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Global Warming and the New China Syndrome

Bill Meredith

"Let China sleep. When she awakens, she will shake the world."
…Napoleon Bonaparte

The first half of January started with temperatures in the 70s and golf in shirtsleeves; but then, as always happens, it was followed by the second half. Reality set in; the jet stream remembered where it is supposed to be this time of year, and a prolonged cold wave sent the temperatures into single digits. Pipes, roads and airports froze all over the country, and over a dozen deaths resulted. With all this going on, I expected big things from the silly section when Groundhog Day arrived; but I was to be disappointed. Newspapers carried a few obligatory references to Punxatawny Phil, but this year they were crowded off the front page by real news.

"News" may not be the right word, because there wasn’t much that was really new. The war, of course, was in the forefront, but except for the "surge" debate it was just dragging on in its downward spiral. The republicans in congress were a bit like the British in the song about the Battle of New Orleans… "there wasn’t quite as many as there was a while ago" … but they were still acting like republicans, and the democrats were still acting like democrats, and neither group was acting much like statesmen. Testimony before congress confirmed that the administration had suppressed EPA studies that supported global warming, and the mountain of evidence for the human impact on climate change got a little higher with major reports from British and U. N. commissions. But the thing I found most interesting was the increasing volume of news concerning China and globalization.

I didn’t learn much about China in school. I could find it on a map; in the third grade we learned that if you could dig a hole through the center of the earth you would come out in China. I knew it was a very old culture because we read Charles Lamb’s "Essay upon Roast Pig" in English class, and in the movies Charlie Chan quoted an ancient sage named Confucius. Political correctness hadn’t been invented yet, and Bret Harte’s poem about "The Heathen Chinee" was still in American Lit anthologies, so I knew there were Chinese immigrants in the western states (I didn’t learn that they were brought there as slave labor for building railroads until much later). My perception of the Chinese people was based on a series of stereotypes ranging from the shuffling cooks and laundry workers in the movies to the regal photos of Madame Chiang Kai-shek in Life magazine. I knew China had a huge population; a history teacher said if the Chinese people lined up and marched past you four abreast, they would never stop because the youngest people in the back of the line would be grandparents before they got to you. I knew the communists took over the country after World War II, and that they fought against us in Korea, but I understood that only in the most simplistic terms. I became a little better informed around 1970 when Dr. John Morrison got a grant to develop a lecture series on Chinese history at the Mount, but like Will Rogers, I still don’t know much beyond what I read in the papers.

In the early ‘70s I got a small grant to study Radiation Ecology at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. One of the classes dealt with the environmental effects of accidents at nuclear reactors. There had been a few accidental spills of radioactive material, but never a real meltdown; it was before Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, so nobody knew exactly what would happen if a reactor got out of control. It was believed that if a meltdown occurred, the uranium and plutonium in the core, which are some of the heaviest materials known, would burn through their protective shielding and start sinking into the ground, but no one knew how far down into the earth the stuff might go. Physicists have a weird sense of humor, and one of them had suggested that it would go all the way through and come out in China, so the whole scenario was named the "China Syndrome." The term was popular for a while… there was even a movie made about it… but after Chernobyl it wasn’t funny any more, and it fell out of use.

I think "China Syndrome" would be a good term to apply now to the emergence of China as an industrial power. There are all kinds of economic, geopolitical and military implications to this, but they all pale in comparison to the environmental impact that China will have. In the 1960s when environmentalists were just beginning to quantify the impacts of our own industries and affluent lifestyles, someone said we were lucky that China had such a primitive economy, for with a population four times as great as ours, even a third-world industrial economy would produce enormous amounts of air and water pollution. You could still joke about it in those days, and someone remarked, "If a billion poor Chinese produce that much pollution, think what a billion rich Chinese will do!" It isn’t a joke any more; over 50 Chinese cities have populations of a million or more (compared to about 10 in the U. S.), and the level of air and water pollution in those cities is far worse than anything this country saw in pre-EPA days. The Chinese middle class is growing and more people are demanding cars. Pundits argue about whether the Chinese economy will surpass ours, but no one doubts that China will soon exceed the U.S. as the world’s major producer of greenhouse gases. And those gases will not stay at home. Dust from the overgrazed grasslands in China has been identified in the U.S; it blows across the Pacific, over our heads, and on across the Atlantic. Carbon dioxide from Chinese automobiles and power plants follows the same path.

Napoleon is said to have remarked, "Let China sleep; when she awakens she will shake the world," or, in another translation, "the world will be sorry." I have not been able to find out why he said this; some sources claim it was while he was in delirium from arsenic poisoning, and others say it was in response to a suggestion to extend the French colonial empire. Whatever the circumstances, it was both wishful thinking and prescient. With the development of world travel and communication in the 20th century, there was no possibility that China could continue to "sleep" in the Napoleonic sense; and the world order has indeed been shaken by its emergence as an industrial power.

There is some hope in recent months that we may get enough consensus on global warming to begin to deal with it seriously, and the temptation is to think that will solve the problem The new China Syndrome shows us this is not so. By our standards there are a lot of things wrong with the Chinese system of government, and the American public is generally opposed to doing anything that would alleviate their problems. We need to re-think this attitude. Where the environment is concerned, China’s problems are our problems too. We need to urge them to deal with the problem of greenhouse gases; and to do that effectively, we need to get our own house in order.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith