What climate change looks like from China


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A typhoon-of-the-century strikes Xiamen, forcing reflection on the dangers of climate change

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Typhoon Meranti hit us in Xiamen on the night of September 15.  I live on the 21st floor, the top floor, of my apartment building.  My apartment is less of a pent house and more of a rickety squatter’s lean-to clinging to the top of the building.  When the 100 mile per hour winds struck my wobbly windows and the aluminum sheet covering the birdcage like contraption outside where I dry my clothes, the noise was so deafening that I had to leave my bedroom and curl up on the couch.


 In the living room the cacophony was a bit quieter.  I threw the idea of sleep out the window altogether when water started dripping through the cheap plaster insulating the ceiling and walls.  Soon after that, I heard glass shattering in the neighboring building so I got up again and shoved the couch a little further away from the living room window.  


 I’m no stranger to typhoons, or hurricanes as we call them in the Western Hemisphere.  I’ve “survived” a typhoon every year that I’ve lived in China, although I put survived in quotes since those past typhoons were largely duds.  School was canceled, warnings were advertised on TV and the supermarkets were crowded with people stocking up on supplies but nothing much would happen when the typhoon itself made landfall.  The two exceptions were a typhoon that swept through Ningbo in 2015 and Typhoon Meranti.  Both caused widespread flooding.  Typhoon Meranti went a step further by downing trees and destroying buildings.


I also lived in New Orleans for five years and stayed in the city for Hurricane Isaac in 2012.  In that city, the yearly day or night of strong winds and rain followed by days of cleaning up the streets filled with debris is almost routine.  When I emerged from my apartment in Xiamen on the day following the typhoon, I was able to see the routine play out on mainland China.


Xiamen braces itself for typhoons on a yearly basis, but Typhoon Meranti was the strongest seen in the area since the 1940s and the devastation all over the city was immediately apparent.  Several streets were rendered impassable by fallen trees.  Shards of broken glass blanketed the sidewalks and gnarled chunks of metal from broken buildings and signs were hanging from the trees still left standing.  It later emerged that 18 people died and 11 went missing in the wake of the storm.


Fortunately, the good sides of Chinese society were in full force following the typhoon.  Already by midday when I left my apartment, the army was in the streets taking chainsaws to obstructing branches.  Squads of volunteers were redirecting traffic.  Incapacitated traffic lights were replaced almost immediately.  The “me first” attitude that often emerges in crowded train stations was not discernible.  People were generous and patient – shopkeepers were accommodating of the Wi-Fi-addicted camping out with their chargers at the outlets in the mall.  The benefits of China’s top-down decision-making and communitarian spirit were on full display.


There’s little doubt that Typhoon Meranti’s intensity is linked to climate change.  According to Climate Signals,


The rapid intensification of Meranti was driven by favorable climate conditions, including passage over unusually warm seas. There is a documented increase in the intensity of the strongest storms in several ocean basins in recent decades, including the Pacific Northwest as well as a documented trend towards more rapid intensification. These increases are linked to warming seas that offer more energy to passing storms. 


The Chinese government’s position on the dangers posed by climate change is fairly clear.  In June 2015, it announced a climate change action plan stating that emissions in the country would peak around 2030 and pledging to increase usage of alternative sources in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030.  Beijing’s commitment to alleviating the issue is notable since it marks a shift away from earlier rhetoric, which frequently harped on the unfairness of poor developing countries being forced to curb emissions while developed nations bask in the earnings of their historic pollution.


As stated by Samantha Smith from the World Wildlife Fund, quoted by BBC News,


We emphasise the importance of the fact that China has made commitments beyond its responsibility as a developing country. But we hope that China will continue to find ways to reduce its emissions, which will in turn drive global markets for renewable energy and energy efficiency. 


In the Paris agreement, ratified in Hangzhou at the 2016 G20 summit, China committed to cutting carbon emissions by 60-65% per unit of GDP by 2030.


The Chinese government’s clear recognition of climate change as a problem and its firm commitment to take action stand in marked contrast to the stance of the newly inaugurated Trump administration.  Trump’s team has picked Myron Ebell, a well-known climate change skeptic, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s “transition team.”  Fears that the environmental movement will soon lose much of the U.S. government’s international support led Greenpeace to call upon the E.U. and China to assume future leadership instead.   


While China’s government is facing the problem to an unprecedented degree, China’s broader public is not nearly as aware of the problem.  According to the Pew Research Center, China has a median of 18% percent of respondents reporting that “climate change is a very serious problem,” compared to a global median of 54% and of 45% elsewhere in the Asia/Pacific region.  Also in China, only 15% claim to be “very concerned that climate change will harm me personally.”  On the other hand, China’s public concedes some recognition of the broader problem, with 49% reporting that “climate change is harming people now.”


China is more similar to the United States than to the rest of the world in this regard.  The American public also agreed with the above statements at rates below global medians – reflecting generally less worry about the effects of climate change in the publics of the two countries most responsible for global emissions.


As someone who has lived in two hurricane/typhoon prone regions on opposite sides of the world, and in two different cities that within a single decade have witnessed the worst storms in local living memory, the threat of climate change seems pretty clear to me.  I’m marginally grateful that I live in a country where the government is facing the problem head on, if not the public.  I could still live in America where neither the government nor the public seems ready to face reality.   

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