THE BLOG
08/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who Lost the Earth?

When Richard Nixon first visited China back in 1972, his journey seemed far longer than the seven thousand miles that actually separate Washington from Beijing. He was bridging the gap between two worlds separated for a generation.

President Nixon understood that such a moment demanded a dramatic signal to drive home a new diplomatic reality. To do that, he chose a simple gesture, but one laden with meaning. Zhou Enlai, China's premier, had nursed a grudge ever since Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to shake his hand back in 1954. And so, when Nixon walked out onto the tarmac in Beijing, he took several steps toward Zhou with his hand obviously, unmistakably outstretched. The message was clear -- and powerful -- and it marked a watershed in US China relations.

Our two nations have just met again at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the most important forum in our bilateral relationship. Only this time, it's not just our geopolitics that are changing -- but the earth itself. Global climate change poses a real and present danger of environmental destruction and human dislocation on a scale we've never seen.

America and China must change the world again. But this time a handshake alone won't get the job done: nothing less than a complete and collaborative transformation of the global energy economy will be enough.

Between our peoples, especially on the subject of climate change, there is still mistrust and misunderstanding: too many Americans are convinced that China won't lift a finger to fight climate change, or that China will hurt us economically if we do. Similarly, too many in China fear that the United States is merely attempting to smother China's economic rise. And too many in the world believe that neither country will take credible and necessary action.

I believe all the doubters are wrong -- but it's up to us to craft a partnership with China that proves them wrong. What's needed are simple gestures, backed by strong actions and concrete decisions, to move forward in a new direction.

And make no mistake, unless we act dramatically -- and act fast -- science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy. Just the basics: In the industrial era, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen from 280 to 385 parts per million. Scientists have drawn a red line at 450ppm -- which represents a warming of 2 degrees Celsius. Anything beyond that presents an unacceptable risk. But unless we take dramatic action -- now -- we are actually headed to 1,000 ppm by century's end. And today, over 40% of those emissions belong to the United States and China.

Undeniably, all of us must do more to meet it. But China and America -- the world's largest emitter today and history's largest cumulative emitter -- have a special responsibility. 192 nations will gather this December in Copenhagen to hammer out a new global climate treaty. Two will set the tone and define what is possible. The crucial question is: can America and China forge a partnership capable of acting boldly enough to prevent a climate catastrophe? Science tells us, the answer had better be "yes."

The good news is that the potential is there. In May, I visited China and met with political and military leaders, energy executives, scientists, students, and environmentalists to gauge China's seriousness and build momentum toward a deal this December. What I found was a country that had undergone a sea change. Today, Chinese investment in renewable capacity is second in the world only to Germany. They have tripled their wind capacity goals in the last two years. In the last three years, China has improved its energy intensity by 10%. China has publicly announced its intention to become the world's number one producer of electric cars. Leaders who weren't even willing to entertain this discussion ten years ago are now equally unequivocal -- only this time, they're arguing that China grasps the urgency and is ready to be a "positive, constructive" player in international climate talks.

It's an impressive turnaround, but aspirational statements alone are no substitute for legal commitments on the international stage. China needs to understand that we will not enter into a global treaty without a meaningful commitment from China to be part of the solution.

Ultimately, our climate diplomacy depends on building a framework that is flexible enough to accommodate individual countries' wants and needs, but firm enough to bring all of us on board and hold all nations accountable. That is the challenge we face: one that will be made easier as people everywhere begin to realize that in the twenty-first century, the challenge of developing clean energy sources isn't a brake on economic growth -- it is the engine.

When we look back on these upcoming years, I want to be able to tell a story in which America's climate partnership with China becomes the clear beginning of a new era: where Americans embrace clean energy -- where a 21st-century grid supports cutting-edge energy technology that modernizes America and creates millions of new jobs -- where billions of Indians and Chinese are lifted out of poverty and see clean energy as an opportunity for development -- and where diplomacy warms up, but the planet doesn't, because the world's two largest emitters came together to take responsibility and deliver change.

Those are the stakes, and this can be our world. But it won't happen by accident. When Nixon visited China, he quoted some writings from China's leader: "Time passes. Ten thousand years are too long. Seize the day, seize the hour." We made real progress at this week's meetings, but we don't have ten thousand years to fix climate change -- we don't even have ten years. If we want to create the US-China climate partnership the world needs, China needs, and America needs, we have to seize the day. We have to seize the hour. We have to act, because otherwise the debate of the 1950's over 'who lost China' will be a twenty first century debate over 'who lost the Earth?'