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Progress on climate from Obama, Xi

White House photo

President Obama was in California over the weekend for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and according to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, the discussions "were positive and constructive, wide-ranging and quite successful in achieving the goals that we set forth for this meeting."

Of course, that kind of diplomatic description is routine and largely unhelpful. What, exactly, was "quite successful" about the bilateral talks? Well, for one thing, there was an agreement on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which Jon Chait saw as a "big deal," in part because it will help combat the climate crisis, and in part because of what it tells us about the near future.

Basically, the save-the-planet game plan involves a series of steps. First, the Obama administration has to craft a plan to regulate existing power plants. Then that plan has to survive the inevitable conservative legal challenge (which is why Obama's belated steps to fill vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, the court where a challenge will be heard, is so vital). Finally, having put in place a credible plan to meet its international climate goals, then the United States can negotiate a global climate treaty in 2015.

The last part is probably the trickiest. The United States is the worst carbon polluter in the world, but most of the growth in future emissions is expected to come from developing countries, most prominently China, that are rapidly moving people from farms to factories. China's willingness to negotiate poses the biggest obstacle.

The right stresses this regularly. While most conservatives have come to believe that the entirety of climate science is a communist plot intended to destroy capitalism, a smaller contingent of conservatives are prepared to accept the scientific reality -- but their acceptance comes with a catch. They invariably argue, "Even if the climate crisis is real, a meaningful remedy would require action from the U.S. and China, and since the Chinese won't act, we shouldn't either."

I've never cared for the argument, not just because it's a defeatist attitude that dooms the future of humanity, but also because it ignores the potential for American leadership. Our willingness to lead shouldn't be dependent on some other country's willingness to do the same -- we're the global superpower, and we do the right thing because it's the right thing, not because China agreed to a deal.

But the agreement over the weekend suggests the premise of the right's argument isn't correct, either -- China will negotiate and will take steps to address the climate crisis.

It's more than I can say about congressional Republicans.