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Climate Frenemies US & China

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we look at how China adapts while the US subtracts.
Ammar Khan
Oct 25, 2023 10 min read
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As world leaders look ahead to COP negotiations next month, the world’s two largest economies are once again looking to make a deal as climate frenemies. The United States-China relationship is arguably the most important in the world for reaching global agreements on everything from carbon market reforms to industrial emissions targets.

California governor Gavin Newsom, who is definitely not positioning himself to run for President in 2024, said as much when visiting China this week. Governor Newsom promised that whatever geopolitical tensions may flare up in the South China Sea or Taiwan, that China could always “rely on California” as a partner for tackling climate change.

Despite the outward bonhomie, climate action is moving in disparate directions in the two countries.

The outlook for electric vehicle production in the US is going from bad to worse as the continuing UAW auto worker strike is costing GM $200 million every week. Just yesterday Honda announced it would end its partnership with Detroit to build more EVs due to a “changing business environment.” Meanwhile, Chinese manufacturers have produced so many cheap EVs that a glut is presenting one of several threats to a Chinese economy that looks dangerously close to recession.

But as always, climate change is the great equalizer, and the fate of US and China’s agricultural sectors are increasingly linked. Both countries are facing increasing frequency and severity of droughts and floods that are putting pressure on food production. This week we take a look at how Chinese farmers are adapting to problems that are becoming more common on American soil, and how a partnership could bring them together.

Shared Climate Impacts

Earlier this year, a study published in Nature found that increased heat would have surprisingly strong effects on agriculture in the United States and China. Unfortunately, that analysis played out in real time in the intervening months.

At the same time that beekeepers were finding thousands of dead bees in the late-summer Arizona heat, beekeepers in Beijing were debating when they would have to move north to protect their colonies from hotter temperatures.

In June, peach farmers in Georgia said the state’s output of its namesake fruit was down 90% after a harsh winter freeze. They were just ahead of Chinese peach farmers, who began waking up at 4AM to harvest peaches and save them from searing heat that is claiming a greater share of their crop each year.

These climate impacts have not come cheap, either. Research published last month found that farmer insurance payouts in the US are up by an incredible 546% since 2001 due to extreme weather events. In China, the price tag for climate impacts in the soybean and corn industries has so far come out to $820 million over the past decade.

Each country is taking different approaches to tackle the problems repeating themselves on both sides of the Pacific.


In its latest National Strategy for Climate Change Adaptation, Chinese officials are putting increasing emphasis on a suite of technologies known as “climate services” to help farmers adapt. At the core of the strategy is building out reliable weather data for farmers to anticipate drastic swings in temperature and weather.

According to a report in China Dialogue, climate services such as impact-based forecasting “combine weather and climate predictions with socioeconomic factors, such as age, gender, income, and exposed assets, like infrastructure and agricultural output.”

China is a world leader in early warning weather systems. Agriculture officials have implemented data analysis protocols that accurately predict weather up to 8.5 days in advance and have improved warnings for intense storms by 42 minutes.

Those predictions have primarily helped industry-scale farms, which also benefit from generous subsidies, while smallholder farmers have had to come up with their own solutions. Cabbage farmers outside of Beijing are planting taller trees to provide more shade around both trees and tourists, and diversifying their crops to improve soil and create additional income streams.

All Politics

The most impactful action US leaders can take to protect agriculture is to leave behind a particularly stupid brand of politics increasingly focused on rolling back popular climate policies that have already been passed.

As we covered in detail earlier this year, the Inflation Reduction Act included roughly $20 billion for a host of regenerative agriculture practices like cover crops and agroforestry.

Congress is gearing up to negotiate the newest Farm Bill and several Republican leaders have made eliminating the IRA’s regenerative agriculture funding a sticking point. But the funding programs have proven to be so popular with farmers that most are receiving more applications than they have funding to accommodate.

This comes at the same time that Senator Marco Rubio is making a one-man stand to stop the Biden Administration’s legally mandated updates to federal building code. The federal government’s new building efficiency code would save an estimated $74 million per year off of utilities bills while reducing energy consumption by 35%.

Climate obstructionism in the United States isn’t new, but attempts to weaken the Farm Bill and building codes point to a particularly callous approach. It’s one thing to attack a major climate policy like the IRA under the guise of economic concerns. But now American climate obstructionists are seeking out sound and popular policies that otherwise would have gone unnoticed purely for the purpose of creating headlines.

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The Author

Ammar Khan