I have a friend who regularly hijacks my social media posts about climate change with a statement like, “There’s no point in investing all this money to transition away from fossil fuels unless China, India and Russia do the same.” I’m sure he grins and does a mic drop, convinced he has ended all debate.
He is one of the many who have assimilated the fossil fuel industry’s talking points into his argument in a way that would make them proud. Recognizing that global warming denial misinformation no longer works, they have transitioned to “delay and distract.” One of the biggest distractions is the emissions production of other countries, especially China. If we can get everyone in a tizzy about China, they will lose their focus on what the scientists—American and Chinese--are saying.
It works, of course, because it’s based on a simple, glaring fact. China is now the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases, spewing out 13 billion tons a year, more than twice that of the U.S. Additionally, they are the world’s largest investor in fossil fuel infrastructure. For example, they are building more coal-powered plants in Africa than any other country. And if the world’s largest country doesn’t get on board with climate change, we’re all doomed. Who can argue with such brilliant logic generated by the public relations lobbyists working for BP, Exxon and Mobil? Mic drop! 1
Hold on to your mic, it’s not so simple. First of all, this fossil fuel talking point fails to point out the U.S. still produces twice as many CO2 emissions per capita as China. The average American emits double what the average Chinese emits. China’s population is almost 4 times that of the U.S. (1.4 billion vs 340 million) so it’s to be expected they produce more emissions than us. Additionally, the U.S. is the largest emitter of CO2 over the course of history, dating back to 1751. We have emitted 20% of all CO2 emissions over this time period compared to China’s 11%. In other words, we have caused more of this problem than any other country, so it’s reasonable to expect that we provide more of the solution. 2
Second, this talking point fails to reveal that China is already being impacted by climate change more than any other country. Their land temperatures and sea levels have risen, on average, more than the rest of the world. Climate change is already causing severe droughts, devastating floods and the drying up of large swaths of China’s largest river, the Yangtze, shutting down a key national trade route. This has led to increased public protests throughout the country, a 31% increase over the past few years.
The Chinese know it’s in their best interest to address climate change. Accordingly, they signed the Paris Climate Accords in 2015 like all other nations in the world with the exception Iran, Libya and Yemen (and the U.S. when we dropped out for one year). They have committed to carbon neutrality by 2060 and pledged to peak their greenhouse emissions in 2030. They are electrifying their national bus and taxi fleets, 16,000 electric buses in the city of Shenzen alone. They have pledged to reduce per capita carbon emissions by 65% by 2030. They are boosting their nuclear power capacity, with 17 reactors in production as of 2021. While these goals are important markers, the Chinese, like the Americans, are falling short of their goals. 3
The scientific and economic truth is that China’s role in the global effort to address climate change is crucial and complicated. We cannot, however, allow the fossil fuel industry to distract us with simple answers in order to keep their profits flowing at the expense of our grandchildren’s future. As the world’s most powerful and wealthy nation, the U.S. has an obligation to lead in addressing the world’s existential problems. John Kerry, Special Climate Envoy of the U.S. said at COP27 in Egypt, “Together, our job is to create the sense of urgency that summons the political will to follow through on the pledges and commitments we have already made — knowing one thing above all: the world will not follow our advice; it will follow our example.” The world needs our leadership on environmental matters in the 21st century even more than they needed us to defeat the Nazis in the 20th century. We can’t wait for others. We must lead.
Besides this political and economic response to my friend’s parroting fossil fuel talking points is a spiritual response, more specifically, a Christian response. The anxiety inherent in this talking point is driven by the lure of power and control over others. Most people’s view of God—whether they believe in God or not—is that God is all-powerful. God is an omnipotent being in charge of everything. God is like a king or absolute monarch, a patriarchal being who must be obeyed. Yet, the gospel of Jesus Christ starts its understanding of God as one who serves and suffers and is vulnerable. William Placher, in his book Narratives of a Vulnerable God, wrote, “To read the biblical narratives is to encounter a God who is, first of all, love. Love involves a willingness to put oneself at risk, and God is in fact vulnerable in love, vulnerable even to great suffering.”
This was expressed by Jesus when he was confronted by disciples seeking power over others. He said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many”(Mt 20:25-28).
While political leaders are expected to spout rhetoric exalting power and greatness, the Christian community should not be swept away in such nationalistic furor. The Christian response to climate change must necessarily take the path of servanthood and vulnerability. If Christian principles are going to affect the way we live in the world and how we interject ourselves politically, the motivation has to follow the model of servanthood and vulnerability. We follow a Savior who willingly gave his life on a cross for the salvation of the world. We are called to take up our cross (service and vulnerability) daily and follow him. The question to ask, in reference to the environment is not, “If I act for the well-being of the earth and its creatures, what will happen to my country?” but rather, “If I don’t act for the well-being of the earth and its creatures, what will happen to them?” The first question is one of protecting our power and privilege. The second question is one of serving and loving God’s world and our neighbors.
Think about that before you drop your mic too quickly.