Republicans on Thursday accused John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate, of being soft on China as he prepares to travel to Beijing to resume discussions between the world’s two biggest polluters.
In a contentious hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republicans attacked Mr. Kerry for not doing enough to persuade China to cut greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, many have also sought to portray Mr. Kerry as putting Chinese interests above those of the United States by negotiating with America’s largest economic rival.
Mr. Kerry expects to arrive in China on Sunday for three days of climate talks. He told lawmakers he believes the Chinese government should reverse its increasing use of coal-fired power plants, which helped make it the world’s biggest polluter. But he also made a point of applauding China for deploying more wind, solar and other renewable energy than the rest of the world combined.
Mr. Kerry said it was important to try to find a way that would allow China and the United States to work together to reduce global emissions, despite tensions between the two countries over trade, human rights and other issues.
“China is the world’s largest economy, the world’s largest emitter,” Kerry said, insisting that the United States not engaging in talks with China would be “misconduct of the first order, diplomatically and politically.”
The hearing highlighted the tightrope Kerry is walking in seeking cooperation with Beijing as Republicans and some Democrats try to outdo each other with tough rhetoric on China. It also revealed how little leverage the United States has to pressure the Chinese government to act faster to cut carbon emissions.
“What is the US doing to force China to reduce its emissions?” asked Rep. Nathaniel Moran, R-Texas.
Objecting to the use of the word “force,” Mr. Kerry did not directly address what, if anything, the United States could do to force China to change course, but said that dialogue is what is really needed between the two countries.
He also noted that lawmakers are considering a plan similar to one in Europe that would tax iron, steel and other imports made by countries that do not have strict climate laws, such as China. “This is gaining some traction legislatively because I think people are frustrated with what’s going on,” he said.
Republicans said they were skeptical Mr. Kerry would succeed given that China was investing in new coal-fired power plants, though it acknowledged the need to cut global emissions.
“We haven’t seen any real deliberate effort on their part to keep pace with the efforts of the United States,” Mr. Moran said.
Scientists say that if China’s emissions continue to rise, by mid-century it will overtake the United States as the country that has pumped the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial age. All this pollution from industrialization has helped the planet warm by an average of 1.2°C.
Scientists say 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, is the threshold beyond which the effects of climate change — droughts, heat, wildfires and floods — will exceed humanity’s ability to adapt.
Another issue raised in the session was China’s classification by the United Nations Climate Service as a developing country. As such, it has decided to reduce its emissions at a slower pace than the United States and European countries. China has also argued that it should not face the same financial obligations to help poor countries deal with climate impacts.
China has said its emissions will continue to grow until 2030, when cuts begin. It said it would stop adding carbon pollution to the atmosphere by 2060. President Biden has promised the United States to halve its emissions from 2005 levels by the end of this decade and stop adding carbon by 2050.
“How can the second largest economy in the world keep you and the rest of the world, with a straight face, that they are a developing country, and give them preferential treatment?” asked Rep. Michael McCall of Texas.
Kerry said he agreed with Republicans who have said China should be treated as a developed country and that the issue will be reconsidered next year.
The hearing also included a series of severe personal attacks.
Republican Representative Brian Mast told Mr. Kerry that he “doesn’t represent the United States of America” but rather an “extreme left-wing agenda”.
Rep. Corey Mills, also a Florida Republican, sarcastically thanked Mr. Kerry for taking the time to fly on his “private plane.”
Mr Kerry called Mr Mills’ comment “very stupid” and said he did not own a private jet but did fly commercial flights.
Rep. Scott Perry, Republican of Pennsylvania, offered charts that he claimed prove the world is not warming. That has prompted Mr Kerry to describe the lawmaker’s views, which contradict the conclusions of scientists around the world, as “shocking”.
“They are as thoughtless as you, sir,” answered Mr. Perry, eliciting gasps from both sides of the aisle.