Dealing with the Environment (Before It Kills Us)

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.

0 thoughts on “Dealing with the Environment (Before It Kills Us)”

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. “But the regime change in America…”

    I respectfully disagree.

    “Regime change” and its derogatory implications when applied to a democratic society administered by a popularly elected presidency with strict term limits, responsible to a democratically elected congress from two different political parties and further restricted by an independent judiciary interpreting a set of articles guaranteeing basic rights of the citizenry and principles of government , seems a gross misnomer. I suspect you’ve been in China too long; I also grant I may have become overly sensitive for the same reason.

    The reason why the US had not agreed to the Kyoto Protocol is yet another story but, again, it is a long stretch of imagination to confabulate the USA’s evironmental situation, environmental laws, and the execution of those laws with that of the PRC.

    Most sincerely.


  3. The reason I used the phrase “regime change” is that it was widely used by people opposed to Bush while he was still President (i.e. “Bush says Iraq needs a regime change, but we need a regime change at home first!”) to indicate that they no longer wanted him to be President. It was not meant to compare the US government to any other government, certainly not the PRC’s, it was just meant as a cultural reference to emphasize the difference in policy between the Obama and Bush administrations.

    (Also, as long as we’re nitpicking, the US doesn’t actually have a true popularly-elected presidency as long as the electoral college system remains in place).


  4. A great read, but some really frightening stuff. I’m finding myself more and more interested in environmental stuff as I continue living here. Something has got to change, that’s for sure, but let’s hope it’s not too late… even if it is pretty hard to feel that way around here sometimes.

    On a related environmental policy / sustainability note, I recently discovered some interesting stuff about a plan to build an ‘eco-city’ on an island/suburb near SH. The project has/had great potential as far as ideas go, but more here than anywhere else, the question comes up; ‘but at what human cost?’.

    I posted about it at my blog.


  5. I’m living in Tangshan, not too far from Beijing, and I’ve recently started running for fitness. I would blow my nose after I run and every time, it would come out black. I was hoping to up the fitness schedule when I went to Beijing next year with regular gym workouts and wushu classes, but now I’m not so sure about all that heavy breathing…


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