In 1972, while toasting Premier Zhou En-Lai during the landmark visit to China, President Nixon asked, ``What legacy shall we leave our children? Are they destined to die for the hatreds which have plagued the old world, or are they destined to live because we had the vision to build a new world?"
Despite a disgraced presidency, Nixon was credited with melting that aspect of the Cold War.
Today, China and the United States have the Coal War. President Bush could salvage a portion of his legacy by ending it.
We are not fighting each other for the resource. Instead, we burn it up in our parallel universes and toast the planet like no one else. The United States currently spews out the most global warming emissions in an endless drive to satisfy the highest level of materialism on earth. Our level of consumption and pollution is so high that Harvard scientist E.O. Wilson calculated it would take four planet Earths for the rest of the world to enjoy our standard of living.
Oblivious to pointy-headed professors, China is on its way to passing us with its unprecedented industrialization in that most populous nation. We can already see what is going to happen if China continues to strive for our standard of living: The pollution from coal burning is reaching mountaintops on the American West Coast.
A New York Times feature this week said that carbon dioxide pollution from Chinese coal burning, currently just over that of the United States, will be double this country's by 2025.
That might make a hike to the top of Mount Rainier quite interesting as it becomes a global ashtray. Then there is the issue of what China has begun to do to its own people's health. As our children face a declining lifespan because of obesity and diabetes, people in coal-burning provinces are already seeing dramatic rises in lung cancer.
This condition will likely worsen as the United States and China use each other as an excuse not to take global warming seriously. President Bush refuses to participate in the Kyoto treaty to cut emissions because he says large developing nations such as China and India are not under mandatory pressure to lower gas usage. China and India refuse any mandatory emissions caps because the Americans refuse to lead by example.
So a little Nixon is, surprisingly enough, in order here. Still, policy changes seem unlikely from the presidency that has been in the most denial about the environment. The Globe last week reported even more cutting of climate research satellites by NASA, on top of satellite cuts previously announced. By 2020, Bush wants to put humans back on the moon. Great. By then the atmosphere on the moon might be better than here.
In a briefing paper released this week, the Oxford Research Group of England said that unless the world's major governments take climate change seriously along with the related consumption of resources, there can be no end to global insecurity. The report said that the United States, because it currently produces 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions with only 4 percent of the population, ``must face up to its responsibility." It said China and India must be ``brought into greater dialogue," since agriculture in those countries ``could be hugely affected" by global warming.
The report said, ``Unless urgent action is taken in the next five to 10 years, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to avoid a highly unstable global system by the middle of the century." It said, ``Anyone doubting the serious security implications of environmental disasters, even for rich and powerful countries such as the United States, should simply look at the large-scale loss of life and breakdown of society that occurred in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities" after Hurricane Katrina.
When Nixon came back from China, he said that one of the gifts the delegation left behind was a sapling of an American redwood tree. It was symbolic of his hope for the growth of the US-China relationship. ``But the process is not one of days or even years," Nixon said. ``It is a process of centuries." Now that global warming has cut planetary change from centuries to years, there could be no better sign of hope than for Bush to go back to that redwood and offer a toast to China for a lasting commitment to combat climate change.
© 2006 The Boston Globe