Scapegoating China

Framing China as an environmental villain only serves to excuse American inaction.

Smoke stacks (1942). Alfred Palmer / Library of Congress

The story is a familiar one: China is the world’s worst environmental villain, with roughly 30 percent of all greenhouse gases emanating from within its borders. In the interests of capital accumulation, the Chinese government tolerates appalling levels of pollution, to the point that surgeon masks are as vital as shoes to walk the Beijing streets. Efforts by the US to shrink its carbon footprint are futile, because Chinese emissions will continue apace.

However, the standard narrative doesn’t capture the whole picture. In fact, it’s US-based corporations, their contractors, and other Western multinationals who are responsible for the majority of China’s fossil-fuel effluents.

These US-based Fortune 500 multinational corporations (MNCs) — such as Caterpillar (which alone has twenty-four factories in China), Johnson Controls (soon to have sixty-eight plants in China), GE, Ford, GM, and Apple, among others — comprise a massive part of the Chinese economy, yet they are largely absent from mainstream discourse on global warming.

As economist Rob Larson observes in his fine book Bleakonomics, “American MNCs are rarely singled out for their own crucial role in exporting polluting industries to Asian export platforms.” Larson points to several major studies that suggest “MNCs that outsource to the PRC [People’s Republic of China] are not leading China toward greater efficiency, but rather taking advantage of the country’s cheap wages and coal-driven power.”

“Capital mobility, a key feature of modern capitalism,” Larson argues, “is thus significantly responsible for the greenhouse emissions.”

Larson also cites an article from Scientific American, which notes, “A good portion of China’s air pollution is simply outsourced smog: industry that has migrated to China from the US and EU to China to help maintain low prices or clean Western skies.”

This category of industry would include direct subsidiaries of US firms, contractors for US corporations (like the Taiwanese-owned Foxconn, which produces for Apple), and independent foreign corporations and Chinese businesses targeting the US market. A smaller element is composed of foreign and Chinese-owned firms shipping their products to non-US markets.

The Tyndall Centre, a UK-based research facility, found that 60 percent of China’s exports in 2006 were produced by US and other foreign multinationals, including a majority of high-tech and high value-added exports from China.

The role of US and other foreign capital is most pronounced in the vital high-technology sector. Economist Martin Hart-Landsberg, author of Capitalist Globalization: Consequences, Resistance, and Alternatives, documents that 88 percent of China’s high-technology exports are generated by US and other foreign-based multinational corporations operating in China.

Given the role of US firms in producing greenhouse gases, China is far from the clear-cut villain castigated by US media figures and politicians. Indeed, for many US CEOs and their political allies, China’s alleged complacency on greenhouse gases provides a pretext for American inaction.

Taking serious steps to address global warming would supposedly place US firms at a competitive disadvantage to the Chinese bogeyman. But this excuse for the US’s plodding steps on climate change disintegrates after juxtaposing the activity of US multinationals with that of China. Despite horrific levels of air pollution in its major cities, China nonetheless ranks far behind (nineteenth) the UK (first) and the US (second) in greenhouse gases generated on a per-capita basis, according to a study published in Environmental Research Letters.

And for all the faults of the ruling Communist Party, it has taken seriously the need to transition to a more sustainable economy. To that end, China has developed extensive non-carbon-based energy capacity, and now has the largest capacity for wind power in the world and is the largest manufacturer of solar panels. In contrast, the US lags far behind China in both the production of solar-energy equipment and the expansion of high-speed mass transit.

Last fall, the US and China struck a surprising accord, agreeing to jointly lower greenhouse gas emissions. Under the agreement, the US will reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases by 26 percent to 28 percent before 2025 (relative to 2005 levels); China pledged to stop growing its emissions by 2030.

The deal was a step in the right direction, Naomi Klein wrote in November: “By tying the emission reduction targets of both countries together in a bilateral deal, President [Obama] is making sure that his successor will have to weigh any desire to break these commitments against the risks of alienating America’s most important trading partner.”

But movement leaders and other advocates have also called attention to the limits of the agreement. In the immediate term, Republican majorities in Congress will block even the tepid reform Obama is offering.

Even more importantly, the inseparable link between corporate globalization and climate change — and the need to reshape the global economy that follows from its recognition — is hardly palatable to Obama and the leaders of other advanced capitalist countries. Top US officials in both parties are tightly linked to the priorities of US-based multinational firms, which generate both misery-causing jobs and massive amounts of greenhouse gases in the developing world. Only “market-based” policy options get serious attention.

Additionally, the fossil-fuel industry has sponsored a massive propaganda campaign that has significantly muddied the waters. Earlier this month, a Gallup poll found that more than a quarter of respondents thought that most scientists are “unsure” about whether climate change is occurring, and 62 percent answered in the negative to the question, “Do you think that global warming will pose a serious threat to you or your way of life in your lifetime?”

Still, images of melting polar icecaps and an unending stream of extreme weather like Hurricane Sandy continue to agitate tens of millions of Americans, as evidenced by last year’s massive climate march in New York City. Expanding solar and wind energy and mass transit are widely viewed as necessary measures, especially among young people.

And a September Gallup poll found that “more than half say global warming is caused by human behavior, the highest level ever recorded by the national poll.” (Though that was down two percentage points in the most recent poll.) Furthermore, a full 58 percent said “protecting the environment should be a priority,” even if it comes at the expense of economic growth.

At the same time, there is a growing awareness of the role of major corporations in fueling global warming across the globe. As Klein argues in her latest book, we must redirect corporate operations into useful, non-greenhouse-gas-generating activities, eliminate wasteful production and consumption wherever possible, and reduce the use of the profit motive as an organizing principle.

Klein calls for a profoundly new economic model based on environmentally safe economic activity aimed at meeting real human needs that she has branded “deliberate growth.” For Klein and many others, this means an extensive degree of public intervention in the global economy. Just as the economic crisis of the Great Depression forced the US to consider once-unthinkable intervention into the economy, the urgency of the ecological crisis calls for serious public controls over the unceasing drive of major corporations to maximize profit and growth, whatever the environmental costs.

Last April, conservative columnist George Will charged that “global warming is socialism by the back door.” A genuine solution to global warming will indeed require a vast shift in the American economic paradigm of exporting jobs and unchecked levels of greenhouse-gas pollution to China, which is destructive both to US workers and to the global environment.

But socialism cannot be slipped through the back door. It can only come openly and democratically, as more and more people realize that it is the only sustainable economic model for the future.