CLIMATE CHANGES CHINA
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