Too Hot to Han­dle

NewsChina - - ESSAY - By James Palmer

It's been hot in Bei­jing this sum­mer. That's nor­mal. What isn't nor­mal is just how hot it's been. An or­di­nar­ily swel­ter­ing sum­mer city turned into an oven, a sweaty cook­ing-pit in which even the tough­ened grand­moth­ers who in­habit the city's pub­lic squares have been wav­ing fans and re­treat­ing into their houses. Ev­ery time I opened the door of my apart­ment, I was blasted by a wave of heat that sent me scut­tling back into the sweet bliss of air con­di­tion­ing.

Even the 10-minute walk be­tween the su­per­mar­ket and my house be­came a Bataan Death March of sweat. It was so hu­mid that dry­ing clothes took days; some­times they seemed to get wet­ter, if any­thing. I've never cursed China's bizarre lack of dry­ers more. My elec­tric­ity bill spiked as I turned on ev­ery air con­di­tion­ing unit at the fullest blast pos­si­ble; of course, that caused the power to run out in the mid­dle of the night, and left me des­per­ately try­ing to add more money onto my elec­tric­ity on the util­i­ties func­tion of the Wechat app.

If I suf­fered, my dogs suf­fered more. I took them for a trim, but even with their win­ter fur shed, they were still walk­ing around in per­ma­nently un­suit­able gear for the weather. Walks be­came a mat­ter of pre­cisely timed poop­ing be­fore they ran back in­side to the blessed ice­box of the apart­ment. They re­garded me as the per­pe­tra­tor of their suf­fer­ing, im­plor­ing paws de­mand­ing that I make it less hot with my magic hu­man pow­ers.

For me it was weeks of in­con­ve­nience. For a lot of peo­ple, though, the heat is deadly – lit­er­ally. Death rates spike in heat waves, par­tic­u­larly among the el­derly and the poor, those most un­likely to be able to af­ford re­lief from the sti­fling tem­per­a­tures.

The truth is, this is the new nor­mal. As cli­mate change speeds up, tem­per­a­tures that were once record-break­ing will be­gin to be an an­nual oc­cur­rence. You'd bet­ter get used to the heat, be­cause there's not go­ing to be any end to it – or to the cold, hard win­ters we've been get­ting.

Bei­jingers can prob­a­bly man­age this, of course. They're a tough bunch, en­vi­ron­men­tally speak­ing. The fact that the cap­i­tal is in such an ab­surd po­si­tion in the first place – left here ba­si­cally as two fin­gers up to the Mon­gols – is a big part of that. Dry sum­mers, des­o­late land and brisk win­ters are as much of a main­stay of the Bei­jing diet as noo­dles and duck.

The grim irony is that the tech­niques we use to al­le­vi­ate the price of heat, such as air con­di­tion­ing, are among the most en­vi­ron­men­tally costly. Ev­ery time we blast frozen air to take the edge off a heat wave, we're adding just a lit­tle bit to the bur­den of an al­ready over-stretched planet. But as any­one who was in London this sum­mer – where tem­per­a­tures hit 35 Cel­sius and air con­di­tion­ing is as rare as cen­tral heat­ing be­low the north-south di­vide in China – knows, its ab­sence makes life al­most un­bear­able.

China may be more fa­mil­iar with the costs of en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis – and the con­se­quent need to rad­i­cally re­think the places, and the ways we live – than most coun­tries. As Timothy Brook and oth­ers have shown, it was en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis, more than any­thing else, that helped bring down the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644). The shift­ing cli­mates of the 16th and 17th cen­tury, as the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of the post-colom­bian world be­came clear, left Ming of­fi­cials strug­gling to man­age famines, flood­ing and other en­vi­ron­men­tal chaos.

That cri­sis be­came even more acute in the last cen­tury of the Qing Dy­nasty (16361911). Thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of chang­ing weather pat­terns and the de­ple­tion of Chi­nese forests, the Qing des­per­ately strug­gled to cope with a pop­u­la­tion forced to the brink of star­va­tion. By the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury, the av­er­age Chi­nese farmer was poorer than he or she had been a thou­sand years be­fore­hand – at a time when Europe was blaz­ing into new heights of pros­per­ity. That change forced a re­ver­sal of the great his­tor­i­cal pat­tern of Chi­nese mi­gra­tion; where it had pre­vi­ously gone from north to south, the “north­ern crash” of the late 19th cen­tury saw Han mi­grants pour­ing into the north­east, where Qing poli­cies had pre­vi­ously re­stricted set­tle­ment and at­tempted to pre­serve the pu­rity of the grass­lands.

So per­haps it's time that the gov­ern­ment should re­think just how many peo­ple should be in places like Bei­jing. It's not as if the cap­i­tal hasn't been moved be­fore, af­ter all. Lots of places are softer and fluffier than the north­east­ern bor­der. Maybe it's time to give Nan­jing or Xi'an an­other shot at be­ing the top city – or just sur­ren­der to Shang­hai, with its bliss­ful coastal weather – at least, un­til the oceans start to rise and all those banks and fancy restau­rants dis­ap­pear un­der­wa­ter.

The grim irony is that the TECH­NIQUES we USE TO AL­LE­VI­ATE THE PRICE OF HEAT, SUCH AS AIR con­di­tion­ing, are among the most en­vi­ron­men­tally costly

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