Ten of the dozens of Democrats running for U.S. president in the 2020 election appeared nearly evenly split during Wednesday’s debate in citing climate change or the rogue government of China as the biggest geopolitical threat facing the country today. All failed to mention that those threats are largely one and the same.
The Chinese communist regime is systematically eliminating ancient ecosystems in the South China Sea, killing its people with smog, obliterating fertile soil through rare earth mining, and endangering crowded cities with lax regulations on where government-controlled corporations may store dangerous chemicals. It is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter and is exporting its environmental apathy worldwide through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure project designed to give China control of how most of the world’s people get from one place to another.
No one watching Wednesday night’s debate – hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo – would have heard any of the candidates condemn China’s reckless activities or note in their warnings about climate change that, without regime change in China, humanity will fail to rescue its damaged environment. The absence of this reality in the debate is made all the starker by candidates discussing China and climate change as two separate topics within seconds of each other.
Towards the end of the night, moderator Chuck Todd asked each of the ten candidates on stage what they believed the “greatest geopolitical threat” to the United States was. Former Rep. John Delaney (D-MD) named China as the biggest “challenge” and “nuclear weapons” on their own as the biggest “threat.” Joining him in naming China were Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH). The other most popular answer was “climate change,” the preferred threat cited by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), former Rep. Robert “Beto” O’Rourke (D-TX), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ).
Rep. Julián Castro (D-TX) got away with naming both, without identifying the relationship between the two:
China regularly escapes blame for its role in destroying the global environment because it is a party to the Paris climate agreement, and the Communist Party regularly chastises the world for not doing enough to keep the earth clean and alive. Yet no government is doing more harm to its environment – and exporting environmental destruction – than Beijing.
China’s prodigious contributions to the destruction of the earth have grown exponentially during Communist Party chairman Xi Jinping’s tenure, almost proportionally to the number of Chinese government statements condemning other countries for polluting the earth. China broke air pollution levels in 2015, allowing the quality of its air to reach 50 times the World Health Organization maximum levels for pollutants at the time. A year later, environmental scientists published a report finding that China is responsible for ten percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and had tripled carbon dioxide emissions in three decades. In October, Chinese University of Hong Kong researchers published a study finding that one million Chinese people a year are dying as a result of air pollution; pollution is also, the study found, killing 20 million tons of crops and costing the country nearly $38 million a year.
In May, scientists studying illegal ozone-destroying chemicals found a significant increase in global levels of trichlorofluoromethane, a toxic chlorofluorocarbon, and traced most of it back to two provinces in China. This pollution does not stay in China; American scientists have found it increasingly present on the U.S. West Coast.
On the ground, China’s dominance of rare earth mining – the retrieval of lucrative elements used in the construction of smartphones and other consumer technology – is destroying entire Chinese communities by contaminating water supplies and rendering soil sterile.
“Processing rare earths is a dirty business,” the Guardian detailed in 2014, adding:
Their ore is often laced with radioactive materials such as thorium, and separating the wheat from the chaff requires huge amounts of carcinogenic toxins – sulphates, ammonia and hydrochloric acid. Processing one ton of rare earths produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste; Baotou’s rare earths enterprises produce 10m tons of wastewater per year.
China’s illegal colonization of the South China Sea – which it should legally be sharing with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Malaysia – has destroyed at least 17 reefs in the Spratly Island region, once one of the world’s most fertile fishing grounds, and decimating local fish populations. China has built multiple artificial islands in the Spratly and Paracel Island chains – which legally belong to the Philippines and Vietnam – and equipped them with military and surveillance assets. The dredging needed to build these islands have caused environmental damage that “is substantial and unprecedented in scale,” marine biologist Terry Hughes said in 2015. A BBC report a year later found that China is also intentionally destroying fishing populations to harm its neighbors, not merely overfishing them out of existence.
China has exported its disregard for nature through its Belt and Road Initiative. The BRI seeks to give China control of the world’s largest roads, ports, and railways by signing construction agreements with developing nations that require predatory loans, to be paid later with the property China built with the money. BRI projects are underway in Southeast Asia, Subsaharan Africa, and parts of Europe. China aspires to bring these projects into Latin America and, ultimately, the United States.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that as many as 265 threatened animal species will be “directly impacted” by Belt and Road.
“WWF is concerned that BRI-related investments, including infrastructure development, may result in a unique set of challenges to sustainable development, if they are not properly planned and implemented,” the NGO wrote in a 2017 report.
China has taken measures to protect its international reputation from the damage that its outsized role in exacerbating environmental destruction should inflict. Local Communist Party cadres fabricate environmental statistics to give the appearance of abiding by international standards. (To keep up the illusion, the national Party sometimes punishes its underlings for “corruption.”) Beijing has forced rural peasants to endure harsh winters without burning coal to keep warm, threatening the lives of their children while the families of Party leaders in Shanghai and Beijing lived comfortably.
Perhaps most importantly, China goes out of its way to censor critics of its environmental protection on the Internet. In 2015, when a giant cache of illegally stockpiled chemicals exploded in Tianjin, a city of 15 million, China censored 50 websites for “creating panic” by reporting on the scope of the disaster.
None of these concerns surfaced in Wednesday’s debate, even as the issues of environmental destruction and China’s threat to the world were brought up within seconds of each other. Democrats have a political reason to maintain their silence on this: President Donald Trump is the world’s loudest voice warning about Chinese Communist Party threats to the world, and some Democrats, perhaps to spite him, have openly embraced China’s environmental destruction. But without addressing the reality that saving the planet from climate change is impossible as long as the Chinese Communist Party remains in power, the Democrats’ environmental concerns come off as disingenuous and unreliable to measure if the candidates will take material steps in office to protect the earth.