Opinion | A cold climate war between the US and China would lead to a nuclear summer

In his 2024 State of the Union address, President Joe Biden told America: “I want competition with China, not conflict.” He went on to say that because of him, the US is now “in a stronger position to win the 21st century conflict against China.” The US is not at war, but Biden warns of conflict. He’s talking, I believe, about climate change, and he’s explaining America’s involvement in a New Cold War. His climate policy, governed by a metaphor of US-China competition, promises terribly for the future of the world.

The 21st century conflict that Biden refers to has already begun, and the president’s conflation of climate policy and foreign policy reflects that. Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act marked the largest investment in climate mitigation in U.S. history, but its purpose was to serve as a shield for American workers in a trade war with China. While the bill subsidizes domestic production and production of green energy to achieve the transition to sustainability, its stated purpose is to “advance the objectives of U.S. economic and foreign policy.” The U.S. has since taken steps to build domestic manufacturing, invest in green technologies and protect American workers from Chinese efficiencies. Weeks ago, Biden threatened to triple tariffs on Chinese imports of steel and aluminum, and his Treasury secretary called China’s glut of green energy exports “unacceptable from an American point of view.” In the Cold Climate War, American profit is more important than global prosperity.

A new Cold War will cover up the inequalities that existed before and since the last one – and make the world even hotter.

I’m 19 and I really don’t want to experience a Cold Climate War. I don’t want my future to be limited by minute technological changes and market solutions. I don’t want green energy to be used for profit, and American industry to take precedence over the global climate. I wonder: what price is America willing to pay for a livable climate? Why doesn’t the rest of the world have a say? And why is it always a price? Although the US and China have contributed disproportionately to global warming, climate change affects everyone – and everyone, not just US and Chinese politicians, should be involved in solutions. There is so much more than economic competition – so many more solutions than conflicts. China is not the enemy, and neither is global warming. It’s the corporations that are making the planet hotter, and the structures they’ve built to get us hooked on fossil fuels.

The last Cold War was a battle between capitalism and communism. And just like in the previous crisis, American politicians see capitalism as the only solution to a global crisis. However, climate change is caused by endless extraction and unsustainable production. A New Cold War will divide the world just like the first. The winners will be the same governments and corporations that can benefit from a war machine, the losers will be the same poor countries and people who will have to struggle in an uncertain world. A US-China trade war against the backdrop of global warming will ignore these people, who in many cases are the least responsible for climate change and yet are the most affected.

People around the world are still recovering from the damage done to them since the last Cold War. It is no coincidence that previous sites of US imperialism have remained particularly vulnerable to climate change. Afghanistan has become politically unstable due to decades of US intervention and is facing and continues to face its worst droughts to date. Devastated by the US war, Vietnam is at risk of coastal flooding and vulnerable to severe tropical storms. And Grenada, the site of a Cold War invasion, lacks the resources to adapt to rising sea levels, degrading ecosystems and frequent hurricanes. A new Cold War will gloss over the inequalities that existed before and since the last one—and make the world even hotter.

Neither conflict nor competition will mitigate the effects of climate change. True change will come from global cooperation, not trade wars between the two biggest emitters. Even bigger changes will come not from Washington or Beijing, but through local communities and changes at the ground level. Climate change affects us all, some specifically more than others. As during the last Cold War, humanity is faced with some ultimate choices. This time we have already pressed the big red button. While the world needs the efforts of the US and China, a Cold Climate War between the two superpowers will only end in a nuclear summer. It’s already warm enough.