Both China and the US have, in their ways, been dancing around environmental issues for years. China, a “developing” nation, played that card, while America played the “War on Terror” card. But the regime change in America, as well as increased recognition on the part of Chinese leaders that environmental issues could also threaten national security and stability, may be leading to a new era of environmentally-friendly cooperation between the world’s two biggest polluters.
Evan Osnos’s New Yorker blog recently touched on the issue, reporting that some American climate specialists and China experts were on hand in Beijing this week to join their Chinese colleagues in a workshop on climate change and energy. Said a presenter at the beginning of the workshop: “The good news is that the United States is no longer a drag on addressing this crisis.”
There’s some hope that China is moving in the right direction, too. Osnos writes,
Eventually, the Chinese will need to identify a high-level czar to take charge of climate issues. Look for the appointment of an official at the vice-premier or ministerial level—much as former vice-premier Wu Yi led economic talks with Henry Paulson—as a sign that China has given this the juice to make progress. So far, Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, is encouraged: “You can sense when the Chinese really get something rolling and you feel the wind pushes to your back rather than in your face,” he told me. “And I feel that this has been elevated to a level that we didn’t even dare imagine two months ago.”
Whatever happens, it’s not a moment too soon. In fact, it’s probably several moments too late. James Fallows reported on his blog recently that the air in Beijing is actually way more dangerous than many people think. It turns out, the Chinese government’s official air pollution ratings often don’t include the levels of PM 2.5, tiny particles that have little effect on how clear the air is but are actually the most hazardous to people’s health because they aren’t filtered out by nose hairs when you breathe them, and can thus lodge themselves deep within your lungs. According to the NY State Health Department:
Exposure to fine particles can cause short-term health effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath. Exposure to fine particles can also affect lung function and worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease. Scientific studies have linked increases in daily PM2.5 exposure with increased respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, emergency department visits and deaths. Studies also suggest that long term exposure to fine particulate matter may be associated with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease.
Still, it’s all very abstract until you check out the twitter account of an unofficial Beijing monitoring station and discover the levels are sometimes extremely high. On his page, Fallows has a screen capture of readings that are all above 300 (most US cities hover around 50; 300 is so high that numbers above it don’t even exist on the US measurement scale and are PM 2.5 levels are simply classified as “hazardous”). As of this writing, the readings are down some; still, it may be something Beijing residents want to check before going outside and, you know, breathing.
For more on climate issues and China, we recommend the excellent China Dialogue. For those who aren’t familiar with it already, a recent three-part essay called “A New Approach at Copenhagen” is a good place to start. All articles are available in both Chinese and English.