All Aboard the Belching China Express (or How China Holds Our Fate In Its Hands)

China has the size, the wealth, and the “political will” capable of leading us to a cleaner, greener future

The recent news that China would impose a modest carbon tax in 2015 had me thinking about that country’s global environmental role. Up to this point, despite the various “eco-cities” in development there, that role has largely been relegated to poster-child-for-ecological- degradation. But here’s a perverse, unsettling, weirdly paradoxical thought: the political regime in China—autocratic, brutal, corrupt, nominally Communist, and quasi-oligarchic—may hold the key to the earth’s survival.

A couple of years ago I asked the environmental activist and author Paul Hawken if a rapidly modernizing China would drag us off the cliff or maybe, eventually, lead us across the river:

“Although China’s form of governance is unacceptable and will bite it in the end, it can adapt faster to ecological exigencies than we can. They may be building coal-fired power plants at a blistering pace, but they do not have leaders who are skeptical of science, deny climatology, or doubt evolution.”

It’s true. Whether we want to admit or not, China has the size, the growing wealth, and (pardon the euphemism) the “political will” capable of leading us to a cleaner, greener future. While we’re likely to bicker, endlessly, the leaders of China possess the power to decree. As Americans, of course, we in different contexts abhor that power. But undemocratic China is likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future (the last thing we want, in fact, is an unstable China). Their ability to unilaterally decide, however flawed and ugly, does offer hope for rapid progress on the environment front. A carbon-neutral China by 2030?  It could conceivably happen if the exceedingly small circle of men who run that country of 1.5 billion decided: Enough is enough—even we can’t breathe! So, a note to China’s autocratic leaders: more environmental decrees, please (and while you’re at it, lighten up on the dissidents).

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