CLI­MATE CHANGES CHINA

COVER STORY应对气候变化

The World of Chinese - - FRONT PAGE -

The hand­wring­ing and navel-gaz­ing are over. The world needs com­pre­hen­sive answers to the specter of cli­mate change, and nowhere is that more ap­par­ent than in China, where glaciers are melt­ing and where ris­ing sea lev­els in Shang­hai could spell dis­as­ter. The in­fra­struc­ture chal­lenges are steep, and China's role as a global power de­pends on the na­tion's abil­ity to com­bat cli­mate change.

HU­MAN HIS­TORY IS ES­SEN­TIALLY A TUG-OF-WAR WITH NA­TURE. WE DE­FINE PROGRESS BY HOW FAR WE'VE COME FROM OUR AN­CES­TORS WHO COW­ERED BE­FORE NA­TURE'S EV­ERY WHIM. PER­HAPS MORE THAN ANY OTHER NA­TION ON EARTH, MOD­ERN CHINA IS FOUNDED ON THE SCI­EN­TIFIC PROMISE TO HAR­NESS NA­TURE'S PO­TEN­TIAL AND REIN IN ITS DE­STRUC­TIVE TEN­DEN­CIES SO AS TO SAFE­GUARD THE LIVELI­HOODS OF THE WORLD'S LARGEST POP­U­LA­TION. BUT THE PEN­DU­LUM MUST SWING BACK SOME­TIME, AND CLI­MATE CHANGE IS BE­COM­ING A BIG­GER PROB­LEM THAN CAN BE SOLVED BY MERE EN­VI­RON­MEN­TAL POL­I­CY­MAK­ING AND DIS­AS­TER-PRE­VEN­TION EN­GI­NEER­ING. AS SEA LEV­ELS RISE AND GLACIERS RE­TREAT, AS CLI­MATE STUD­IES PRO­DUCE DIRE WARN­INGS AND CLI­MATE AGREE­MENTS GET SIGNED WORLD­WIDE, THE COUN­TRY IS CHANG­ING THE WAY IT SEES ITS IM­PACT ON THE NAT­U­RAL EN­VI­RON­MENT, AS WELL AS PLANS FOR THE FU­TURE OF THIS DEL­I­CATE RE­LA­TION­SHIP WITH THE EARTH.

Can China rise to chal­leges of higher tem­per­a­tures? 气候变化已经不再是新闻,可它仍在悄然改变着中国

River in 1998 in­vited crit­i­cism mainly for au­thor­i­ties’ poor han­dling of the hu­man­i­tar­ian sit­u­a­tion and led di­rectly to greater ap­proval of the con­tro­ver­sial Three Gorges Dam project, which was then un­der con­struc­tion. Where eco­log­i­cal fac­tors en­tered the dis­cus­sion, it was not the big­ger pic­ture of en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion but sci­en­tists not­ing that trees and wet­lands would have been nat­u­ral safe­guards against silt­ing and the rain­wa­ter runoff.

Blame the shadow of China’s own leg­endary king, Yu the Great, who bat­tled floods in pre­his­toric times with smart chan­nel-build­ing so­lu­tions— or, more plau­si­bly, the em­pha­sis on tech­no­cratic and “sci­en­tific” ap­proaches in China’s mod­ern gov­er­nance. In any case, it can be hard to find en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and dis­as­ter re­lief re­searchers as part of each other’s con­ver­sa­tions.

Nowhere is this more ap­par­ent than the mod­ern saga of Shang­hai and its coastal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties to cli­mate change. In 1993, the city’s of­fi­cials boasted that based upon records of sea lev­els near the Yangtze Delta over the past mil­len­nium, they have added height and made re­in­force­ments to the city’s then 208-kilo­me­ter coastal levee so that they could with­stand tide surges the likes of which are seen once ev­ery 1,000 years.

Less than a decade later, in 2000, en­gi­neers in Shang­hai noted that in less than 50 years the levee could see its ef­fec­tive­ness “down­graded” to a once-ev­ery-100-years’ tide surge, as the his­tor­i­cal records had failed to ac­count for cli­mate change rais­ing sea lev­els world­wide.

Shang­hai’s dis­as­ter vul­ner­a­bil­ity due to cli­mate change has also at­tracted con­sid­er­able world at­ten­tion in re­cent years. In 2012, a study backed by UNESCO ranked Shang­hai first

among nine of the world’s ma­jor coastal ci­ties at risk due to ris­ing sea lev­els in its Coastal City Flood Vul­ner­a­bil­ity In­dex (CCFVI). This is not only be­cause the city has a long coast­line and sits, on av­er­age, only four me­ters above sea level, but also due to the amount of un­con­trolled de­vel­op­ment along its coast­line lack­ing in (or dis­re­gard­ing) dis­as­ter aware­ness. This has led to sig­nif­i­cant con­cen­tra­tion of peo­ples and cul­tural her­itage, but with few shel­ters, in the vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas.

In a 2015 study by cli­mate re­port­ing agency Cli­mate Cen­tral, Shang­hai once again topped the list as the coastal city with most to lose should the Earth’s tem­per­a­ture warm by 4 de­grees Cel­sius: 74 per­cent of the city could be sub­merged by coastal flood­ing. Six other Chi­nese ci­ties also made the Top 20 list, in­clud­ing Tian­jin (in sec­ond place) and Hong Kong. Cli­mate Cen­tral’s press re­lease ac­com­pa­ny­ing the re­port puts the cause, ef­fect, and so­lu­tion in one el­e­gant chain: “China, the world’s lead­ing car­bon emit­ter, leads the world, too, in coastal risk, with 145 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing on land ul­ti­mately threat­ened by ris­ing seas if emis­sion lev­els are not re­duced.”

This logic, how­ever, can be dif­fi­cult to lo­cate in the of­fi­cial re­sponse. Through state media, Shang­hai of­fi­cials and sci­en­tists re­futed the CCFVI’S “rigid math­e­mat­i­cal model”, which failed to con­sider the cen­tral gov­ern­ment’s dis­as­ters prepa­ra­tion ef­forts as well as the area’s lack of his­tory of earth­quakes and cy­clones. These dis­as­ters make the dif­fer­ence be­tween barely per­cep­ti­ble yearly sea level in­creases and a full-blown flood­ing cri­sis.

There is no men­tion at all of cli­mate change, de­spite the fact that Shang­hai ac­tu­ally has a pretty im­pres­sive record of car­bon-re­duc­tion, en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, and “green” ini­tia­tives. It was one of two Chi­nese ci­ties par­tic­i­pat­ing in the World Wide Fund for Na­ture’s (WWF) Low Car­bon City ini­tia­tive in 2008, two years be­fore the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment de­vel­oped its own low car­bon city project. Ahead of the 2010 World Expo, the city also is­sued “green” guide­lines for ex­hibitors and at­ten­dees to re­duce their car­bon foot­print, hop­ing to make the en­tire expo a model and av­enue for pro­mot­ing low car­bon usage.

Yet the cli­mate change ele­phant in the room was also not brought up in the Shang­hai’s mu­nic­i­pal Science and Tech­nol­ogy Com­mis­sion three­step plan to deal with ris­ing sea lev­els, re­leased in 2013. In­stead, the com­mis­sion rec­om­mended a “short­term plan (2012-2015)” to mod­ern­ize mu­nic­i­pal drainage sys­tems, a “medium-term plan (2016-2020)” to better mon­i­tor sea lev­els and con­trol de­vel­op­ment along the coast, and a “long-term plan (2021-2030)” that vaguely de­scribed “com­bin­ing an em­pha­sis on the city’s se­cu­rity and trans­form­ing de­vel­op­ment”.

While the State Oceanic Ad­min­is­tra­tion, back in 2012, ad­mit­ted that Shang­hai’s sea lev­els were at their high­est in his­tory and have stayed there for sev­eral years, they rec­om­mended that of­fi­cials limit de­vel­op­ment in coastal ar­eas and de­velop better dis­as­ter prepa­ra­tion mea­sures.

“If the Yangtze River Delta and Shang­hai’s cli­mate change vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties are only seen as a mat­ter of sea lev­els ris­ing, it will lead to the build­ing of higher coastal lev­ees,” Wang Qian, se­nior project of­fi­cer for WWF in China, told TWOC. Ac­cord­ing to Wang, a better way to look at the sit­u­a­tion—as the WWF and its part­ners do—is “the com­bined ef­fects of ris­ing sea lev­els, global cli­mate change, and changes [spe­cific] to the re­gion, such as the de­crease of wa­ter from up­stream lead­ing to salt­wa­ter in­tru­sion…or ex­treme weather lead­ing to hu­man­i­tar­ian crises.”

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing the sit­u­a­tion, Shang­hai, due to over­build­ing and drainage of ground­wa­ter in the 1950s and 60s, has been sink­ing. Ac­cord­ing to a study by a team from Tongji Univer­sity in 2012, the city had sunk by around 1.89 me­ters be­tween the years 1921 and 2000, and of­fi­cials have been pump­ing wa­ter “back” into the ground while mov­ing wa­ter-con­sum­ing fac­to­ries away from the coast in re­cent years. The much more dra­matic and ob­vi­ously man­made sce­nario of a city sink­ing “at­tracts more at­ten­tion than sea level in­creases”, ac­cord­ing to Wang.

Dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness, re­mains a thorny po­lit­i­cal is­sue in China. High­light­ing and pour­ing funds into shel­ter con­struc­tion, evac­u­a­tion plans, and emer­gency com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems puts city of­fi­cials in line with na­tional dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness poli­cies, re­formed in 1998 and again in 2006, that em­pha­size co­or­di­na­tion and tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ment. The na­tion is keen to avoid pub­lic un­rest and to high­light its pre­pared­ness front and cen­ter af­ter sev­eral bun­gled ef­forts, in­clud­ing the 1998 floods, the 2003 SARS epi­demic, and Typhoon Bilis in 2006.

As cli­mate change re­mains con­tro­ver­sial world­wide, with ex­perts in var­i­ous fields un­able to agree on the ex­tent it’s linked to hu­man ac­tions and how best to com­bat it, it will not be easy to make these po­lit­i­cal, ad­min­is­tra­tive, eco­nomic, tech­no­log­i­cal, and en­vi­ron­men­tal en­deav­ors un­tan­gle each of their own agen­das to come to the same page. But as cli­mate-re­lated dis­as­ters in­crease around China, they might soon be forced to try. - HATTY LIU

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