HUMAN HISTORY IS ESSENTIALLY A TUG-OF-WAR WITH NATURE. WE DEFINE PROGRESS BY HOW FAR WE’VE COME FROM OUR ANCESTORS WHO COWERED BEFORE NATURE’S EVERY WHIM. PERHAPS MORE THAN ANY OTHER NATION ON EARTH, MODERN CHINA IS FOUNDED ON THE SCIENTIFIC PROMISE TO HARNESS NATURE’S POTENTIAL AND REIN IN ITS DESTRUCTIVE TENDENCIES SO AS TO SAFEGUARD THE LIVELIHOODS OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST POPULATION. BUT THE PENDULUM MUST SWING BACK SOMETIME, AND CLIMATE CHANGE IS BECOMING A BIGGER PROBLEM THAN CAN BE SOLVED BY MERE ENVIRONMENTAL POLICYMAKING AND DISASTER-PREVENTION ENGINEERING. AS SEA LEVELS RISE AND GLACIERS RETREAT, AS CLIMATE STUDIES PRODUCE DIRE WARNINGS AND CLIMATE AGREEMENTS GET SIGNED WORLDWIDE, THE COUNTRY IS CHANGING THE WAY IT SEES ITS IMPACT ON THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT, AS WELL AS PLANS FOR THE FUTURE OF THIS DELICATE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE EARTH.
SINK OR SWIM
Environmental researcher Cleo Paskal once told environmental NGO China Dialogue that China’s approach to climate disasters resembled that of “King Cnut”, in reference to the 12th-century Scandinavian king who, depending the version of the story, either arrogantly told the tides to stay away from his royal person, or realized from the experience his powerlessness to command God and nature.
Both versions fit the Chinese case. On the one hand, blessed or cursed by its long recorded history, environmental disasters in China are still often discussed in terms of historical patterns, thus are more or less natural and statistical inevitabilities rather than manmade phenomena.
On the other hand, as an economically advancing and scientific society, Chinese researchers and officials favor approaches to disaster management that emphasize infrastructural improvements, heavy engineering, and streamlined official responses. The disastrous “once-in- 100-years” flooding of the Yangtze River in 1998 invited criticism mainly for authorities’ poor handling of the humanitarian situation and led directly to greater approval of the controversial Three Gorges Dam project, which was then under construction. Where ecological factors entered the discussion, it was not the bigger picture of environmental degradation but scientists noting that trees and wetlands would have been natural safeguards against silting and the rainwater runoff.
Blame the shadow of China’s own legendary king, Yu the Great, who battled floods in prehistoric times with smart channel-building solutions— or, more plausibly, the emphasis on technocratic and “scientific” approaches in China’s modern governance. In any case, it can be hard to find environmentalists and disaster relief researchers as part of each other’s conversations.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the modern saga of Shanghai and its coastal vulnerabilities to climate change. In 1993, the city’s officials boasted that based upon records of sea levels near the Yangtze Delta over the past millennium, they have added height and made reinforcements to the city’s then 208-kilometer coastal levee so that they could withstand tide surges the likes of which are seen once every 1,000 years.
Less than a decade later, in 2000, engineers in Shanghai noted that in less than 50 years the levee could see its effectiveness “downgraded” to a once-every-100-years’ tide surge, as the historical records had failed to account for climate change raising sea levels worldwide.
Shanghai’s disaster vulnerability due to climate change has also attracted considerable world attention in recent years. In 2012, a study backed by UNESCO ranked Shanghai first among nine of the world’s major coastal cities at risk due to rising sea levels in its Coastal City Flood Vulnerability Index (CCFVI). This is not only because the city has a long coastline and sits, on average, only four meters above sea level, but also due to the amount of uncontrolled development along its coastline lacking in (or disregarding) disaster awareness. This has led to significant concentration of peoples and cultural heritage, but with few shelters, in the vulnerable areas.
In a 2015 study by climate reporting agency Climate Central, Shanghai once again topped the list as the coastal city with most to lose should the Earth’s temperature warm by 4 degrees Celsius: 74 percent of the city could be submerged by coastal flooding. Six other Chinese cities also made the Top 20 list, including Tianjin (in second place) and Hong Kong. Climate Central’s press release accompanying the report puts the cause, effect, and solution in one elegant chain: “China, the world’s leading carbon emitter, leads the world, too, in coastal risk, with 145 million people living on land ultimately threatened by rising seas if emission levels are not reduced.”
This logic, however, can be difficult to locate in the official response. Through state media, Shanghai officials and scientists refuted the CCFVI’s “rigid mathematical model”, which failed to consider the central government’s disasters preparation efforts as well as the area’s lack of history of earthquakes and cyclones. These disasters make the difference between barely perceptible yearly sea level increases and a full-blown flooding crisis.
There is no mention at all of climate change, despite the fact that Shanghai actually has a pretty impressive record of carbon-reduction, energy efficiency, and “green” initiatives. It was one of two Chinese cities participating in the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Low Carbon City initiative in 2008, two years before the Chinese government developed its own low carbon city project. Ahead of the 2010 World Expo, the city also issued “green” guidelines for exhibitors and attendees to reduce their carbon footprint, hoping to make the entire expo a model and avenue for promoting low carbon usage.
Yet the climate change elephant in the room was also not brought up in the Shanghai’s municipal Science and Technology Commission threestep plan to deal with rising sea levels, released in 2013. Instead, the commission recommended a “shortterm plan (2012-2015)” to modernize municipal drainage systems, a “medium-term plan (2016-2020)” to better monitor sea levels and control development along the coast, and a “long-term plan (2021-2030)” that vaguely described “combining an emphasis on the city’s security and transforming development”.
“Climate Changes China” is the cover story from our newest issue, “Climate Change”, coming soon. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.