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Paper at COP-15, a pile of clothes at the airport, and China’s offer

Anyone who has been to a COP quickly realizes that there is a super-abundance of excellent and very current written material available free for the taking. I quickly became hyper-selective in my decisions about what to take home each day, if only to spare my back and feet. Still, the pile of paper in my hotel room grew each day. This morning before I left for the airport, I ended up abandoning a large portion of what I had collected because it turned out to be all but impossible to fit it into my suitcase. Then I hopped another one of those clean, on-time, fast trains to the airport – ah the Danish mass transit system.

Arriving at check-in, I noticed that the garbage can at the head of the line was packed to overflowing and that there were what appeared to be items of clothing folded neatly next to it. When I made it to the front of the line and took a closer look, it was clear hat someone had dumped about half of a suitcase full of personal items – mostly clothes, along with several notebooks with Chinese characters on their covers. I asked the agent what the story was and learned that a Chinese student, on his way home from the COP, had elected to throw away almost everything else in his suitcase rather than be forced to leave behind the various written materials he had gathered at the meeting.

While I’m sure that there are many Chinese college or graduate students with access as good or better to information on climate change policy as the average Stanford student, clearly this was not the case here. This drives home the fact, not always obvious in the American media coverage of the Chinese economic miracle, that China is still fundamentally a developing country. This is true on the average even though are large and growing areas that are highly developed and look to the outsider like a developed country. Because the international media coverage is biased towards the miracle and not the rest, western perceptions are skewed from reality.

The pile of clothes at the airport also drove home, at least for me, the tremendous ambition and leadership represented by the Chinese offer on the table, of reducing the greenhouse gas emission intensity of its economy by 40 to 45% by 2020. I wonder if the U.S. would have been willing to make such an offer to the British Empire in the 1890’s as it was developing from a nation of small farmers into the 20th century’s industrial and economic superpower.

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