Before Hu Jintao's state visit to Washington, it looked as if any conversations about energy and climate change were going to be pretty awkward. The two nations have had some high profile stand-offs in the international climate negotiations in the past couple of years, famously staring each other down and calling each other out in the final hours of the Copenhagen talks. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has in recent months been calling China's rise to clean tech dominance a "Sputnik moment." Then, just last month, at the behest of the United Steelworkers, the U.S. filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization, accusing China of illegally subsidizing wind-power projects. And then last week, the president signed a law saying that the Pentagon must "buy American" solar panels, essentially snubbing the Chinese market.
But on Tuesday, a series of energy deals between U.S. and Chinese companies were announced, setting a more cooperative tone for Obama and Hu's meetings and highlighting the potential of working together.
For all the anticipation, though, it seems that military and economic issues have dominated the talks, and the potentially tense discussions of energy and climate have been back-burnered.
Yesterday, the two leaders released a joint statement saying that they "view climate change and energy security as two of the greatest challenges of our time." Well, obviously.
And from the joint press conference yesterday, here is the president's only standalone mention of energy and climate:
We’re moving ahead with our U.S.-China clean energy research center and joint ventures in wind power, smart grids and cleaner coal. I believe that as the two largest energy consumers and emitters of greenhouses gases, the United States and China have a responsibility to combat climate change by building on the progress at Copenhagen and Cancun, and showing the way to a clean energy future. And President Hu indicated that he agrees with me on this issue.
These tepid statements certainly aren't going to satisfy many climate activists. In an open letter to the leaders delivered yesterday morning, the heads of 22 climate and clean energy organizations—ranging from 350.org to the Sierra Club to Greenpeace to the American Wind Energy Association—called for a "a wartime-like mobilization" to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The letter continues:
It is with a deepening sense of dread over the fate of future generations that we call on you to acknowledge the severity of the global climate emergency by placing climate stabilization at the top of your policy agendas.
Meanwhile, The New York Times ran an interesting—if depressing—"Room for Debate" yesterday, asking "Can the U.S. Compete with China on Green Tech?" The free market economists basically agree that "it doesn't matter," since we don't want to interfere with the markets. The policy wonks make recommendations that are long shot, at best. And Grist's David Roberts dons his Donnie Downer "political realist" cap and says that it's a moot point since Congressional Republicans don't give a hoot about competing with China on clean tech.
Unfortunately, Roberts is right, and while China's economy will be booming on the back of its clean energy development, we'll likely be playing catchup for the rest of the century.