Hillary Clinton chose Asia, particularly China, for her maiden voyage next week as secretary of State. While the most urgent issue is Beijing's help to end a global recession, Mrs. Clinton's more planet-saving goal is to enlist China to set curbs on its carbon emissions. Without that, President Obama may not be able to win enough Senate votes for a cap on US greenhouse gases.
As the world's two largest emitters, China and the US will set the pace this year among all nations in make-or-break negotiations for a post-Kyoto treaty on global warming. The talks end this December with a summit in Copenhagen.
If the world is to make a commitment to fight climate change, each of these giant polluters needs to know the other will jump into the same chilly pool of obligatory curbs on their tailpipes and smokestacks.
But if China isn't making much of a sacrifice, many US senators, especially those from coal states, may not support CO2 cuts or a treaty seen as reducing US competitiveness. China says it and other developing countries deserve to be allowed to pollute for a while to catch up to modern standards.
Mrs. Clinton must break this standoff. The bleak future that each country faces in a warming planet isn't all that different. And working together on climate change might even draw them closer.
Both countries have taken a long time to wake up to the task. Mr. Obama's election ushers in a drive for a "green" economy. And since 2005, Beijing has made some efforts to rein in its worst polluters, if only for the sake of not letting the local damage hinder growth or to quell rising environmental protests that challenge the party itself.
But China has two problems that may keep it from satisfying the US.
Rather than slow its economy with emission caps, it wants the West to give it advanced energy technology, such as "clean" coal plants. That's a cost the US may not be willing to bear given the energy investments it needs.
The second is that the Communist Party, despite its green intentions, seems unable to control local chiefs in the provinces who are rewarded for growth and often ignore party mandates. And many of them are part owners in polluting factories.
A top-down campaign against CO2 is likely to fail. Until Beijing allows local democracy – and full freedom for citizen activists – there won't be enough public pressure on these local chiefs.
While Beijing has tolerated a blossoming of environmental groups since 1994, it keeps a rein on them, fearing they may spark a "green" revolt against the regime. Clinton needs to push China to loosen those reins and allow political and media freedom.
She can start by asking for the release of Wu Lihong, a prominent activist who was given a three-year sentence in 2007 after leading a campaign against pollution in the home province of President Hu Jintao. His release would signal a new freedom for eco-advocacy.
Just as millions of Americans now pressure their leaders for action on global warming, China needs millions of courageous activists like Wu Lihong.
For want of a dissident released, a planet should not be lost.