China to Trump: Climate change isn't a hoax – as Reagan knew

The Reagan-Bush White House saw climate change differently than Donald Trump. The common lens is one of American power on the global stage.

Andy Wong/AP
A man is reflected on a glass as he reads a Chinese newspaper featuring a photo of President-elect Donald Trump, in Beijing, Thursday.

Is global warming a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, as President-elect Donald Trump claimed in a 2012 tweet? 

Of course not, argued China’s vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin on Wednesday, reminding reporters at United Nations talks in Morocco that Mr. Trump’s Republican forebears had taken a leading role in coordinating the international response to climate change.

“If you look at the history of climate change negotiations, actually it was initiated by the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] with the support of the Republicans during the Reagan and senior Bush administration during the late 1980s,” said Mr. Zhenmin said, according to Bloomberg.

He rebutted the second part of Trump’s post, which called the "hoax" part of a Chinese plan "to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive," adding that US investment in clean technologies and manufacturing would likely boost the competitiveness of America’s economy.

"That’s why I hope the Republican’s administration will continue to support this process," said Zhenmin.

The Reagan White House did take action on climate change in a way consistent with the Chinese foreign minister’s comments, highlighting how recently the Republican Party has shifted to allow hardline climate deniers to dominate the party. A look at what drove President Ronald Reagan to move on the issue, though, seems to suggest that his response was bound up with anxieties over America’s assertions of power on the global stage – a theme cited by the president-elect in the infamous Twitter post.

One Reagan-era initiative on climate change, signed into effect as the 1989 Montreal Protocol, is often seen as a model for bipartisan global-warming action due to what The New York Times once called its "pragmatic, business-friendly principles." That global treaty phased out the production of commonly used industrial chemicals found to be responsible for destroying the ozone layer.

But the Reagan administration's starring role in negotiating the treaty may have been key to its success, judging by the case of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As Duke University political scientist Tara Johnson wrote in a 2014 book, the idea for a global body dedicated to fighting climate change was initially rejected by the Reagan administration in 1985.

Two years later, though, international bureaucrats went ahead and launched their own version of the global climate-change body. In response, the administration did a rapid about-face, quickly proposing an institution of its own design – the IPCC.

That aversion to multilateralism took on a different face with President George W. Bush, who backed out of the emission-cutting Kyoto Treaty in 2005, arguing that it would have “wrecked” the US economy and let rising powers like China and India off the hook.

Trump has charted an even more zealous path, promising to cancel US participation in the Paris climate accord within his first 100 days in office and eliminate American contributions to global climate finance, as Newsweek wrote this week.

On Wednesday, Zhenmin said China would continue to take steps to slow climate change "whatever the circumstances," though he added that in accordance with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, rich countries should still shoulder more of the burden.

“Of course we’re still expecting developed countries including the United States will continue to take the lead on mitigating climate change,” he said.

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