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US-China climate finance rifts echo old themes in global climate debates

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Jeff Tyson

Chinese and American climate officials are meeting in Washington, D.C. this week to discuss a range of mutual climate priorities and actions, as well as address old and emerging areas of tension. Climate finance is expected to be a major discussion point, with the U.S. historically pushing China to invest more in multilateral climate institutions.

John Tobin

Professor of Practice at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management

John Tobin is professor of practice at Cornell’s SC Johnson College of Business and a former Managing Director and Global Head of Sustainability at Credit Suisse. He says the climate finance rifts between the U.S. and China are reminiscent of past tensions between Brazil and the international community – and that history suggests those rifts may evolve with a “new generation of policymakers.”

Tobin says:

“China will in all likelihood point out that most of the carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere was not emitted by China and that the country has not yet attained the level of development that the U.S. and most of Europe have (which are correct). And the U.S. will argue that, unless China focuses less on the past and more on the future and supports international climate finance mechanisms in a manner commensurate to their current and expected GHG emissions, the international community may never effectively address the climate crisis (which is also correct).

“This tiresome back-and-forth, however, is nothing new in the international environmental arena. It reminds me of the time when Brazil reacted very defensively when developed countries argued they should be managing the Amazon more carefully, telling outsiders to stay out of Brazilian affairs and to look at their own impacts on the planet instead.

“It took a change of attitude within Brazil, together with some enlightened policymaking at both the federal and state levels within Brazil, to move the country beyond finger-pointing toward actually taking some responsibility for the deforestation crisis. And, since public opinion and policymaking changed in Brazil, the country has made steady progress in recent decades (despite occasional setbacks) in how they manage the Amazon.

“As has happened in Brazil, I would not be surprised if a shift in public opinion in China and a new generation of policymakers lead to a relatively swift change in China’s view of its central role in causing, and potentially addressing, the climate crisis.”

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