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. Pat

    I read somewhere recently that China will deplete all of its usable natural resources in 25 years if current industrial growth and population growth continue. Interesting that a fair portion of deforestation was attributed to the use of chop sticks. Now they are importing them from the U.S. from a manufacturer in Georgia. At least they have outlawed plastic grocery bags. Something we should do here.

    April 10, 2013 at 9:35 am | Reply
    • Franchesca

      Hate to break it to you, but they haven't outlawed plastic bags. Plastic bags are available at every store, you just have to pay less than 1% of your total bill to obtain one. I live in Wuhan (population 9 million) , and the vast majority of folks buy plastic bags at the store. In fact, I have been accused of being cheap because I bring my own canvas bags. Nothing is outlawed, they just aren't free.

      April 10, 2013 at 10:39 am | Reply
  2. God

    Most oldest nation on Earth will reach its end soon!
    I hope U.S and Europe won't accept Chinese refugees,they will pollute the world

    April 10, 2013 at 10:24 am | Reply
    • NoNo

      Have you been to a college campus recently? The refugees are already here, going to school.

      April 10, 2013 at 11:04 am | Reply
      • Iamyourgrandma

        Have you forgotten? Your grandma, a refugee, come through the gate on Elise Island???? She couldn't even get a college degree so people didn't get to see her on campus!!!

        April 10, 2013 at 11:22 am |
      • Iamyourgrandma

        Plus, these refugees will take over your jobs so you can send these comments from home...not sure if you own one...possiblly forclosure already.

        April 10, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  3. rad666

    War for water coming.

    April 10, 2013 at 10:27 am | Reply
  4. DR

    Jimmy Carter ??? Are you kidding? Carter and Obama have been the worst presidents we have had. Both have been weak on foreign policy and extremely misguided on domestic policy

    April 10, 2013 at 10:28 am | Reply
  5. Howard

    This is the result of a growth at all costs mentality. It is a modern interpretation of the 2nd industrial revolution with all of the eco-abuses that went with it but at 21st century pace. It is a short-sighted mentaility that is blinded (ignorant) into believing that all of ecological damage and destruction is reversible because time and invention will eventually solve every problem. It is incredibly ironic that a culture that could provide so many great philosophers could so easily ignore the simple precautionary principle that "a ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure".

    April 10, 2013 at 10:33 am | Reply
  6. errata

    Errata:" in 2010, environmental degradation cost the country $230 billion dollars."

    April 10, 2013 at 10:34 am | Reply
  7. Mikey Stickey

    This is all just a ploy from Al Gore to take more of your money. He went out there and used all the water to fill the giant swimming pool at his fabulous mansion just so that China would line his pockets. Very clever, Gore, but we know the truth!

    April 10, 2013 at 10:46 am | Reply
    • cj

      actually its all his fault for 'inventing the internet'. If he hadn't we wouldn't need all the dirty cheap electronics China makes.

      April 10, 2013 at 11:09 am | Reply
  8. cj

    It's America and Europes fault.

    Sure the Chinese government is to blame also but we are the nations that decided all this dirty cheap production needed to be banned from our shores...then allow the import of goods produced bu the same dirty cheap methods.

    So anyone that gets on a high horse over this issue needs to understand that the TV's and radios and cars and cloths and darn near anything else they buy contain components built cheap and dirt in '3rd world' nations so they can buy more, cheaper and the corporations can make greater profits regardless of how the environment suffers.

    April 10, 2013 at 11:08 am | Reply
  9. NorCalMojo

    My prediction:

    China will find a cure for cancer by 2050........because by 2025, they're going to have 10's of millions of cases to study.

    April 10, 2013 at 11:08 am | Reply
    • Iamyourgrandma

      Have you even been there yourself or have you been ever out of your own house? A lot of people there are healthier than people living here, at lease mentally.

      April 10, 2013 at 11:31 am | Reply
      • NorCalMojo

        Ain't just a river in Egypt.

        April 10, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  10. CJ

    China is a nation that provides the least expensive products in the World due 50 cents per hour labor rates and no environmental regulations/Lawsuits/Workers Comp or Medical Coverage to worry about.

    This change has allowed 100 Million plus chinese to feed themselves instead of having the Chinese Government feed them. That is a very positive thing to have that many less people starving but there are other unintended consequences.

    April 10, 2013 at 11:33 am | Reply
  11. Jerry

    I liked a comment that Mao made once. "Why should we worry about millions dead when in a few years we'll have those million back?" If that Three gorges dam does break and with all the people being swept to their death, the it will indeed be 'The Yellow River".

    April 10, 2013 at 11:34 am | Reply
  12. mdaneker

    We can fix this. We need to create a global agreement to tax imports from China and other developing nations in all countries in order to stem the massive overreach of there cheap products, returning manufacturing jobs and evening the global playing field. Then we need to regulate our own industry so we don't do this too.

    April 10, 2013 at 11:40 am | Reply
  13. Poppa

    Remind me please... where does the colorado flow to?

    April 10, 2013 at 11:44 am | Reply
    • JCron

      I'm actually curious as to what your point is and what it has to do with this at all.

      April 10, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  14. Mario DiMucci

    As an American, I do not care because China's rivers belong to China. This is none of our business so I will not say what the should or shouldn't do. If the Chinese want clean rivers and clean air, they will do so. Right now, they don't care enough to do something about it. That is fine by me.

    April 10, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  15. Stephen

    Trying to get CHina to regulate itself is like trying to regulate gas prices here in US. As long as we are buying no one is changing anything

    April 10, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Reply
  16. Pliny

    They are a nation of THIEVES.

    They deserve what they get.

    April 10, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Reply
    • canucken

      And how exactly was this country founded? Your memory or lack of history is astounding. Lets see, lies to the native populations and then an attempt to completely eradicate them. "Manifest Destiny" – whatever that means and the wars to steal the lands from the West. Slave labor, people forcibly taken and used against their will (Slaves!) to build huge parts of this country. Chinese labor used as slave labor to build the west....the list goes on and on.We're no better.

      April 10, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  17. EvinAR

    If republicans had their way, these stories would be coming from the U.S.

    April 10, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  18. Chris

    I would say let's leverage our food and water and have China eliminate our debt to them, have them stop stealing so many plans and patents, and improve their human rights to their own countrymen. That could be a start to helping them to live.

    April 10, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  19. ernie boomer

    Where are all the left wing nut jobs to protest this? Oh ya they have no balls and are more then likely funded by the same groups that are doing this to China. But at least we have decent environmental laws here.

    April 10, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  20. Tony

    China is a DISASTER for the environment all around, between the air and water pollution, the toll on African and Asian wildlife because of ancient "remedies" with Rhino Horn and Tiger bones..its just a mess..not to mention human rights issues, cheap labor which hurts our economy etc etc etc...need I go on? How do we fix all this ???

    April 10, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  21. Guest

    Climate change? China should worry about this?? Can they control the SUN???
    We are entering a 50 year period of cooling, not warming. Clean air is good. China should clean its air and rivers but there is no such thing as global warming and the climate change is to colder summers and colder winters, not warmer. The next 50 years will see much less sun activity. The sun is the #1 factor in temperatures. All creates less man produce 200 billion tons of Co2 a year. Many produced 6 billion. Man is not warming the planet and the planet is getting cooler via less sun activity..

    April 10, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Reply
    • Dawn

      Pollution is man made period.....don't sugar coat it into something like the changes of the planets or the sun. We are polluting this world.

      April 10, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  22. NOAH


    April 10, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Reply
  23. jeff forsythe

    The brutal Chinese Communist Party is not concerned in the slightest about the condition of its country or its people. The same way the Mafia works, the country is divided up amongst the gangsters who lead the Party and they just keep sneaking billions out of the country. it is far too late for the cruel CCP to make amends for its millions of murderous atrocities and soon it will dissolve and all the criminals that have taken part in this heinous crime against humanity and this Earth will have to pay. This is just my understanding, thank you.

    April 10, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Reply
  24. Dawn

    Boycott products made by polluters

    April 10, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Reply
    • boyamidumb

      Dawn, did u use ur computer or tablet or mobile phone to post this?

      April 10, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Reply
  25. boyamidumb

    Adam, you really display your ignorance so readily? The Chinese were civilized before the rest of the world came down out of the tres. In the last 75 years they have achieved more than probably any other country on the planet. Mistakes? A lot of them. But thy are here for a very long time to come and the wheel has again turned in their direction . They learn fast. What other country has taken on the population bomb that is the root of many of the world's problems. The West'stime time of dominance is over for the present . And I cannot say that our reign is something to be proud of. Time for you to practice your Mandarin.

    April 10, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Reply
  26. Anny

    I have come to the conclusion that we all have a little blame global warming and its consequences and guilt even more politicians who do not slow down.


    April 11, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Reply
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