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China and Climate Change

Yesterday, at the 190-nation UN Climate Change Conference in Bali, China suggested that Americans live more modestly. “I just wonder whether it’s fair to ask developing countries like China to take on binding targets,” said Su Wei, a member of Beijing’s delegation, referring to mandatory caps on emissions of greenhouse gases. “I think there is much room for the United States to think whether it’s possible to change lifestyle and consumption patterns in order to contribute to the protection of the global climate.”

Isn’t the global climate everyone’s responsibility? This year, China, which contains twenty of the world’s thirty dirtiest cities, has probably emitted more carbon and other heat-trapping gases than any other country. Yet the Chinese argue that their per-capita emissions are only a sixth of America’s and that they have been poisoning the atmosphere for only two decades while the United States and Europe have been at it for two centuries.

Whatever one thinks of the concept of global warming or the Kyoto Protocol—the conference seeks a replacement for this failing agreement—Beijing’s arguments fall flat for many reasons. Most importantly, China’s Communist Party is hell-bent on economic growth and will not take any meaningful measures to limit ecological harm. To their credit, the country’s leaders talk about renewable energy and energy efficiency, but they’re not doing much to further their initiatives. They adopted a “Green GDP” index to measure the effect of environmental degradation, but dropped the effort when it revealed embarrassing results: some areas, for instance, showed negative growth after subtracting out the effect of environmental damage.

Moreover, China’s environmental sinning has affected other nations, both near and far. As Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations has graphically noted, Chinese rivers run black. Black rivers flow into the bays and oceans, and the discharge washes up onto others’ shores, especially South Korea’s and Taiwan’s. The Chinese airmail mercury to Hawaii and even Massachusetts.

It is in everyone’s interest that humankind does not accelerate natural climate change, of course. Yet, as a practical matter, there can be no collective action until all nations agree to accept the pain of solutions. The Chinese, more than any other people, suffer from a polluted environment. Each year bad air and water cause 750,000 premature deaths in China. So they should want to be the first to take action.


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