(This essay was originally published as “We are paving the way for Chinese dominance in clean energy,” by The Hill [online] on November 12, 2017.)
For early baby-boomers, the federal government’s release on November 3 of the comprehensive science report on climate contained few surprises. It simply confirmed what we have been experiencing for six decades. The central question is whether the U.S. will surrender to Chinese leadership in this key strategic area of clean energy systems while we plod along relying heavily on carbon-based, dirty fuels.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oversaw the report, with input from 12 other federal agencies. Some highlights: Over the past 115 years the average global temperature has increased 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Global temperature has set highs for the last three years, and six of the last 17 years are the warmest on record. “The frequency and intensity of extreme high temperature events are virtually certain to increase in the future as global temperature increases.” Humans are the dominant cause of the global temperature rise. Finally, we are experiencing the warmest period in the history of civilization.
Being attentive to the natural world since the mid-1950s, I am confident in making some observations about climate change, at least for the Mid-Atlantic and southern New England regions. First, the robins once departed in October and did not return until late February. Today I am not sure they ever really depart. Second, by mid-October, my garden was once dead. This year I am still weeding, and my gazanias, dahlias, geraniums, and petunias are still blooming. Third, I feel quite badly for the ladybugs who do not know whether to fly or to go into their winter suspension. Overall, it is simply uncanny how much winter has shortened. Back in the 1950s, I reached for my jacket by the end of September; by this time in November, I certainly needed an overcoat.
We can thank Washington politics for the release of the report evidently without any significant sanitizing by the Trump administration appointees who doubt the role of carbon dioxide and of humans in climate change. President Trump has described climate change as a “canard.” In August, President Trump rescinded an earlier executive order that urged federal agencies to consider climate change and sea-level rise when rebuilding infrastructure. His EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has said that carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to warming. Energy Secretary Rick Perry maintains that the science is still out on whether humans cause climate change. It appears that the Trump administration was fixed on tax reform and did not wish to expend political capital in fighting over the report.
Regrettably, it is doubtful that the report will have any impact on the policies of this anti-climate administration. Unfazed, Raj Shah, a White House spokesman said in a business-as-usual statement: “The climate has changed and is always changing.” With such a Lazy Grasshopper attitude, this suggests that the U.S. will cede the technological high ground to China which will then dominate clean energy technology with its attendant political dividends.
China is already dominant in many low-carbon energy technologies. It produces two-thirds of the world’s solar panels and nearly half of the wind turbines. On a lake created by the collapse of abandoned coal mines in Luilong, China has built the world’s largest floating solar project. China is now leading the construction of the Quaid-e-Azam solar park in Pakistan, one of the world’s largest. China is also rapidly expanding its fleet of nuclear reactors and leads the world by far in hydroelectric power.
The country’s “Made in China 2025” program calls for heavy spending on clean-energy research and development, as a way to bolster the economy. State-owned banks are pouring tens of billions of dollars each year into technologies like solar and wind.
China’s “One Belt, One Road” plan is essentially a $1 trillion global campaign to generate economic and diplomatic ties through infrastructure building. It envisions the bankrolling of clean-energy projects across Asia, including the Mideast, East Africa, and Eastern Europe.
There is a famous line from Giuseppe Lampedusa’s 19th century, Italian novel, The Leopard, that goes: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” If we wish to remain a superpower, we must become one in clean energy technologies, the Big Thing of the 21st century. With over 85% of the global market, China already dominates the rare earth minerals industry, of strategic importance to the US. On our current course, we should not be surprised when China also becomes the economic-technological hegemon in clean energy technologies.
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) teaches global environmental politics at Salve Regina University, RI.