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. Pete

    Just remember too the Three Gorges Dam and its consequences if it collapses as US engineers say will happen in the future because of it being built on a silt line and its foundation is shifting...Millions will drown and thousands of cities will be destroyed if it does collapse but its just Chinas arrogence again thinking like their population bigger is always better!!And remember who we'll be feeding if this keeps up none other than China again with rice,wheat just wait and see and don't say I didn't warn yah!!

    April 9, 2013 at 10:23 am | Reply
    • boyamidumb

      Pete,read a little history, your own. This is the U.S. a little over a hundred years ago. Our scars are still here, and you don't have to look too far or deep to see them. Careless industrialism is the norm not the exception. We now have some regulations as aching will in the near future. Today is unregulated and Western/American companies moved there for this reason and dirt cheap labor. No souls, just greed. And we monkies gobble up all the shiny things they create. So to see who is to blame and who is arrogant, look in the mirror.

      April 10, 2013 at 8:42 am | Reply
      • Adam

        Who cares really? It's China. They think they are awesome while they are all living miserable lives and dying prematurely. Let them. The world will reap the benefits till they go under for a bit only to slowly work back up.

        April 10, 2013 at 9:21 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        @Adam, many more Chinese care about their environment and worry about climate change than you know.
        True, in the past, the focus was on growth. Today many Chinese no doubt want to do something about air pollution etc. The various incidents lately have served them as a wake-up call.

        April 10, 2013 at 9:48 am |
      • Al

        @ Adam – Generalizing much? "They think they are awesome?" "They are all living miserable life and dying prematurely?" I really feel sorry for you.

        April 10, 2013 at 11:48 am |
      • Francisco DeCastro

        I hope you are not being a hypocrite after your careless explanation on who is arrogant in this world. Sell everything you have and give them back to the countries that created them, and from now on I want to see you live a life where you do not have to depend on other countries. Capisce?

        April 10, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  2. hanger17

    Reblogged this on Time for Action.

    April 9, 2013 at 11:45 am | Reply
  3. allthingsgeography1

    Reblogged this on All Things Geography and commented:
    The sad results of too many people, too few resources and the horrible management of the resources available. Even "long-term trends" catch up to a civilization eventually. Growth at the expense of everything else is worthless in the end of one's even renewable (but fragile) resources are plundered and destroyed in the end.

    April 9, 2013 at 11:59 am | Reply
  4. www.twitter.com/hlmelsaid

    Clean the live rivers.

    April 9, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  5. wjm

    If this keeps up then those who spoke about the possibility of water wars, will have been right, just it may happen a lot sooner then previously thought.

    April 10, 2013 at 12:18 am | Reply
    • bob123

      Aye, what if China seizes the opportunity to shift a little power in the region and side more and more with NK if war breaks out with SK. The US blustering that it can just nuke all comers is false because their enemies might have nothing to lose.

      April 10, 2013 at 10:26 am | Reply
      • canucken

        China is not going to side with NK if war breaks out. They're having a hard time managing their own population as it is let alone taking on several million more starving NK's. The Chinese are as fed up as the US and SK with NK. I think this is one of the few times I've agreed with Dick Cheney, we're in deep doo doo.

        April 10, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
      • furrycatherder


        There is a remarkably easy solution to the NK problem that will cost China very little in the short term and pay huge dividends in the future: Tell Kim Jong Un that he has betrayed the Glorious Revolution and they are taking over. The Chinese can then convert their military machinery to more productive uses and introduce Chinese-style state-run capitalism under the control of a less belligerent communist party.

        NK is 100% dependent on China for its survival. Kim knows it, the military knows it, and I suspect enough of the population knows it that if the Chinese army showed up, there wouldn't be a single shot fired at anyone.

        April 10, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
    • NorCalMojo

      Water wars have been going on for millenia. Ask any farmer or rancher.

      April 10, 2013 at 11:17 am | Reply
  6. Kyle H. Davis

    When will people realize that this is nothing more than population control. It's an "internal issue". Decreasing the surplus population. I mean, surely it must be this – why else would the central government in an Oligarchy not try at all when it comes to these things? It has the manpower, it has the resources, and it sure as heck has the money.

    Yep... I'm sticking with this being a form of population control.

    April 10, 2013 at 12:34 am | Reply
    • John

      China's population is already headed for collapse. Too many males not enough females and a population that is getting far older with too few new people coming in. The problem is that if China doesn't fix its "growth growth growth" policy soon they'll be in a Catch 22. With no where near enough viable farmland to grow food for a shrunk population they'll need to import it. But without the capital that they only get due to cheap labor they won't be able to afford to import enough food as the global supply shrinks.

      April 10, 2013 at 9:28 am | Reply
    • Borque

      "Decreasing the surplus population" - Bah humbug?

      April 10, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Reply
      • boyamidumb

        Soon it will be u

        April 10, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
  7. RK

    Finally, china has to face the cost of industrial development with complete disregard to the environment : which is rivers drying up air polluted etc. etc. The problem is, if some of these things if not cleaned up soon may just become irreversible. Frankly I don't understand where china is heading with this kind of industrial development. Hopefully they clean up soon.

    April 10, 2013 at 5:57 am | Reply
  8. RE MCCray

    That is terrible, but if you were to ask a Republican congressman or senator ... they would say that is 'just a bad year'. Global warming will hit the U.S. just has hard, possibly even worse.

    April 10, 2013 at 7:18 am | Reply
  9. Grey

    Start cleaning it up and send Apple the bill.

    April 10, 2013 at 7:29 am | Reply
  10. Glenn

    Sounds like China is being run by Republicans.

    April 10, 2013 at 8:04 am | Reply
    • Realityblowz

      Sounds like you are a perfect tool for the left/right paradigm. Enjoy your Left tentacle Right tentacle puppet show. Here is a secret for you...both puppets are controlled by the same beast. You never noticed that did you?

      April 10, 2013 at 9:46 am | Reply
      • Coflyboy

        Correct. That beast is called: ShortTermGainMyopicGreed

        April 10, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • NorCalMojo

      Who are you kidding? You know damn well the democrats are on the same globalist bandwagon with China.

      April 10, 2013 at 11:22 am | Reply
  11. Kevin Dilley

    Transcription has a major error. Fareed says that environmental damage costs $230 MILLION. The written post by Jason Miks says $230 BILLION. I'm sure this wasn't an error of bias on Miks part, but rather a transcription error. Please fix.

    April 10, 2013 at 8:15 am | Reply
  12. KP

    I don't think they will start paying attention until it starts affecting their stance on a global scale. By then it will be too late.

    April 10, 2013 at 8:24 am | Reply
  13. Chuck Anaheim, Ca.

    The Chinese live the republican wet dream of no regulation and get their reward.

    April 10, 2013 at 8:30 am | Reply
  14. Dabizzle

    Sad thing is the way China is now, is how every country is going to be in the up coming years, over population to the extreme.

    April 10, 2013 at 8:40 am | Reply
    • Lucas

      No, fertility rates have been falling everywhere across the world. You might want to do some research on this. Populations will be FALLING in the future, not heading to some critical max

      April 10, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Reply
  15. GreenTV

    "How can you buy or sell the sky – the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. Yet we do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us? We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father's graves and his children's birthright is forgotten." My great grandfather, Chief Lenape

    April 10, 2013 at 9:13 am | Reply
    • James PDX

      The Chief just needs to update this to include a few more colors.

      April 10, 2013 at 9:27 am | Reply
    • The Truth

      And your grandfather was an inferior species that lost everything because they didn't understand human progress. Keep on quoting failure. it shows your true loser liberal colors.

      April 10, 2013 at 9:46 am | Reply
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