China's Smog Has No Silver Lining


The climate change "debate" has been largely fought out between two distinct groups: those who believe humanity has played a significant role and those who deny any such assertion. But this week in China there emerged another faction, one that could perhaps be termed "climate change apologists".

Last Monday, journalist Wang Lei from the state-owned CCTV Network wrote an article on the "five unexpected gains the haze has brought." According to Wang, the "haze" is to be credited with fostering unity and equality, improving awareness of "China’s economic miracle", endowing people with a better sense of humour and building knowledge.

As evidence of this growing wisdom and in a bizarre attempt to strengthen his case he posed a question: "Without the haze … would you know that 60 years ago the haze claimed 12,000 lives in London?".

1950s and ‘60s smog-filled London is a popular reference point in China. The underlying message is twofold: China has just as much right as any other country to pursue wealth regardless of the environmental cost and that, once rich, the problems can be remedied. There’s no mention of the fact that we are far better informed than ever before about the long-term, irreversible harm of rising carbon dioxide emissions.

In 2006 China overtook the United States as the world’s worst polluter, and currently burns about half of the world’s coal supplies. It's estimated that between 1990 and 2050 China’s cumulative emissions will be roughly equivalent to that of the rest of the world’s from the beginning of the industrial revolution to 1970, according to a report in The Economist.

The haze, as Wang euphemistically terms it, has made the issue unavoidable for the Communist Party. It’s impossible to escape the choking smog. On the day that Wang’s article ran, when I stepped outside I couldn’t see the basketball ring from one end of the court to the other. The number of people sporting industrial-style facemasks has noticeably risen.

In Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, the air quality index readings peaked at 420: anything over 301 is deemed "hazardous". Students were kept home from school and residents were warned only to venture outside if absolutely necessary.

Despite the cautions and coughing, Wang is not alone in praising the haze. The Global Times turned their focus to the toxic cloud’s strategic silver lining. Apparently the smog makes it vastly more difficult for invading aircraft, whose missile guidance systems and range of sight would be seriously impeded.

This kind of bogus commentary treats the people like loyal party ideologues, but, like the rest of the world, the internet has greatly increased the flow of information available to the population. Criticism on popular social media site Weibo saw the articles quickly deleted, but not before they’d been widely circulated among friends and family.

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, the haze has distorted public debate about the most serious threats now facing the environment. It has become the barometer by which most people measure the level of environmental damage: when the skies are clear the problem, for many people, is as good as solved.

The government is struggling to get the skies clear, a task that will prove much easier than the impossible one of reversing the damage caused by rapid industrialisation. Meanwhile, with this as their measure, the people – with their limited capacity for protest – continue to lobby the government for better living conditions.

According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), one-quarter of all protests in China are environment-related. These usually have a local focus, The Economist reported, with people gathering to demand better conditions for their city. Their concerns are rarely national or global issues.

This is hardly surprising and it ought not be criticised. Environmental activists in other parts of the world talk about acting before it’s too late, but for many Chinese citizens it feels like that ship has already sailed. It’s hard to be focused on future generations when every breath is full of poison.

A report by the Health Effects Institute published earlier this year found that around 1.2 million people die prematurely each year as a direct consequence of the noxious air.

These startling statistics will not be the primary motivator that forces the the Communist Party to act on environmental standards. Until sustainable models of industrialisation and production become financially feasible, China's unprecedented emissions will likely continue unchecked.

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