Beijing has always been good at being ‘off the charts.’ Anyone who has observed China’s remarkable economic growth or watched the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics can attest to this fact. Recent air pollution readings coming out of Beijing keep in step with this tradition.
At 8 p.m, on January 12th, Beijing’s Air Quality Index was recorded to be 755, more than 200 points above the supposed maximum of 500.
China’s environmental woes are no secret. The 2008 Olympics turned the global spotlight onto China’s pollution problems when concerns where raised as to whether or not the athletes participating would be able to perform at their usual levels due to the overwhelming levels of air pollution in Beijing. The World Wildlife Fund reports that in addition to severe air pollution, around 40 percent of the rivers in China contain water unfit for human consumption. Nearly 30 percent of China’s land has suffered from desertification, the environmental phenomenon in which dry land loses water, wildlife, and vegetation. In 2006, China passed the United States to become, by volume, the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases.
The country has, of course, taken steps to mitigate the environmental issues it faces. In November of last year, China announced the introduction of a mandatory “social risk assessment” for all major industrial projects as a method of gaging the environmental impact of new developments. On a smaller scale, the government of Guangzhou, one of the biggest automobile manufacturing cities in China, announced that it would begin to limit the number of vehicles on the road with lotteries and auctions for license plates for new cars, thus cutting down the amount of new cars on the city’s street by roughly half.
But the news coming out of Beijing this weekend signals that the country’s pollution problem has escalated to a new level. The index, which is established upon the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards, marks an air pollution rating of 400 or above as “hazardous for all.” The level recorded in China on Saturday night was nearly double that. By contrast, on the same day, using the same standards, New York City received an air quality rating of 19. The rising levels of pollution in China are a testament to the fact that the steps taken by the Chinese government are neither dramatic nor intense enough to seriously combat the issue.
By virtue of the ecological structures of our planet, climate change isn’t just China’s problem; it’s the world’s. Higher greenhouse emission levels from China means increased levels of climate change globally. Water pollution in China translates to lower water quality worldwide. Scientists across the United States have pointed to climate change as one of the chief causes for the severity of weather disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. 2012 was the hottest year ever recorded.
Hence, climate change is, by nature, an international issue. Ultimately, this means the United States has less control over this issue than issues such as gun control or the debt ceiling. The United States acting unilaterally in the eleventh hour will bring no solution to this problem. Furthermore, that same international aspect of the issue means that the actions of any and every country around the globe have repercussions in the U.S. However, the United States is and, for the foreseeable future, will be a superpower. In terms of environmental issues, this means the responsibility of seriously tackling the issue lies with the U.S. Only once we begin to do so, will China and other countries follow in step. We must show a commitment to putting an end to man-made climate change before we can expect other nations to do the same. Moreover, the scale of the issue means that there exists no quick fix, no silver bullet. Instead, solutions to the problem must be multi-faceted and must be based around a long-term plan. All of these factors point to the fact that the time for action is now.
In roughly a week, President Obama will be inaugurated for his second term. During the next four years, he will have to address gun control, the debt ceiling, and tax policy. All of these issues are pressing and deserve attention. However, time spent focusing on these problems cannot become time lost addressing climate change. President Obama mounted both his campaigns on the slogan, “Change We Can Believe In.” And whether you believe it or not, climate change’s consequences will be severe.