Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Climate impacts in China

We're all in for a rocky road ahead if climate change continues apace. But China, as a large, still mostly poor, ecologically diverse region, faces a special set of challenges, as the government acknowledges (see "China's Policies and Actions in Addressing Global Climate Change"). This post draws on some recent news reports to illustrate some of the various impacts China is likely to confront as the climate changes.

One is disease: as many high-altitude and high-latitude areas warm, the viable ranges of pathogens and disease vectors (like mosquitoes) increase. Zhao Linnuo, Deputy-Director of the China Applied Meteorology Office, explained to Xinhua that atmospheric warming produces conditions favorable to the spread and propagation of insect-borne diseases. "If pathogens formerly confined to the south were to spread to the north," Zhao said, "diseases [formerly confined to the] wild may spread into inhabited areas; at the same time, the incidence of food-borne diseases is likely to increase as a result of warming." Climate change would also impact human health, Zhao noted, via secondary impacts on precipitation, wind velocity, and pollution concentrations (see Xinhua, in Chinese only).

Another expert, Jin Yinlong, explained that climate change will increase the incidence of both flooding and drought; in the former case, it would also lead to the spread of water-borne disease. "Climate change is likely to impact all people in different ways," Jin said.

In a separate interview, the Vice-Director of China's Meteorological Bureau warned that "from now on, extreme weather events will grow more frequent." Because China's population density and GDP total will also increase, Xu Xiaofeng noted, its vulnerability to extreme weather events, including flooding, hurricanes, etc., will become more acute. The article also noted that from 2001-2008, the cost of natural disasters is estimated to have accounted for some 2.8% of China's GDP (see China Economic Weekly, in Chinese only).

Perhaps most importantly, the officials also offered prescriptions on how to counter the threats posed by the spread of disease and extreme weather. The former article noted that atmospheric experts "call on businesses and the people at large to take steps to increase their awareness of climate change, safeguard the air we breathe, make a habit of saving energy to reduce emissions, sparely use wooden chopsticks and plastic bags, and rarely drive cars." Vice-Director Xu also noted that America has a robust disaster-warning system in place, one that China would do well to adopt.

These two articles nicely illustrate two of the key strategies for dealing with climate change: mitigation (as by driving fewer cars) and adaptation (warning people of natural disasters, which are likely to become more frequent). It's heartening to see so much talk of climate in the Chinese press; a few years ago, there was almost none. The high profile of expert discussion on climate also bodes well; it's much the same kind of citizen-science that has been so crucial in pushing the climate agenda forward in America.

But of course all of this means little unless China's elite agrees to do more to reduce its emissions. A recent editorial in China Daily nicely sums up the situation:

With nobody but ourselves to blame for increasingly frequent extreme weather conditions, it is high time we did something to reduce the greenhouse emissions we discharge. The convening of the United Nations' conference on climate change at the end of last year was a sign that increasing numbers of countries and politicians have come to realize that climate change is something that nations must jointly deal with. We cannot afford to wait until it is too late - when the rising seas have submerged continents and the disappearance of glaciers has dried up our rivers. This annual day [World Meteorological Day] should be a reminder to all that we have an impact on world weather, and that global warming is a matter of life and death.

Word. It's long past time to bicker about things like the amount of carbon embedded in China's exports, or even the admittedly stronger argument about the West's high levels of historic emissions (see previous post). China must move beyond its fixation on its developing-country status, to the more pressing issue of how it will be affected- in terms of disease, weather, water, etc- if it does not act to reduce its own emissions, which account for so much of the global total. China Daily hits exactly the right note- we hope it's one China is willing to sing at Copenhagen come December.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Scott,

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