April 9th, 2013
10:03 AM ET

Why China’s leaders should worry about climate change

By Global Public Square staff

China's rivers have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. First they found thousands of dead pigs in one river. Then they found hundreds of dead ducks in another. And now, entire rivers are going missing. Thousands of them in fact. A new survey has found that China has 28,000 fewer rivers than previously thought. They've been built-upon, overused, and drying up. The study comes from no less an authority than China's Ministry of Water Resources and the National Bureau of Statistics.

Something else has also gone missing in China: clean air. A study out last week shows how air pollution in China led to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010. A separate study by China's Academy of Environmental Planning found that in the same year, 2010, environmental degradation cost the country $230 billion dollars.

Beijing has tended to address these kinds of issues but never at the expense of slowing down growth in any way. China's leaders seem to feel that issues of pollution and climate change, while troubling, are long-term trends, not immediate threats. The Chinese Communist Party's overriding priority remains growth – and of course its own strength and survival.

That's why there’s a report worth recommending for China's leaders. It's a collection of essays called "The Arab Spring and Climate Change."

In a preface, the Princeton academic Anne-Marie Slaughter makes clear that one can't say climate change caused the Arab Spring. That's too simplistic. But there is now enough proof to show that climate change creates stresses that can trigger social revolution.

Consider some facts from the report.

In 2010, climate-driven factors led to a 33 percent drop in wheat production in Russia and a 19 percent drop in Ukraine. Separate climate events in each case led to a 14 percent drop in Canada's wheat output, and a 9 percent drop in Australia's. As a result, wheat prices doubled in the space of seven months.

Note that the world's top nine wheat importers are all in the Middle East. Seven of them saw political protests leading to civilian deaths in 2011. Because of a truly globalized marketplace, a small regional climate event can now have a large global impact.

Again, there's no direct causality. But the links are increasingly clear. Climatic stresses on the environment can lead to shortages of water or food, which in turn can lead to anything from increased prices to disease. And all this, of course, can and does lead to protests.

If there's one thing China's leaders fear most, it is wide scale protest. It is said that thousands of local protests take place in China every year, most of which the state clamps down on. Beijing can trace many of these protests to climate-related stress, pollution, water supplies, and food production problems.

So far they have never become larger challenges to central authority. Of course, protests didn't grow larger in the Arab world until in 2011, when they did.

Perhaps China's leaders can be convinced to find ways of more sustainable growth. It may turn out to be a simple calculation: prevention is often cheaper than the cure.

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Topics: China • Climate • Environment • What in the World?

soundoff (106 Responses)
  1. wludwell

    The New Message from God says: "The climates of the world have now been disrupted, which will bring great havoc upon peoples everywhere, disturbing the natural balance to such an extent that it will produce unfavorable conditions for the human family."

    April 18, 2013 at 9:04 pm | Reply
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