Heartwell: China, Go Figure!

Heartwell: China, Go Figure!

I happen to believe that history will judge kindly those who continued to shout, from the rooftops, through their own weariness and against the corrosive drift of conformity: This is not normal!” – Charles M. Blow, New York Times, December 19, 2016

Who would have thought we would ever hear, “China is poised to lead the community of nations in climate protection?”

China: massive air polluter and foil of every right-minded nation—among whose leading ranks was America—as we joined forces to save the planet from the ravages of a warmer climate.

President Obama and President Xi Jinping signed a compact ahead of the UN Framework Conference of Climate Change, a compact that signaled clear intent to the other 193 nations that would soon gather in Paris.

Yet, who among us really believed the Chinese were sincere, or that the spirit of the agreement was any deeper than the relationship between the two leaders; one of whom had just over one year remaining in his presidency?

Ah, but it is America that first reneged on climate protection, as States Attorneys General sued the Administration to block the implementation of the Clean Power Plan.

It is America that elected a man who denies the scientific consensus on climate change as our President.

It is America that watched as he filled his Cabinet with like-minded ideologues intent on turning the nation toward an even greater dependence on fossil fuels.

It is America that is poised to walk away from our commitments.

Meanwhile, it is the Chinese who have stood up at the World Economic Forum in Davos to counter the push by Saudi Arabia and others to move the world back toward a future dependent on fossil fuels, where they undoubtedly stand to reap financial benefits.

The New York Times reported Qiao Baoping, chairman of China’s state-controlled energy utility, as saying,

We have to make a big push in renewables investment…We have commitments under the Paris accord which we cannot fail to fulfill.”

In the same article, Nur Bekri, China’s Energy Minister stated,

Today we are facing climate change and we know this is caused by our use of energy…This is why the Chinese government attaches great importance to the development of clean energy.”

China! Go figure.

Of course, the Chinese suffer from extraordinarily poor air quality, driven by industrial expansion with a seemingly insatiable appetite for electric power and the coal that has long fueled that power.

Few in Beijing leave their homes without face masks to protect their lungs from the heavily polluted air that permeates their city.

Everyday, Chinese citizens face a life of breathing air turned toxic by run-away pollution and minimal protections for public health.

China’s embrace of clean energy and reducing fossil fuel emissions reflects a commitment by the Chinese government to finally deal with its overwhelming clean air problems as well as the growing momentum internationally to address climate change.

Unfortunately, America appears to have veered from that path.

In fact we now have to wonder whether the Trump EPA will roll back a generation of clean air regulations as promised on the campaign trail.

Will a generation of Americans join the people of Beijing in donning face masks every time they step outside?

While those are undoubtedly questions worth asking and taking seriously, the other question I find myself asking is this:

Are there forces at work that even the most aggressive of President Trump’s pro-fossil fuel and anti-environment efforts can’t hope to stop?

The answer, I believe, is yes.

There are three forces at work that I think have the ability to stymie the worst of Trump’s agenda:

Force #1: Local Governments

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a former mayor, I am particularly excited about what cities, towns and counties can and must do to keep us moving forward. Did you know that currently there are 1,060 US cities—in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico—that have signed on to the US Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, launched in 2005 by then-Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels?

The agreement, adopted by the US Conference of Mayors following the Kyoto UN Framework Conference on Climate Change, mirrors the commitments of Kyoto and binds communities to achieving those goals.

Why would Mayors sign on and commit their cities to climate action?


Each of these increasingly common threats can be traced to the impact on climate and weather that results from global warming.

Mayors don’t have the luxury of debating the science—or politics—of climate change: they are far too busy dealing with its impacts.

Force #2: Business Profits

Jonathan Chait argues in his new book Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail, the President “changed the economic calculus [on climate change] irreversibly.”

Yet Trump is poised to roll back climate-protecting regulations and end climate-protecting federal funding initiatives.

However, Chait would argue, American manufacturing has gone too far down the road in product design and factory retrofit in response to turn back now.

Corporate citizens see too much opportunity for innovation and entrepreneurship in clean energy technologies to be deterred.

Global financial institutions are making investment decisions predicated on the science of climate change.

Global insurers are taking climate change into account as they make decisions on extending property coverage.

Correspondingly, cities and states that are taking climate change seriously will be rewarded economically by businesses that are ready to make investments in plants and equipment and an expanding workforce (jobs, Mr. Trump, jobs!).

Force #3: You and me

Lastly, the juggernaut of American resistance has been unleashed!

Millions of Americans are awake and activated by the actions of our new President.

Energized masses of people who cherish the natural environment and want to ensure that future generations will enjoy its bounty and beauty are ready to take to the streets.

This passion, with its urgency and focus, will not be put back in the bottle easily.

So I am hopeful. Anxious, yes; frightened, of course. But I am ever hopeful.

And you should be too.


Written by George K. Heartwell on January 30, 2017. George served as Mayor of Grand Rapids, MI for twelve years from 2004-2015. In his retirement, George is active within the West Michigan community and serves on the Michigan LCV Board of Directors.

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