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China as the Global Warming Bridezilla -- and America's Handy Excuse for Dawdling
By Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson,
Authors of Book Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis

If pop psychology is right, one reason why reality shows are so successful is that we all enjoy seeing people who behave worse than we do. No matter what our shortcomings are, when we watch something like Bridezillas or just about anything on VH-1, we can still say "at least I'm not that bad." A lot of Americans apparently take this reality show approach to China and global warming: "The Chinese are even bigger polluters than we are, so we're not so bad" seems to be the general drift. And it provides such a handy excuse for not doing much ourselves to slow our own greenhouse gas emissions.

There is no doubt that the Chinese are becoming more prosperous and that their economy is in overdrive, and that means their global warming statistics are rocketing upward. Frankly, if they follow our example, the outlook for the world looks grim.

China has now surpassed the United States as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, pumping some six billion metric tons into the atmosphere in 2007. Right now, China burns more than 40 percent of all the coal used in the world, slightly more than the U.S., Japan, and Europe put together. When it comes to global warming, coal is the most dangerous fuel there is -- at least the way it's used now.

If the Chinese, whose auto-buying habits are picking up due to the country's amazing economic growth, start owning cars at the same rate as Americans, that will put an additional one billion cars on the road. If they run on gasoline, both carbon emissions and competition for oil will soar.

You may have heard that the Chinese are making big investments in green technology, and that's true. They're aggressively exploring electric cars, wind power, solar panels, and everything else. But Chinese energy demand is increasing so fast that they're gobbling up even more fossil fuels as well.

But before we get too comfortable with the finger-pointing, let's admit our own sins. Depending on which measure you use, the United States and China are running neck and neck for worst greenhouse gas polluter in the world. Since global warming is caused by the accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the United States got a head start when we started using a lot of coal about the time of Civil War. With about 5 percent of the world's population, the United States alone is responsible for about 29 percent of the total accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, compared to just 8 percent for China. Then there's the per person measure. In 2005, each American was responsible for about 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide, compared to about 5 metric tons for each person in China. The reason China has surpassed the U.S. in total emissions is that they have a billion more people than we do.

Between the two of us, the United States and China account for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide so you'd think that both countries would recognize that it's time to step up to the plate. Instead, we're embroiled in one of the most repetitive, boring, and counterproductive energy debates imaginable. It goes something like this:

The Americans: We're happy to change how we use energy and cut greenhouse gases. But China's already producing more carbon dioxide than we are, and it won't do any good for us to change if China doesn't. Plus, China's a major economic rival. Why should we add to our energy costs, become less competitive, and maybe lose jobs, if China doesn't do the same? You guys are building cheap, smoky coal plants like there's no tomorrow, and you know better. So, after you.

The Chinese: But the United States has produced most of the greenhouse gas that's already out there, and you're the world's biggest energy gluttons per person. Sounds like you want to hide the beer keg just as the second wave of guests starts showing up. Plus, we've got a billion people to lift out of poverty, thank you very much, and the world should cut us some slack as we do it. So, after you.

As far as the rest of the world is concerned, both China and the United States are the "bridezillas" of global warming: demanding, entitled and almost unimaginably self-absorbed. This stalemate is one of the main obstacles to negotiating a new climate change treaty in Copenhagen this December. Some energy experts have called it a "suicide pact," which is harsh, but not unjustified. So far, neither country has agreed to an international global warming agreement, and the world as a whole won't be able to make much progress without these two mega-players.

Many foreign policy experts believe there's an opening now. At the UN "Climate Week" in September, both Chinese and American leaders were more vocal about the need to confront climate change. There is also growing concern in China over the catastrophic effect the country's headlong rush into coal has had on the Chinese people's health. Just one percent of the country's half billion urban residents breathe healthy air, according to studies by the European Union. Pollution-induced cancer is now China's leading cause of death. 

So what could we do? Well, the United States and China could join forces and take a leadership role in Copenhagen, coming to terms and setting an example for the rest of the world -- we're just not holding our breath waiting for that to happen. More doable might be cooperative agreements on research and financing for both cleaner use of coal and alternative energy. But step number one, according to many experts, is for the U.S. to get its own house in order. The Council on Foreign Relations put it this way: "So long as the United States takes only voluntary and relatively mild actions to reduce its own emissions, it can hardly argue that China and India are being irresponsible by doing the same -- indeed, it might suggest just the opposite."

In other words, we need to lead by example, which, in the long run, is the only kind of leadership that works. 

©2009 Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson, authors of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis

Author Bios
Scott Bittle, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is executive editor of, where he has prepared citizen guides on more than twenty major issues including the federal budget deficit, Social Security, and the economy. He is also the website director for Planet Forward, an innovative PBS program designed to bring citizen voices to the energy debate.

Jean Johnson, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is co-founder of, and has written articles and op-eds for USA Today, Education Week, School Board News, Educational Leadership, and the Huffington Post Website.

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