A depiction of fusion research – on a doughnut-shaped plasma reaction chamber called a tokamak – enhanced by artificial intelligence. Image: Eliot Feibush/ PPPL and Julian Kates-Harbeck/ Harvard University

It’s possible to see climate change as the ideal test for Chinese leaders’ evident belief that their closed political system is better not only for China but for the world.

Ignore the details in yesterday’s Chinese claim that developed countries lack the “political will” to confront climate change.

Those details, as you read down, are self-serving arguments about how much slack the developed world should be cutting the developing world – a category that still, if only barely, includes China – in terms of finances and speed of transition from carbon-based energy consumption.

But examples of the Chinese leaders’ relatively unchallenged power over their subjects speak for themselves. Perhaps the most germane is the draconian one-child rule, which lasted  from 1979 to 2015 (with, for most of that period, exceptions permitting a second child in the cases of about half the country’s parents). Officials reported that the policy prevented 400 million births.

To take the quintessential example, and one that we’re meant to consider when Chinese officials speak of developed countries, American governments other than during wartime have seldom if ever had such unbridled power to command. When they called for sacrifice, US presidents had to rely on their ability to inspire.

John F. Kennedy famously exhorted Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask, rather, what you can do for your country.” Young people flocked to the Peace Corps and as the Vietnam War intensified those who didn’t volunteer for the military generally endured the draft.

But Vietnam spelled the end of the draft, perhaps the single American institution most comparable to China’s one-child policy. Now well paid specialists do our fighting and the majority of Americans never have to think much, in personal terms, about honor and duty on the battlefield.

Imagine, if you can, a 21st century US government trying to enforce a one-child policy. Even less imaginable when (as now) the president is a climate denier would be an American government that dared to focus its might on depriving voter-citizens of their gas-guzzling vehicles, their central heating and air conditioning at home and outside the home and their manufactured products. (US energy use is 40% residential and commercial, 28% vehicular and 32% industrial.)

Even if Donald Trump leaves office sooner rather than later, and succeeded by an environmentally conscious Democrat, achieving the sort of unity that the Chinese Communist Party can enforce by decree will be difficult, to say the least.

That relates to a division among environmentalists that is partly a function of age. You have your zealous and often young greens, who insist on renewables with no nuclear – none, zero. And you have the grizzled veteran big thinkers such as Al Gore and Bill Gates who think newer forms of nuclear energy simply must be in the mix and who appear to have come to rely on market forces more than government policy to make it happen.

If environmentalists broadly defined as including both those sets of views find themselves in charge in Washington, can they resolve their differences in time to do what’s necessary?

As a charter member of the older generation, I note the typical tendency of  codgers to resist change. At the same time I note a certain self righteousness that’s too evident among politically active youngsters.

At such a moment, some erstwhile democrats may start to envy the Chinese for their Communist Party-enforced singlemindedness.

As Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle observed yesterday, China’s communist government “is increasingly brazen about creating a massive surveillance state, in which millions of cameras track every person’s whereabouts, every purchase is recorded in state databanks, every keystroke on the strictly controlled Chinese Internet is scrutinized. Powered by facial recognition software and other tools of artificial intelligence, this tireless web of watchers aims to control all that is done and said — even thought — inside the rapidly rising superpower.”

The columnist was feeling no Beijing envy as he recited that catalog. He went on to argue that Hong Kong citizens who resist policies of their mainland-controlled government “vindicate the tattered faith that progress and freedom go hand-in-hand. It is a faith that strikes directly at the dark heart of one-party tyranny.”

Long live that faith, but let’s hope that the freedom-loving democratic societies as they have evolved can get it together to evolve further, on short notice, and achieve timely progress in meeting a challenge that to all appearances is existential.

Political will is indeed the key.

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