When Barack Obama arrived in Beijing last week for a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders, he encountered a luxury that locals rarely enjoy: decent air quality. It was no happy coincidence. China's Communist regime had ordered millions of drivers and thousands of factories to take several days of down time before world leaders descended on the capital.
The summit, of course, was eclipsed by the announcement of a "historic" side agreement between the American and Chinese presidents to commit their countries to ambitious new targets for reducing greenhouse gases. Mr. Obama undertook to cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025. Xi Jinping promised that Chinese emissions will peak by 2030, although at what astronomical level no one knows.
The symbolic significance of the world's most powerful leaders coming together for a common cause can't be understated. But the common cause here isn't saving the planet so much as saving their own skins.
Even an autocratic regime like China's needs to be seen as responsive to the demands of a restless middle class for something as basic as breathable oxygen. China is already on track to see its emissions peak by 2030, not out of any sense of obligation to the planet but because its population is mad as hell about the smog. So, China is promising to build fewer coal-fired power plants and more nuclear ones.
In the United States, climate change is a wedge issue, not a matter of serious political debate. It matters not that progress toward combatting global warming will largely depend on market forces rather than on non-binding and unenforceable international agreements. Democrats are already using Mr. Obama's Beijing breakthrough to raise money.
Democratic strategists are desperate to reassemble the coalition that gave them the White House and both chambers of Congress in 2008. This month's midterm elections were evidence of just how demoralized that coalition has become. The climate agreement burnishes Mr. Obama's legacy among those who brung him, but have been having second thoughts. It brings them back into the fold, and gives them a reason to vote in 2016. That's why last week's deal is as much about Mr. Obama as his successor.
John Podesta, the White House adviser who engineered the climate deal, is a former Clinton acolyte who's expected to chair Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. For all the renewed talk of her inevitability, Ms. Clinton has a serious credibility problem with the Obama coalition – but she needs its energy to win. She's still seen by the liberal Democratic base as being too cozy with big business and Wall Street.
The Beijing deal allows Mr. Obama to claim to have done his part to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet, as he vowed in his 2008 victory speech. It also sets up Ms. Clinton as the candidate who can actually get it done. As Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Michael Levi wrote: "President Obama's administration may have developed and negotiated these numbers, but his successor will determine whether they're achieved."
Mr. Levi also noted that "big numbers can, however, create a big backlash." Indeed, it almost seems as if Mr. Podesta intentionally designed a deal to bait Republicans. The absence of pre-2030 limits on Chinese emissions makes the deal look too one-sided. But that's what wedge politics is all about – you can't fire up your own base without also lighting a match under your rival's.
Meanwhile, U.S. emissions have been declining nicely in recent years, independent of anything the politicians have done. Mr. Obama's plan to regulate existing coal plants is not even due to take effect until 2017. Legal challenges will likely delay its implementation indefinitely, if not permanently.
Those emissions are coming down because cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing has made coal a less attractive electricity source. And it was higher oil prices, not vehicle emissions standards, that made smaller cars more attractive. (Case in point: SUV sales jumped last month as gasoline prices fell. Environmentalists hoping that lower oil prices will doom the oil sands are more likely to witness a Humvee renaissance.)
Envirocrats and political aides are now flying around, spewing countless tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, to lay the groundwork for another breakthrough at next year's climate summit in Paris. But if it's anything like the Beijing version, it will be just as immaterial to the real challenge. Such deals won't save the planet. But they might save a few political careers.