China's Climate Change Skepticism

>In yet another unnerving sign that China may not be on the same page as other major countries combating climate change, its top climate negotiator said there was still uncertainty about the causes of global warming. "There are still two different viewpoints in the scientific field," said Xie Zhenhua, citing human activities and the scientifically scoffed-at sunspot theory.

This is not the first time Xie has revealed his skeptical stance. At a meeting in India in January, he made similar comments about the causes of warming and asked the UN's climate panel to conduct further research. Xie does not dispute that the climate is changing, however, and said Wednesday that the consequences of this change are alarming enough that countries should cut emissions anyway.

Skepticism from such a key player on the global stage has surprised China's peers. Similar views abound in the U.S., but they have not infiltrated the diplomatic ranks responsible for negotiating climate change tactics at Copenhagen last December and in Cancun this year. China was not the most popular player in Copenhagen (though neither, admittedly, was the U.S.) and was even accused of "sabotaging" the talks. By questioning the science, Xie could be attempting to lay the groundwork for a less stringent global agreement, thus taking the pressure off China's growing, and energy-intensive, industries.   

Sarah Ladislaw, a senior fellow in energy and national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, points out that "a lot of what China is going to do in terms of reductions are things that have co-benefits for them in terms of local pollution and technology growth."

But denying the existence of climate change and pointing out uncertainties in the science explaining it are two different things, she says. With global attention focused on a review of the UN's climate panel after errors were found in its 2007 report, Ladislaw thinks that Xie's comments "might be one of those things that gets people's attention, but I wouldn't put too much weight behind them as something that signals a significant shift in China's position."

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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