U.S. and China: The Biggest Climate Losers

Our Chinese hosts have a little joke for their English-speaking friends.
“You’ve heard about the Chinese national bird?” A pregnant pause, and then: “It’s the crane.”


We smile awkwardly. What’s so funny about that? And then it begins to dawn on us, and we laugh uncertainly. Oh, yes. We get the joke. Of course.


Cranes are everywhere. Cranes perched on top of tall buildings; cranes hovering above cleared land; cranes even competing for space with other cranes.
We’re speaking, of course, of construction cranes, not birds. And they’re here because of almost indescribable growth here in the Pearl River Delta, and cities like Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Dongguan.


I wouldn’t have believed the scale myself, before I saw it. Since opening itself to world markets in the 1970’s, China has seen spectacular growth, albeit from a very low starting point. Consider Shenzhen, Hong Kong’s closest neighbor in mainland China. In 1979, there were 300,000 people living here. Only thirty years later, there were 8.9 million – bigger than New York!


And at last count, Shenzhen’s people numbered 10.4 million. How do you even find room for 500,000 new people every year? Well, that explains the cranes, no? In fact, in 2009, the city of Shenzhen opened an unbelievable one-half billion square feet of new building space!

All this growth is desperately important to the Chinese. They are still a comparatively poor country. In the last three decades, they’ve increased their GDP per person forty times over, but it’s still less than one-tenth of the average American income. And with such widespread poverty, the official doctrine of the Chinese regime has been: “Development first; environment later.”


It seems strange from this side of the Pacific, but wealthy America seems to feel the same way. Just look at the presidential primaries. It’s an article of faith that the only thing that matters this year is the economy. Imagine an American candidate hopelessly running on a platform of caring for the creation: Goodbye nomination! It’s jobs now; environment later, or maybe never.


But China and the U.S. share a common problem. From the standpoint of total economic harm to our large coastal cities, we’re the two biggest victims of our own policies. Within a generation, the effects of our common neglect of the environment will cost us more dearly than any other countries on earth.


According to the OECD research we’ve been looking at in recent posts, the world’s large coastal cities will suffer more than $35 TRILLION in losses from rising sea levels by 2070 – more than twice the U.S. national debt. For China, the main victims are Guangzhou (#2), Shanghai (#5), Tianjin (#7), Hong Kong (#9), Ningbo (#11) and Qingdao (#18). For the U.S. it’s Miami (#1), New York (#3), New Orleans (#12) and Virginia Beach (#19).

And why are sea levels rising? Most importantly, because of thermal expansion: as water warms, it expands slightly, and the world’s oceans are warming under increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Secondly, mountain glaciers are rapidly melting, as a visit to almost-glacier-free Glacier National Park will vividly illustrate. But most terrifying of all is the third cause: The earth’s two great ice sheets – Greenland and Antarctica – holding enough water to raise sea levels by 200 feet, are melting at an accelerating pace.


[A fourth climate effect – the record loss of Arctic sea ice – does not, by itself, contribute to rising sea levels. But the loss of white, reflective sea ice in exchange for dark, heat-absorbing sea water exacerbates the other three effects, and further accelerates rising sea levels.]


So if China and the U.S. are the biggest coastal losers from human-caused climate change, you’d think that they’d be leading the charge to cut GHG emissions, wouldn’t you? But in 2011’s global climate conference in Durban, as in Copenhagen and Bali before it, our two countries did more harm than any others in resisting international action to restore the earth’s climate systems.


In China, the apparent problem is the desperate scramble for economic growth in the face of centuries of poverty. In the U.S., it appears to be the corrupting influence of oil and coal money in politics. American people know about climate change. American politicians don’t, or won’t.


So what will it be for the U.S. and China? Economic growth, or care for the creation? Or are we beginning to see this as an entirely false choice?


The relentless onset of rising sea levels due to human-driven climate change has unmasked this narrative for the sham that it is. Disregard for the creation will not create wealth for either country. On the contrary, it will destroy some of our greatest cities and all the economic vitality they bring to our countries.


Unless, of course, we begin speaking up. Even in China, people of goodwill can make a difference if they try. But in the U.S., it’s easy.


Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.


J.Elwood

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