Amid extreme weather, China avoids mention of climate change

E VEN A SHORT spell submerged in floodwaters is enough to transform a car into an eerie, unfamiliar object. A week after ferocious rains first battered the central province of Henan, the hulk of a white Toyota—fronds of waterweed wrapped round its buckled frame—lay on a muddy street in Mihe, a hard-hit riverside town, like a long-lost shipwreck. Just finding the car had taken several days, its owners explained. It had been carried two kilometres downstream by the Sishui river, storm-swollen into a murderous torrent many times its normal width.

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Scores died in the floods across Henan province, some of them in subway trains and road tunnels that remained open long after meteorologists issued a red-alert warning of lethal weather. China’s propaganda machine is on the defensive. It has cast this terrible human tragedy as a “sudden act of nature”: an exceptional event that could not be planned for. State media have lined up scientists to describe how air filled with water vapour by a summer typhoon was concentrated and forced upwards by two mountain ranges. It dumped a year’s worth of rain in four days over flat plains crossed by several rivers, at one point dropping over 200mm of rain on the city of Zhengzhou in a single hour.

Alongside technical talk about the storm’s rarity, officials have stressed how it fits into China’s long history of summer floods. Nodding to the centuries-old tradition that successful flood control is a mark of virtuous rule, Communist Party newspapers have praised “important instructions” on disaster prevention and relief issued by the supreme leader, President Xi Jinping. Television has filled with images of soldiers shoring up dykes, people being rescued in small boats, and party members organising patriotic volunteers. At least in the main party and government-run news outlets, one possible cause of the rains has been hardly discussed at all: climate change. All summer, extreme weather has sparked loud public debate from Canada to Germany and Japan about whether a climate emergency has begun. Not in China.

Talking to locals in Mihe on a recent weekday, Chaguan met many who called the floods a one-off event. The fatalists included the young couple who owned that shipwrecked Toyota Corolla, encountered as they fished in its waterlogged interior for valuables. There is no reason to think such a disaster will strike again, said the young man, examining a weed-covered set of keys and a bank card. It was “a once-in-a-1,000-year rainstorm”, he declared. That same phrase came up time and again in Mihe, reflecting its prominence in approved accounts of the deluge.

Yet in China, public opinion is seldom quite as constrained by the official line as it first appears. Asked whether the weather had changed in their lifetimes, several locals said that it had. They described summers that have grown hotter, and the vanishing of heavy winter snows. Some linked those changes to the storm that had just smashed through their town, reducing bridges to jumbled slabs of concrete. Locals said they dared not talk to a foreign reporter about how many died in the floods in or around Mihe, in case they said something forbidden. But a few volunteered that the government needed to do more to tackle climate change. “This weather nowadays, nobody can navigate it,” said a man who sells plastic-cloth rain covers for cars.

If opinion in Mihe is not monolithic, it is distinctively Chinese. Those calling for climate action often went on to describe large-scale engineering works, of the sort dear to party bosses. A shopkeeper drying mud-encrusted stock in the sun suggested that the Sishui’s channel needed widening. “The river is too narrow, the water could not drain away fast enough,” he ventured. Others, when asked about the climate, replied with praise for the government for cleaning up air pollution in Mihe, notably by closing a dirty local coal mine. “The environment now is much better than in the past,” said a young man riding on a forklift-truck with his grandfather, a wrecked micro-car balanced on its prongs.

What could not be heard in Mihe were calls for citizens’ campaigns to lobby the government. “This is a one-party state,” explained a local, flatly. Asked about young people’s views of the climate, a teenager suggested that in China, individuals do not believe that their actions will affect the environment at large.

It is no surprise that official media are not rushing to explore connections between extreme weather and climate change, says Li Shuo, a policy expert at Greenpeace, a campaign group. The media’s job is to mobilise public opinion, and Chinese leaders do not expect the people to drive climate policy. Nor do they welcome pressure, including from natural disasters, to alter their carefully laid plans. “They don’t have much tolerance of any external event setting their agenda,” says Mr Li.

Change in China must come from within

Outsiders may be tempted to shrug at China’s relative lack of grassroots debate. After all, Mr Xi has promised that China will strive to have carbon emissions peak before 2030, then decline to net zero by 2060, and his word is final. Top-down policies are already seeing solar panels and wind farms installed at a prodigious rate.

In fact, outsiders should hope for more debate at China’s grassroots. The country’s climate plans, though bold on paper, are not urgent enough. The world needs Chinese carbon emissions to peak years earlier than 2030 to avoid catastrophic warming. China cannot safely continue to invest in new coal-fired power plants at home or abroad. Alas, growing resentment of America and the West means that international pressure has an ever-smaller effect. In contrast, when the Chinese public grows really impatient, leaders pay heed, as when they cleaned up smog-choked skies over Beijing and other big cities. In the face of crushing losses, the resilience and grit of Mihe’s residents is something to behold. If allowed a more informed debate about why disaster struck, some of that same energy might just help to save the world.■

Correction (July 30th 2021): An earlier version of this story said China’s president, Xi Jinping, had promised that China’s carbon emissions would peak in 2030. In fact he said the country would strive to have them peak before 2030.

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