies to invest in the solar industry in California. LA's outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was in China last week on a farewell trade mission. My colleagues in Oxy's Urban and Environmental Policy Institute have been part of the Mayor's brain trust, and assisted him in adopting progressive environmental policies for the city, including taking leadership on a nascent "League of Global Green Cities." Villaraigosa would be a perfect person for Governor Brown to appoint as head of a California-China commission on energy and the environment.

We should not let disputes over military might, cyber security, or trade overshadow our common interest in a Harmonious Planet.

Even at the individual level, there are ways to up our relationship with China. Our latest family news is that our grandson Viggo has been accepted into the Mandarin Immersion school of the LA Public School District. He will soon add Mandarin to his knowledge of English and Swedish, and perhaps become family translator for future trips to China.

For summer reading, I recommend Enigma of China, the latest Inspector Chen novel by Qiu Xiaolong which comes out this month. In fact, there are worse ways to gain a better understanding of contemporary China than by reading the entire series of Chen mysteries. A slightly more sinister view of China is presented in The Shanghai Factor, a new thriller by Charles McCarry, a former CIA operative and author of bestselling Cold War era thrillers. To get a handle on the rhetoric about "China's rise", the "China Threat", and "The Beijing Consensus", a serious reader might want to browse China Goes Global--The Partial Power, by David Shambaugh, a professor at George Washington University and one of the country's leading China experts. As Shambaugh concludes, 'The diversity of views about the implications of China's rise and globalization is testimony to the uncertainty associated with it. But one thing is certain: China's going global will undoubtedly be the most significant development in international relations in the years ahead."

On the lighter side, my wife and I enjoyed viewing the joint US-Chinese film "Shanghai Calling," a romantic comedy about a Chinese-American lawyer (who doesn't speak Chinese) learning to conduct business the "harmonious" way in current day Shanghai which is fast becoming one of the world's most dynamic cities.