Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Restoring US Environmental Leadership

By Svati PazhyanurPublished November 8, 2013

In the face of the growing threat of Chinese (and global) pollution, the United States must address its falling credibility as a leader in shaping global environmental policy. Whether it is in the form of ratifying and implementing many stalled treaties or even more radical carbon pricing, it is time for the US to make aggressive environmental policy a priority and set an example for the developing world.
By Svati Pazhyanur, Published 11/8/13

This week, the Chinese industrial city of Harbin was covered by a thick layer of smog, causing hospital admissions to soar by 30 percent and forcing the government to stop most public services including schools and airports. Fine particulate matter (also known as PM2.5 or respirable particles because it penetrates the respiratory system further than larger particles) reached levels of 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, 40 times the level that the World Health Organization considers ideal for human health, and more than triple the level that's considered hazardous. For comparison, the PM2.5 level was 41 in New York City on Monday morning. In the face of the growing threat of Chinese (and global) pollution, the United States must address its falling credibility as a leader in shaping global environmental policy. 

Since last winter's similar "Bejing apocalypse", the Chinese government, pressured by the international community andparticularly Barack Obama, has planned to invest $817 billion in its plan to radically step up its fight against air pollution by 2017. The plan aims to reduce its PM2.5 pollution to 60 micrograms per cubic meter, by closing 1,200 factories and reducing its coal consumption from 23 million tons per year to 10 million. 

However, Chinese scholars doubt this plan reach its goals, or even make a difference. Infighting within the government bureaucracy is a significant obstacle to implementing the plan. Even as some officials push for tighter restrictions on pollutants, state-owned enterprises — especially China's oil and power companies — have been putting profits ahead of health concerns in working to outflank new rules, according to government data and interviews with people involved in policy negotiations. Furthermore, Beijing is incredibly frustrated with Washington after its debt ceiling debacle, and is increasingly viewing messages from American leadership as hypocritical advice from an ineffective government.

This should sound familiar. While China's problem of corporate control over policymaking is far more magnified than the US', American lobbyists, such as the American Petroleum Institute (the national trade association that represents all of America's oil and natural gas industry), have long been fighting against strict environmental regulation. Furthermore, gridlock over the never-ending cycle of continuing budget resolutions has pushed environmental policy under the rug indefinitely. In the wake of the government shutdown, the credibility of American leadership is even more challenged than usual. 

All of these developments have caused US environmental leadership to falter in the past two decades. The US decision not to join the Kyoto Protocol most clearly exemplifies American weakness in dealing with climate change so far. Furthermore, the US has failed to ratify numerous treaties addressing environmental threats, including marine pollution, organic pollutants and the loss of biological diversity. Most of these agreements actually enjoyed bipartisan support but simply stalled in Congress. As a result, US pressure on China to reduce pollution is seen as hypocritical and yields little results.

If the US is serious about pushing China to act swiftly on reducing its pollution (as the US should—there is already evidence that Chinese air quality is increasingly affecting weather on the US' west coast), it must first address concerns about falling US hegemony. Nobody is going to view the US as a leader if the country has a dysfunctional government, regardless of how large its economy is. With the goal of credible or even remotely effective diplomacy in the future, aggressive environmental policy must become a priority to set an example for the developing world. Whether it is in the form of ratifying and implementing many of its stalled treaties or even more radical carbon pricing, it is time for the United States to step back into its position as an environmental leader.