Apparently, based on some recent threads on this site, there’s some dispute about the role China plays in the Great International Climate Change Debate. I’m absolutely snowed under right now, but I want to make two quick points:
It is indisputable that the U.S., and developed countries generally, bear a vastly larger share of the responsibility for climate change than China, and developing countries generally. This is true whatever perspective you take: physical responsibility (we put the vast share of the CO2 up there), moral responsibility (we’re hurting people that are largely defenseless and innocent of wrongdoing), financial responsibility (we’re much richer and more capable of solving the problem).
China must nonetheless act, and act quickly. Whether or not China’s getting a fair deal, the situation is what it is, and if the country stays on its present course it’s going to doom all of humanity to a horrendous future. If you doubt that, read this new Mother Jones feature on China. It’s astonishing. The country is consuming resources and producing pollution — climate pollution and every other sort — on a scale that’s difficult to comprehend.
Check out some stats from an accompanying piece. China is:
• The world’s largest consumer of coal, grain, fertilizer, cell phones, refrigerators, and televisions
• The leading importer of iron ore, steel, copper, tin, zinc, aluminum, and nickel
• The top producer of coal, steel, cement, and 10 kinds of metal
• The No. 1 importer of illegally logged wood
• The third-largest producer of cars after Japan and the United States; by 2015, it could be the world’s largest car producer. By 2020, there could be 130 million cars on its roads, compared to 33 million now.
• China produces half of the world’s cameras, 1/3 of its television sets, and 1/3 of all the planet’s garbage.
• China uses half of the world’s steel and concrete and will probably construct half of the world’s new buildings over the next decade.
• China used 2.5 billion tons of coal in 2006, more than the next three highest-consuming nations — Russia, India, and the United States — combined.
• It has more than 2,000 coal-fired power plants and puts a new one into operation every 4 to 7 days.
• Between 2003 and 2006, worldwide coal consumption increased as much as it did in the 23 years before that. China was responsible for 90% of the increase.
• China became the world’s top carbon dioxide emitter in 2006, overtaking the United States.
• More than 3/4 of China’s forests have disappeared; 1/4 of the country’s land mass is now desert.
• Until recently, China was losing a Rhode Island-sized parcel of land to desertification each year.
• 80% of the Himalayan glaciers that feed Chinese rivers could melt by 2035.
• In 2005, China’s sulfur-dioxide emissions were nearly twice those of the United States.
• Acid rain caused by air pollution now affects 1/3 of China’s land.
• Each year, at least 400,000 Chinese die prematurely of air-pollution-linked respiratory illnesses or diseases.
• Of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, 16 are in China.
• Half of China’s population — 600 to 700 million people — drinks water contaminated with human and animal waste. A billion tons of untreated sewage is dumped into the Yangtze each year.
• 4/5 of China’s rivers are too polluted to support fish.
• Dust storms used to occur once a year. Now, they happen at least 20 times a year.
• Chinese dust storms can cause haziness and boost particulate matter in the United States, all the way over to Maine.
• Currently, up to 36 percent of man-made mercury emissions settling on America originated in Asia.
• Particulate matter from Asia accounts for nearly half of California’s annual pollution limit.
• Environmental damage reportedly costs China 10 percent of its GDP. Pollution-related death and disability heath care costs alone are estimated at up to 4 percent of GDP.
• In 2005, there were 50,000 pollution-related disputes and protests in China.
• China’s middle class is expected to jump from 100 million people today to 700 million people by 2020.
There’s more in the original piece.
Point being: the international community is heading for a cliff, squabbling like teenagers about who took a wrong turn and who should grab the wheel. It’s insane. Contra Eric, Al Gore is exactly right: both countries are obliged by human decency, nay, by simple survival instinct, to act immediately to reduce emissions. This is true for both countries no matter what the other one does.