I have some sympathy with the concern. It never was the case that fighting pollution was a luxury only rich countries could afford to do. An issue that some in China thought was a minor problem that could be neglected in order to get rich has now proved to be a major one that has horrible consequences for everyone in China's cities. It isn't nice to have to cover the face of your children when they go off to school because the pollution is so bad on the streets that it could kill them, or to worry about why so many of their school friends have asthma, or whether next year's smog will see off your elderly parents. No amount of cheap consumer products and no amount of wealth generated by dirty factories makes up for the damage to health being done every day.
Pollution has a nasty habit of not staying hidden out of the way on industrial estates on the outskirts of town. Every Chinese official right to the very top knows some family member or friend who has health problems that are obviously linked to burning too much fossil fuel. In Beijing, where the highest ranking officials live, the problem is more acute than almost anywhere else. Dusty air, blowing in from a desert that clumsy human decisions have helped to expand, doesn't mix well with car diesel fumes.
So finally, very late in the day, and after millions of un-necessary deaths the Chinese government has woken up to the importance of the issue and getting serious about tackling pollution and trying to restore large areas of tree cover. Just at the same time as the US central government is being taken over by the last bastion of reactionary anti-idealism. It seems entirely possible that we might be witnessing a US government trying to compete industrially by allowing companies to pollute their country and the planet as much as they like at the same time as the Chinese government realises that it cannot possibly sustain a business model built on that basis.
It is tempting therefore to think that for the next 4 years at least we are going to have to look to China for progressive world leadership and that the US is finished. A particularly tempting conclusion to come to when a democratic election resulted in the coming to power of a President who lied and bullied his way to office and still only scraped in with 2.5 million fewer votes than the defeated candidate.
Sometimes, however, it is not a bad idea to resist temptation. Or at the very least to be just a touch cautious about giving in to it. America is far from finished as a place where there are a lot of very serious champions of environmental policy who have the power to put their actions into practice. And China isn't necessarily banged to rights certain sure to follow through and actually deliver.
China remains an undemocratic country. It is one in which corruption is widespread. It is a place where dangerously overblown nationalist ambitions exist every bit as strongly as they do in the heart of UKIP. It is great that China is intending to put the power of its state behind the battle to control pollution. I wish its citizens were in a position to ensure that when push comes to shove the smell of money won't outweigh the smell of pollution. Despite all their weaknesses democracy and a free press can be powerful tools for holding leaders to their word. The Chinese people are going to have to carry on their fight for clean air without the benefits of those tools.
I also don't happen to think that it is time to write off the US despite the unpleasant nature of what its democratic system has produced this time round. There are many states in the US that are determined to press ahead with serious environmental controls regardless of what Trump's federal government tries to do. California for example. There are also a lot of very important business in the states that recognise the future lies with alternative forms of energy and of transport and are not going to stop investing in opportunities in that field simply because Donald Trump is too locked into a reactionary fearful frame of mind to see those opportunities. Finally and most importantly over half the population of the States didn't vote for Trump and democracy still creates enough of a space for well intentioned Americans to fight hard and long against the stupidities that Trump will try and force upon them. They can also force him out of office in four years time once it becomes obvious that he cannot deliver what he has promised.
So there will continue to be strong forces within the US willing to deal with environmental challenges seriously. The bonkers science denial fringe may have got to the centre of power but they have not won out completely. Instead of US leaders worrying about whether the Chinese would take a free ride on US action they may begin to realise that there are other worries for them. US leaders might very well find themselves looking on whilst world leadership leaches away from them. The Chinese government appears strongly and seriously aware of the imperative to sort out their own pollution problems and well aware of the opportunity that US weakness on this issues provides for China to take much more world leadership. I think this means that no matter how much Trump is unconvinced by the importance of the Paris agreements there is serious hope that the impetus for taking them forward will continue. Indeed if that impetus comes from a wider group of nations that are genuinely convinced generating pollution in order to industrialise and then trying to mop up the mess is not a good model then we may have a stronger basis for action than we have ever had.
Not a moment too late.