How the Olympics Shape the Diplomacy of Global Warming

by William Yeatman on April 8, 2008

It’s been a bad week for China’s global image. French police had to extinguish the Olympic torch three times due to “Free Tibet” agitators, who harried the torch’s passage through Paris to protest the “cultural genocide” that China, the host of this year’s Games, has allegedly perpetrated against Tibet.


It was a stunning humiliation for Chinese officials that regard the Beijing Olympics as a coming out party for the world’s newest great power. China pushed hard to land the Olympics because it wanted to demonstrate to the world that it was no longer a developing country.

These same officials are fast learning that there are drawbacks to joining this elite club of sovereign nations. When China was a mere “developing” nation, its poverty was a shield, and no one cared about things like Tibet or China’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, China is important enough to host the Olympics, which means that it is rich enough to be criticized. Today, it’s the “Sinefication” of Tibet. But tomorrow, it will be global warming. After all, China is the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Before, Chinese officials were spared the obloquy heaped upon the world’s #2 emitter, the United States, because they were “developing.” After the Olympics, that argument won’t work anymore.

This revolution in public relations has profound consequences for the diplomacy of climate change. To date, no country has been willing to “do something” about global warming because no rational leader would put his or her no country at a disadvantage by adopting costly emissions controls alone while all other states go on emitting. In practice, this means that Europe is loathe to act without the U. S., which is loathe to act without China.

So far, the U. S. has been the odd man out. The EU could point the finger at America, and China could point a finger to its “right to development.” The U. S., however, had no excuse.

The Olympics changes all that, because “developing nation” and “Olympic host” are incompatible modifiers for China. You can’t have your cake, and eat it, too.

As a result of the Beijing Olympics, China, which overtook the U. S. as the world’s #1 emitter only last year, will also overtake the U. S. as the global climate scapegoat.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: