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Climate protesters rally in San Francisco, published in March 2019 (Li-An Lim via Unsplash)

The US and China Are Up Against Nuclear and Climate Clocks

The rivalry puts everyone at greater risk from both nuclear weapons and climate catastrophe.

Words: Sofia Guerra, Carla Montilla
Pictures: Li-An Lim

The Doomsday Clock is 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been in its 77 years of existence. The infamously ominous symbolic timepiece, representing the global risk of man-made catastrophe, often inspires more paralysis than hope. After all, 2023 was the hottest year on record and tensions between the United States and China keep rising.

The good news is we can still turn back the clock. Late last year, the US and China agreed to enhance cooperation to address the climate crisis and held the first nuclear arms talks in five years. Recently, a bicameral resolution that called for US President Joe Biden’s administration to continue to engage China in further bilateral talks on nuclear risk reduction and arms control was introduced in Congress. It is necessary for the US to pursue nuclear and climate diplomacy to address the two biggest threats humanity faces.

The Twin Threats

Nuclear proliferation and climate change are twin threats with similar consequences: environmental degradation, public health crises, and heightened risk of conflict. Despite universal vulnerability to these risks, the current geopolitical trajectory would have you believe otherwise.

China’s ambitious push to enhance its nuclear capabilities has prompted mounting pressure in Washington to respond in kind. As members of Congress advocate for nuclear expansion, the fact remains that the US defense-industrial base is ill-equipped to deter China on a strategic level.

Nuclear proliferation and climate change are twin threats with similar consequences: environmental degradation, public health crises, and heightened risk of conflict.

No amount of the United States’ own military spending or weapons development can prevent China’s high-level military decisions like expanding its nuclear arsenal or invading Taiwan. Pursuing an elusive military advantage, as encouraged by the US Strategic Posture Commission’s expansive wish list, is not only a logistic and financial challenge but a bright red flag for China. A military buildup would kick off a cycle of exorbitant military spending and perceived aggression that raises the risk of war at the expense of our respective countries’ needs.

At the same time, climate change is worsening at a rapid pace. In 2023, we saw unprecedented climate-related disasters, including massive floods and wildfires that affected millions of people worldwide. Climate change is also a threat multiplier that increases resource scarcity and communal tensions that can lead to violent conflict.

Rather than hurtling toward an arms race that could rapidly plunge the world into an even darker climate reality, these global challenges demand a paradigm shift.

Thawing the Relationship Before Ice Caps Melt

The US-China relationship has tensed in recent years. In March of 2023, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang warned that there could be a confrontation if the US does not change its approach to China. Issues straining the two countries’ relations include Taiwan, human rights, Hong Kong, security, technology, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Despite these disagreements, US Climate Envoy John Kerry and his recently retired Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, were able to work together on climate issues in recent years. But geopolitical tensions regularly stall progress on that issue. For example, diplomatic meetings were hindered for a year after Beijing suspended climate talks in response to the visit of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August 2022.

The Biden administration recognizes that climate change is a national security threat. It is also a threat to China’s security and economic stability. But deterrence and competition have prevented the two superpowers from collaborating to address climate change more effectively. A more resilient world and a sustainable global economy are in both countries’ shared interests. This common priority should compel the two nations to make substantial improvements on their relationship, recognizing climate change-induced disasters have profound social implications, such as impacts on agricultural productivity, reduced access to fresh water, and rising sea levels.

Cooperation Over Competition

Both the US and China should continue to work toward implementing the climate-focused commitments they announced in November 2023 following talks in California. They should accelerate efforts to expand renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions from methane and other greenhouse gasses.

With 2024 designated as the year of climate finance, the spotlight is on the crucial role of economic mechanisms in addressing climate challenges. As both nations strive to lead the transition away from fossil fuels, their cooperation takes on added significance in supporting initiatives designed to assist developing nations in adapting to the escalating impacts of climate change-induced weather events.

A mutual doubling down on energy transitions adds vital perspective to the current rivalry between Washington and Beijing, hopefully moving it away from what the former currently perceives as a new iteration of the Cold War.

Many factors differentiate the US-China relationship from that of the US and Russia during the Cold War. China was not a major player in the original arms race, nor was it a geopolitical leader when the international climate conference process began. Unlike Russia, China has emerged from the 20th century a bonafide superpower. 

Minimizing Chaos

Where the quest for ideological dominance marked the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, China pursues its interests within a global framework that emphasizes economic interdependence and multilateral cooperation. As such, the US must reassess its relationship with China. Rather than stoking the flames of militaristic competition between the superpowers, it would behoove both countries to directly address the needs of their constituencies through cooperation.

As China ascends to superpower status, it bears the responsibility of taking a lead in critical issues such as climate change and nuclear security. Recognizing that cultivating stability and minimizing chaos from existential threats serves the interests of both nations, there is a compelling case for proactive collaboration. Such an approach fosters a more secure world and is more cost and time effective than addressing problems retroactively.

By embracing this cooperative mindset, both countries can transcend the confines of rivalry, finding common ground in proactive solutions that benefit not only their individual interests but also the well-being of millions worldwide. China and the US need to channel their energies into turning back the Doomsday Clock by pioneering sustainable practices and financing solutions to ensure a resilient and climate-ready world. Until it gets to midnight, there is always time.

Sofia Guerra, Carla Montilla

Sofia Guerra is the Friends Committee of National Legislation nuclear disarmament and Pentagon spending program assistant. A San Francisco Bay Area native, she graduated from Amherst College in May 2022 with a degree in Political Science and Asian Languages and Civilizations. More recently, she combined her nuclear policy knowledge and love for research and outreach at Global Zero and Foreign Policy for America. Carla Montilla is the sustainable energy and environment program assistant at the Friends Committee of National Legislation. She lobbies on behalf of policies that create a green economy, build a sustainable future, and help communities adapt to climate change. Carla graduated from American University School of International Service with a master’s degree in Ethics, Peace, and Human Rights and holds degrees in History and Political Science from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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