Skip to content Skip to footer

In the Wake of US Climate Failures, Don’t Look to China for a Panacea

Coal still accounts for 65 percent of China’s energy generation.

A projection of what Shanghai, China, will look like in a world that is 4 degrees warmer (c. 2100). (Photo: Climate Central)

Since President Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord, there has been speculation that China could take the lead in the fight against climate change. China’s leader Xi Jinping has certainly been eager to assume this role, just as he took up the cause of free trade against Trump’s nationalist posturing.

At first glance, this might seem improbable. After all, China is by far the leading emitter of CO2, pumping out more emissions per year than the US, the EU and Japan combined. Moreover, China wastes stupendous amounts of energy in its inefficient industries: According to the US Energy Information Administration, China’s industries consume 7.9 times as much energy per US dollar of GDP as Japan, 5.8 times as much as the UK and 3.9 times as much as the US. As energy analyst Robert Wilson writes: “China has now passed America and is now the most physically important country on the planet. No other country has a more important influence on the biosphere, whether in terms of what we take from it or what we dump into it.”

Yet, while China is the world’s leading polluter by far, it is also the world’s leading producer of both wind turbines and solar panels. China also leads the world in installed capacity of both wind and solar. So Xi Jinping’s ambition is perhaps not entirely implausible.

Besides, the US has hardly been a leader in the fight against climate change. While President Obama made some modest efforts to improve vehicle fleet mileage and suppress coal emissions, these gains were rapidly outstripped by his parallel efforts to promote fracking, build “enough pipelines to encircle the Earth and then some,” expand deep ocean drilling, open the Arctic and US Eastern seaboard to drilling, and more. In fact, US fossil fuel output grew by some 40 percent on Obama’s watch, turning “Saudi America” into an oil exporter for the first time in decades. Indeed, Obama ramped up oil production so much that cheap fuel has encouraged Americans to buy gas-guzzling SUVs and enormous trucks — so much so that sales of actual cars have collapsed, with the result that fleet mileage actually declined under his presidency. Brilliant.

Yet, in my view, the notion that China is going to lead the world fight against climate change is even more absurd. That’s because China is different. China’s growth drivers are, if anything, even more powerful than those of “normal” capitalism elsewhere, while at the same time, China’s bureaucratic particularist political system — in which power is widely dispersed throughout the 89 million member ruling party — means that Xi Jinping has little power to change direction even if he wanted to.

China’s Drivers of Hypergrowth

In capitalism, competition is the motor that drives growth like a perpetual motion machine. Growth is built in and cannot be exorcised. All efforts to date to “green” capitalism — cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, dematerialization of production, and so on, have foundered on the brutal reality that no government and no industrialized economy will accept binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions because no one has yet found a way to staunch emissions without staunching economic growth.

Yet, in capitalism, there is a one built-in limit to growth: profits. If companies can’t make a profit, they will cease production and lay off workers, sometimes masses of workers. Hence, the business cycle. Now and again, economic recession or collapse brings growth to a halt, at least temporarily, until sufficient value has been destroyed such that the cycle can begin all over again on an enlarged scale. Further, in capitalist democracies, there is still some freedom to organize, so environmental organizations have been able to impose some restraint on pollution — gains which as we know are now under unprecedented assault.

But in China, none of this applies. China’s rulers are not private capitalists — at least not with respect to their state economy. China’s rulers are bureaucratic collectivists who run a hybrid bureaucratic collectivist-capitalist economy, a system largely exempted from the laws of capitalism. Of course, it’s difficult to make generalizations about the “Chinese economy” because what’s true of the state-owned sector, about half the economy, is not necessarily true of the foreign-invested joint venture sector or the domestic private capitalist sector. Here I’m mainly concerned with the state-owned/controlled economy, which overdetermines the rest of the economy as well. China’s state-owned companies do not live and die by the rules of the market. For all the market reforms since 1978, the government has not allowed a single major state-owned company to fail and go bankrupt, no matter how inefficient, no matter how indebted. China’s statist economy abides by different laws of motion, different drivers.

Capitalist economies are driven by a single maximand: profit maximization. China’s state-led economy is driven by a different maximand: maximizing the security, power and wealth of the Chinese Communist Party bureaucracy. China’s rulers are first and foremost nationalists. As nationalists, and in particular as “communist” nationalists, they faced Cold War hostility, blockades and other threats from the first days of the People’s Republic under Mao, so they had little choice but to self-industrialize. Partly by circumstance and partly by design, Mao sought to build China as a more or less fully autarkic economy. Hostile to markets and lacking capitalist methods of economic development, he tried to drive the economy to “surpass Britain and catch up with the U.S.” by means of political campaigns based on “revolutionary” self-sacrifice and voluntarism. That didn’t work out so well. After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping abandoned politics for economics and under the banner of “market reform and opening” invited Western companies to set up in China, initially in an archipelago of coastal Special Economic Zones (SEZs) where foreign companies partnered with state-owned industries to exploit China’s ultra-cheap migrant labor in exchange for new technology and knowhow from the West.

From Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, China’s leaders have sought to build China into a modern industrial superpower but one that’s still largely self-sufficient in order to prevent the return of foreign domination. Thus, while introducing capitalism, the government has systematically maintained state supremacy and induced foreign companies to hand over technology and intellectual property for market access but restricted foreign investors to limited sectors (auto manufacturing, electronics, export industries, some retail and others) in order to prevent their taking over key sectors and the commanding heights of the economy. The party’s strategic goal of comprehensive economic development has obliged it to rely on three main drivers: state-sector modernization and expansion, employment generation and consumerism — and all these have had enormous environmental impacts.

First, profitable joint venture partnerships brought in mountains of foreign exchange earnings, which enabled the party to renovate, modernize and greatly expand its state-owned industries from the 1990s. In the 1970s, no company from the People’s Republic of China counted among the Fortune Global 500 list. By 2016, 128 of the Global 500 companies were Chinese (vs. 110 American companies) including three of the top ten, and nearly all of them, and all the big ones, were state-owned. The government also modernized and monetized its central planning apparatus.

China’s Five-Year Plans have spelled out strategic goals in comprehensive industrialization plans and funded priority and “pillar” industries, from basic steel, coal, power generation and such in the 1950s, up through the highest tech aspirations to smart manufacturing, robotics, cloud computing, 5G internet, big data, new materials, renewable energy, hybrid vehicles and more, detailed in the 12th and 13th Five-Year Plans (2000-2020).

With his call for “national rejuvenation” centered on his Made in China 2025 initiative and New Silk Road project, Xi Jinping takes all this to a new level: He aims not just to make China the world’s leading high-tech manufacturer but also to bring much of Asia, Africa and even Europe under the sway of Chinese market domination and political hegemony, in order to construct a New World Order in which China regains its “rightful” place as the center of the world economy. So this is the first driver: the need to compete and succeed as a nation against Western (especially US) domination.

Secondly, the Chinese leadership must maximize growth to generate jobs to keep up with its population growth and create work for workers in sunset industries like coal. In capitalist economies, corporations don’t care about the unemployed. If workers, even masses of workers, get laid off, that’s not the capitalists’ problem. It’s not even seen as the government’s problem either, except in severe downturns, such as the Great Depression, when our government was obliged to create Civilian Conservation Corps-type jobs programs or face the threat of unrest if not revolt. But because the Chinese Communist Party was once a workers’ party, and because the party claims its legitimacy as the (self-appointed) representative of the working class for whom it led the revolution, it cannot completely ignore the workers as capitalists can do in the West.

The Chinese Communist Party has been very cruel to workers, as when it subjected them to pitiless exploitation at the hands of foreign corporations in the SEZs. But it must still strive to keep them employed to keep the peace. Already, the government faces hundreds of mass protests across the country virtually every day, more than 160,000 “mass incidents” a year, and strikes and protests against unpaid back pay or overtime, against land grabs, against pollution and against corruption. So, the government cannot afford to let masses of workers be laid off. That’s why in November 2013 economic czar and Prime Minister Li Keqiang said:

Employment is the biggest thing for well-being. The government must not slacken on this for one moment … For us, stable growth is mainly for the sake of maintaining employment.

This explains why the 12th and 13th Five-Year Plans have insisted that the government will do all it can to keep unemployment below 5 percent, declaring that the government will create some 15 million new jobs each year, enough to meet or exceed population growth. And this is why the government keeps its “zombie” steel companies, aluminum companies, coal mines and construction companies in business year after year, rolling over their debts, rather than letting them fail and close down as western economists are always admonishing them to do.

Thirdly, after the collapse of communism in East Europe and Russia and the Chinese communists’ own near-death experience with the Tiananmen uprising of 1989, the ruling party prioritized the creation of a mass consumer economy and also gradually raised incomes in order to focus people’s minds on consumption and consumerism instead of politics. This is why, ever since the early 1990s, successive Five-Year Plans have prioritized new consumer industries and the government has promoted one after another consumer craze: the car craze, the shopping mall craze, the foreign tourism craze, the condo craze, the cruise boat craze, the theme park craze, the bike-sharing craze and more. The government has also partnered and backed private capitalists, such as Jack Ma’s Alibaba (China’s eBay) and other consumer-oriented industries — to promote shopping, video gaming, social media, and more shopping. Government banks have created a consumer credit industry from scratch and gone into the mortgage business to spur consumption and drive the economic growth.

There are further drivers, below the top leadership. Industrial ministries led by the oil ministry, the coal ministry, the steel ministry, the railroad ministry and others are all mighty drivers of growth in their own right. They employ millions of staff and workers and contribute billions in GDP growth and tax revenues. They compete against one another for central resources, lobbying for their share of centrally distributed funds to grow their respective sectors. And as China’s growth has slowed since 2012, they have fought efforts by the central government to force them to cut back.

Then there are the local drivers. When Deng Xiaoping introduced market reforms in local governments and state industries, he cut various profit-sharing deals with local officials and state-owned company bosses. He insisted that state-owned companies fulfill their planned production as previously, but gave them the right to sell over-quota output on the new free markets, and also gave them the freedom to reinvest their retained profits as they saw fit, and to initiate new lines of production for market. After the rise of Poland’s Solidarność trade union in 1980 and collapse of communism in 1989, Deng saw China’s opportunity in stark Manichaean terms: China was presented with a once-in-an-epoch opportunity to catch up with the West — or China’s communists would join their Soviet comrades in the dustbin of history. In 1980, Deng told China’s officials and managers to double per capita GDP to $500 by 1990, then double it again to $1,000 by 2000, then once more by 2030-50 to achieve a national GDP of $1 trillion. In 1992, he invited local officials and state-owned company bosses to “jump into the sea of commerce” and exhorted them to grow the economy or get out of the way: “Any leader who cannot boost the economy must leave office.”

Local officials didn’t need to be told twice. Deng’s exhortations led in short order to GDP “tournaments” as overachieving local officials competed with one another to generate higher growth rates to win promotions and more government largesse. Thus, the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) set a national GDP target of 7.5 percent. But all of China’s 31 provinces set targets higher than this. Average: 10.1 percent; highest 13.0 percent; lowest 8.5 percent. Local officials pursued “blind production,” “blind investment” and “blind growth,” squandering resources and profligately wasting energy in all these processes, in full confidence that the government would continue to bail them out, which so far, it has done.

Further, the introduction of market reforms amplified tendencies in the old bureaucratic economy to redundant investment. Generally speaking, officials in, say, inland Sichuan Province can’t invest in industries in coastal provinces like Guangdong or Shanghai, like capitalist investors in a market economy. So if local officials in Sichuan or Henan want to profit off central government initiatives to boost auto production or boost windmill production, the way to do so is to build their own. So, local officials built thousands of redundant industries across the economy. As a result, today, China has at least 140 auto plants (vs. 45 plants in the US), some producing fewer than a thousand cars per year, one even fewer than a hundred cars per year, more than 100 wind turbine producers, most operating at less than 50 percent capacity, more than a hundred electric car makers, none of which make money, and so on. This has resulted in lost economies of scale, lower efficiency and more pollution.

Local officials also expropriated land from hundreds of millions of peasants, selling their farmland to developers building infrastructure, useless “blingfrastructure” and “ghost cities” across the country. Since the beginning of market reform in 1978, China’s Five-Year Plans never called for national GDP growth rates higher than 8 percent per year, but this target has been regularly exceeded: In 1983-88, GDP growth averaged 11.9 percent per year. In 1985 the economy grew at 15.2 percent, nearly double the target. Over two decades, 1992-2011, GDP growth averaged 10.5 percent, hitting 13 percent and 14 percent on the crest of the boom in 2006-2007. In this way, China’s competitive, overachieving officials easily soared past Deng’s targets and China’s GDP exceeded 11 trillion in 2016.

China poured more cement in just the three years of 2011-2013 than US builders poured during the entire 20th century to build all US cities, ports, road and rail systems, airports and more.

This is why, with just 19 percent of the world’s population and a GDP equal to just 63 percent of the US GDP in 2016, China has nevertheless become by far the world’s biggest consumer of marketed primary industrial raw materials (cement, metal ores, industrial minerals, fossil fuels and biomass). China consumes more than 32 percent of the world’s total of these resources — nearly four times as much as the US, the second-largest consumer. China is the leading producer and consumer of steel, with 50 percent of world output. China consumes just over half the world’s coal and a third of the world’s oil. China consumes 60 percent of the world’s cement. In building and over-building its infrastructure, technology analyst Vaclav Smil notes that China poured more cement in just the three years of 2011-2013 than US builders poured during the entire 20th century to build all US cities, ports, road and rail systems, airports and more. China has also become the world’s largest consumer of lumber and forest products, leveling forests from Siberia to Southeast Asia, New Guinea, Congo and Madagascar. Thanks increasingly to China’s voracious consumption, Greenpeace has warned that “future generations will be living on a planet without ancient forests.” And this is why China surged past the US to become the world’s largest consumer of energy in 2009, and on present trends, will soon be consuming fully twice as much energy as the United States with an economy less than two-thirds as big.

To be fair, some of these resources — roughly 20 percent — are embedded in the production of goods for export to the West. But these are partially offset by China’s own imports of embedded resources in the Boeing airplanes, soy beans, beef, pork and so on that the country imports in large quantities. The rest is consumed in domestic production, overproduction and waste at home.

In China’s statist economy it becomes rational to regularly overproduce — to produce mountains of steel and aluminum that can’t be sold at home, that can only be sold at a loss overseas by dumping them at below cost. It becomes rational for state builders to build empty airports all over the country, near empty high-speed trains, empty expressways and empty bridges. It’s likewise sensible, if bizarre and stupendously wasteful, to build dozens of “ghost cities” and “New Areas” where almost no one lives. Indeed, right now, China’s planners and builders are in the process of building 3.4 billion new homes — in a country with just 1.4 billion people, most of whom have already been rehoused in new homes since the 1990s. China’s perpetual infrastructure overconstruction program can be understood as something like a non-stop national Civilian Conservation Corps, though it’s also an engine of cadre corruption — one of many means to loot the state.

Further, since 1999 when the government ordered its large state-owned companies to “go out, go global” in search of new markets, China’s state-owned companies have been building hundreds of infrastructure-for-resources (and/or for loans) projects across Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, and even in Europe and the US. In most cases, China compels its weaker neo-colonies to use Chinese companies, Chinese finance and Chinese labor. Today, with China already massively overbuilt, Xi Jinping’s New Silk Road initiative is pushing this imperialist venture to a new level, to expand China’s economic empire around the world to contest the US for global hegemony.

Built-in Barriers to Change

The foregoing are the main drivers of excessive growth, overproduction, over-construction and resource and energy waste in China. What about the built-in barriers to change? First of all, China’s police state brooks no opposition. Trade unionists, environmentalists, democrats, feminists and their lawyers are all routinely arrested and often tortured and imprisoned. Chinese people risk their lives to fight the environmental destruction of their country as bravely as they can.

Secondly, China’s ruling class owns the economy (or most of it) collectively, not privately, as with capitalists. This means that power is dispersed throughout the party-state bureaucracy. In the West, it’s often been argued that, “Well, China may be a dictatorship, but at least that means the government should be able to get things done. So it should be able to force a transition to solar and wind power quickly.” Indeed, China’s government gets things done like no other nation on Earth — “at China speed” as the People’s Daily likes to brag. A new airport? Consider it done. A new high-speed train line? Done. A new 57-story skyscraper? One was recently put up in 19 days. An entirely new city like the Xiongan New Area now under construction south of Beijing? That might take a year or two. But, hey, it’s a whole city and planned to be triple the size of New York City. The government has had little trouble forcibly evicting hundreds of millions of people to use their lands for dams, developers, industrial parks, shopping malls, highways, airports or anything else the government desires.

But when it comes to stopping overbuilding, overproduction and pollution, not to mention corruption, the central government can’t seem to enforce its will. It can’t systematically discipline the people in its own ranks. When the government orders local officials to stop overbuilding or overproducing, to obey state environmental laws, stop dumping pollutants into waterways, turn on the sewage treatment plants, suppress coal production and shift to solar and wind, strangely, its orders are routinely ignored. As a local official I quote in my forthcoming book said, “We don’t think those orders [to stop polluting] apply to us.”

How is it that a highly centralized neo-totalitarian party state cannot force its own subordinate officials to obey its own orders and laws? The problem is the collective nature of China’s ruling class. Beijing can’t regularly enforce its writ against resistance from below because it can’t fire those people because they are members of the same ruling class as the leaders in Beijing. This is why in China it’s often said that “Xi Jinping is master of nothing” and “orders don’t leave Zhongnanhai” (Zhongnanhai is the compound in central Beijing where the top party leaders have lived and worked since 1949). In this formally hierarchical system, the day-to-day reality is that all relations are intensely personal, governed by what the Chinese call guanxi (connections or relations). If you’ve got good guanxi, good connections with higher-ups, especially all the way to Beijing, and a solid base of supporters below, then you can ignore orders from above, you can keep making money on your polluting factory, buy off your superiors and carry on. The coal ministry, the oil ministry — these are very powerful and very profitable ministries with millions of party bureaucrats and employees. They like things the way they are, they intend to keep them that way, and they have the power to do so.

Thirdly, though the leaders in Beijing rail at the waste and pollution in their system, at the end of the day, China’s leaders, as much as their profit-seeking subordinate officials, are more concerned to maximize growth, employment and profits than they are to clean up the environment. So for all their talk, they don’t really try very hard to suppress pollution. As the people of Beijing this past winter suffered through the worst bout of smog in the city’s history, the government called on people to be patient, saying, “It will take time to solve this complicated problem.” This is why increasingly, China’s upper and middle classes are voting with their feet: fleeing China’s northern cities, even emigrating en masse abroad to Sydney, Vancouver, New York, Los Angeles and beyond.

What Does This Mean for Climate Change?

All this means that Xi Jinping has no chance of leading a global fight against global warming. It means that China’s economy is likely to continue leading the drive to planetary ecological collapse. Short of nuclear war, China’s economic engine poses the greatest threat to life on Earth. While the US, Europe and Japan limp along at 1-3 percent annual GDP growth, China’s supercharged communist-capitalist economy is still barreling along at 7 percent GDP increase per year. This is down from its 10+ percent rate during the two decades up to 2011 but still double and triple the growth rates in capitalist countries. China’s breakneck growth has had a staggering impact on global resource consumption and global pollution. Yet, for all his police-state powers, Xi Jinping is unlikely to reverse these trends. Given the pressures he faces to grow the economy, to produce jobs, to bring mass consumerism to a billion and a half Chinese people, to sell his economy’s overproduction and employ the country’s surplus workers, Xi Jinping must remain committed to prioritize growth over all else.

While promising to shut down 100 coal-fired power plants at home, China’s state-owned companies are building some 700 coal-powered power plants around the world, driving global coal consumption far beyond China itself.

More growth must mean more fossil fuel consumption, lots more. The fact that China has reduced coal production by a few percentage points since 2014 has raised hopes in the West that China may be soon reaching “peak coal.” But in truth, this slight drop hardly matters since coal is still king in China and is set to remain so for decades to come. It still accounts for around 65 percent of China’s electricity generation, and even the most optimistic government projections foresee renewable energy (hydro, solar, wind, biomass) contributing no more than 20 percent of China’s energy production by 2030. To make matters worse, while promising to shut down 100 coal-fired power plants at home, China’s state-owned companies are building some 700 coal-powered power plants around the world, driving global coal consumption far beyond China itself.

Yes, China is also building solar and wind power plants at a furious pace. Yet, despite the fact that China leads the world in installed capacity for wind and solar, these only account for a trivial share of electricity generation in China itself. In 2015, China spent a record $102 billion on wind, solar, geothermal and other low- or no-carbon renewable energy. Yet, in 2016 wind produced just 4 percent and solar, barely 1 percent of China’s electricity. The reason why China produces so little renewable energy despite all the investment is that so much of China’s renewable energy is “curtailed” (i.e. wasted). Nationally, about 21 percent of wind energy is curtailed, as much as 40 percent in some provinces, even more than 60 percent in Xinjiang, ironically, the province with the most installed wind power.

Why? Again, the answer is the nature of China’s ruling class and its requirements for reproduction in this system. Ever since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, its economic administration has been highly decentralized and fragmented, with each locality striving to be largely self-sufficient, in effect mirroring the national economy. For all the market reforms, this remains largely true today for much of the economy. China doesn’t really have a national electric grid. Many wind and solar plants are built in good locations, but then not connected to any grid.

Furthermore, local officials can normally profit only from enterprises in their bailiwicks. So, to maximize their income, they must maximize their output and sales, including power generation, in their own locality. Wind and solar aren’t suitable for every location, and they’re intermittent. So, rather than buy wind and solar power from distant locations at higher prices and also face the inevitable problem of intermittency, local officials rely on and protect their own coal-fired power plants.

Thus, according to Jing ji can kao bao [Economic Information Daily] of February 2, 2017:

A stunning 60% of all electricity generated … comes from captive coal-fired power plants, which factories operate to meet their own requirements. This is putting the region’s electricity grid at risk and making the transition to renewables harder…. The availability of cheap coal is a major driver in the northwestern Chinese province for energy and resource intensive enterprises, such as coal chemicals and electrolytic aluminum plants … these factories can cut their electricity cost by more than half by building their own captive power plants. In 2016, such coal plants generated 63% of all electricity in Xinjiang. [My translation]

In effect, local officials and the coal ministry sabotage renewable energy to keep their coal-fired plants in operation. Yet, because they are all part of the ruling class, and have responsibility for employing tens of millions of workers, they very often do so with Beijing’s tacit approval despite government public pronouncements to the contrary.

Worse, in the effort to clear the air in China’s northern cities, Xi Jinping’s government is building vast “coal gasification” bases out west in Shanxi, the Ordos Basin, Inner Mongolia and other remote areas. These plants will burn coal directly on site to generate electricity and convert coal to liquid fuels like “syngas,” which will then be transported to the cities to be burned in power plants, factories and cars. These huge bases, some encompassing areas larger than the states of Delaware and Connecticut, will be the largest fossil fuel development projects on Earth and they will consume so much coal-fired energy to produce the syngas and other chemicals that they will generate almost twice as much CO2 emissions as if the coal were just directly burned in Beijing power plants. Scientists tell us that if these plants come on line they will “doom the climate.” Some have already come on line and are contributing to the global surge in CO2 emissions.

And as if all this weren’t awful enough, “climate fight leader” Xi Jinping is putting pedal to the metal to frack the country like the US in a bid to enforce his higher priority: to make China relatively self-sufficient in oil and gas production to reduce coal consumption and fuel his country’s ever-growing fleet of useless cars mostly stalled in traffic jams in China’s smog-choked cities.

Planned Deindustrialization or Unplanned Ecological Collapse

Given the foregoing, it’s difficult to see how China’s drive to ecological collapse can be reversed — at least, so long as the Communist Party remains in power. The Chinese Communist Party is locked in a death spiral and can’t break the drive to collapse. Whatever Xi Jinping might aspire to do, given the built-in drivers and barriers reviewed above, he has little power to change very much and every incentive to keep the engines of destruction at full throttle. As I’ve argued previously, the only solution to China’s ecological crisis is to shut down, or at least drastically retrench, most of the industries that have been built up in the last four decades of market mania: shut down all but critically essential coal-fired power plants; shut down most of the coast export industries, the bulk of which are dedicated to producing completely unsustainable disposable, throw-away, repetitive-consumption products; shut down most of the useless auto industry; and shut down most of the aviation, shipping and the many other superfluous, wasteful, resource-hogging industries. Launch an emergency program for environmental restoration; launch a national public works program to re-employ the millions of workers in China’s unsustainable industries that need to be closed to save the planet. This sounds extreme no doubt. But a 4-6 degree Centigrade rise in global temperatures will be a lot more extreme. Such a catastrophe will shut down all of China’s industries and agriculture and in a most brutal fashion: Just look at Houston. That’s the permanent future of Shanghai and all of the country’s coastal industrial centers before the end of this century, unless much of China’s industrial juggernaut is brought to a screeching halt. And the same applies not just to China but also to the rest of the overindustrialized North.

Climate scientists tell us we now face a climate emergency: If we don’t immediately begin drastically suppressing fossil fuel emissions, we’re doomed. The time for half-measures like carbon taxes and cap-and-trade is past. We’ve now reached the point where either we find a way to organize a rationally planned partial deindustrialization — an emergency shutdown of nonessential industries — or we’re going to face a chaotic collapse of civilization and possibly our own extinction.

Since neither China’s Communist Party nor the US’s capitalist industries and their political parties can bring themselves to throttle back their engines of apocalypse, unless great masses of people rise up and overthrow these social orders and replace them with some kind of democratically managed eco-socialism, we’re all most likely doomed. That’s a stark assessment. And in this day and age, when it seems like civilization is already collapsing around us, it’s hard to feel any optimism, let alone imagine reordering the entire world’s societies and economies for the common good. That said, economic systems come and go, governments rise and fall.

Right now, we’re living in the most critical moment in all of human history. As the prospect of imminent planetary ecological collapse looms ever larger, support for capitalism is crumbling everywhere and people around the world are desperately searching for an ecologically sustainable and more equitable socio-economic system. We may fail to build that better world, and that may be our fate. Yet, inured as I am, somehow I still can’t believe that humanity won’t find a way. Somehow, perhaps irrationally, I just can’t believe that after more than a million years of evolution, and after all the astonishing achievements of thousands of years of human civilization and culture, we’re going to throw it all away and drive ourselves and many other species off the cliff to extinction to save our 300-year-old system of capitalism, let alone to save China’s ghastly 40-year-old system of police-state capitalism. That would be an appallingly sad coda to life on Earth.

Note: This article draws on Richard Smith’s forthcoming book, China’s Engine of Ecological Apocalypse (Verso 2018), which argues that the built-in drivers and barriers of China’s hybrid bureaucratic collectivist-capitalism not only render the idea that China could lead the fight against climate change implausible but also reinforce China’s role as the leading driver of global warming and thus, planetary collapse.