“It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.” ~Dan Quayle, or something one might hear these days in China….
We were walking to our tour bus in Beijing, China, the Chinese capital city and third largest city in the world with a population of about 21.2 million. The pollution there was an affront to all our senses. It seemed thick enough to slice with a knife when we de-boarded our plane the day prior, and it seemed worse this morning. Curious as to whether or not this was the “norm,” I questioned our Chinese guide, “So is this fog, smog, or just pollution?”
“Yes!” our guide responded, with a knowing smile. And his tell was all I really needed to know….
Ever since landing in China, there was a strange acidic smell hanging in the air, causing our nose to fill with black muck each day. The smog was oppressive, hanging low and dense and hindering almost every attempt at taking scenic pictures of the beautiful sites in China. And this level of effluence was nearly constant, both across the week (we had ½ of a nice day in Beijing), and across the country, even in rural areas hours away from city centers.
“But the skies cleared just a few weeks ago,” our local guide continued. “The government shut down factories, coal plants, closed schools and took half the cars off the road to get ready for the big APEC summit that was held here earlier this month.”
“Did it actually work,” I asked.
“Yes!!” he emphatically exclaimed, a smile so big it threatened to split his face in half. “We actually saw stars at night and blue during the day! The children were out of school! Everyone was so happy!”
But of course it didn’t last. Two weeks later, with business as usual, and the repressive contamination was back.
The summit he was talking about – the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting – was held last year just outside of Beijing in early November. In anticipation of such an important and public meeting, China attempted to prevent Beijing’s ubiquitous smog by limiting driving and closing down factories within 125 miles of city center. Cars were permitted on the roads only every other day. Schools and government offices were granted a six-day holiday during the Meeting. Residents were granted free admission to tourist attractions in neighboring provinces in a blatant attempt to move as much of the pollution’s shadow away from town as possible. And other more desperate measures were instituted: construction sites were shut down, deliveries were halted, many restaurants were closed, and even crematoriums curtailed the burning of funeral clothes, a common sacrificial offering meant to keep the dead attired in the afterlife. All in an attempt to not solve a pollution problem, but rather to temporarily hide it.
Did the Chinese government really think that these rather unorthodox measures would go unnoticed? Or that they didn’t actually point a guilty finger at the pollution problem the government there is so quick to deny?
Amazingly enough, the air did indeed start to clear. Residents and citizens, seeing the effects that such simple measures could have over such a short period of time satirically labelled the improved weather conditions as “APEC blue,” which was meant to refer to something enjoyable but fleeting. Other Chinese joked that APEC stood for “Air Pollution Eventually Controlled.” But the oppressive smoggy skies returned the week of the meetings, with the US embassy reporting air pollution almost 50 times the World Health Organization’s safe daily limit.
The US embassy in Beijing regularly posts automated air quality measurements at @beiji ngair on Twitter. In the fall of 2010, the feed described the PM2.5 measurement as “crazy bad” after registering a reading in excess of 500 for the first time, a descriptor that was later changed to a more politically correct and scientifically-based “beyond index,” a level which recurred in February, October, and December of 2011. After new more sensitive equipment was installed, air pollution worsened with readings of up to 700 in 2013. The US Embassy recorded over 755 on January 1st, 2014, and 800 by January 12. If you read up on what these PM2.5 numbers actually mean, these readings are, without doubt, “CRAZY BAD.” A label that perhaps should be formally restored to characterize China’s rampant problem with pollution.
So, with the pollution still not hidden, what other steps could the Chinese take? Why, just deny access to the US data, of course! And worse, put up conflicting and erroneous pollution readings on their own websites and feeds…even though all someone had to do was walk outside and experience the particulate assault on their eyes, nose and lungs firsthand.
According to the National Environmental Analysis released by Tsinghua University and The Asian Development Bank in January 2013, 7 of 10 most air polluted cities in Asian are found in China. And the pollution is beyond serious; it’s is damaging the very health of the (urban) Chinese people.
Zhong Nanshan, the president of the China Medical Association, in 2012 warned that air pollution is poised to become China’s biggest health threat. Urban lung cancer and cardiovascular disease rates are 2-3 times that of rural China, and have been increasing, with air pollution and tobacco smoking being to blame.
America was traveling down a similar road after WWII. The scenes playing out in China today could have been anywhere in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s. What changed our path? How is it that we cleaned our waters and skies and moved from a culture of litter to one of waste management? Step in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The EPA was created via Executive Order by President Nixon in 1970 for the purpose of protecting human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress. It seems that not all Executive Orders are not bad, even ones signed by crooks.
By most accounts the EPA, now over 40 years old, has been singularly instrumental in setting policy priorities and writing and enforcing a wide range of laws that have literally changed the face of the Earth for the better. It’s not just North America we are talking about; the EPA’s existence and effectiveness has also inspired scores of other countries to create their own environmental agencies along the same lines, with similar far-reaching effect.
The Clean Water and the Clean Air Acts are early examples of sweeping legislation (some would classify them radical or even seditious) that only a dedicated environmental agency could properly oversee. Today the EPA remain focused on reversing and managing both ozone depletion and climate change.
The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering leadership, published, with the guidance of more than 20 key environmental leaders including several former EPA officials, a list of “10 ways the EPA has strengthened America over the past 40 years:”
Banning widespread use of DDT (and saving several species of birds)
Removing acid from rain
Rethinking waster as materials
Removing lead from gasoline
Clearing second-hand smoke (indoor smoking bans)
Vehicle emissions & efficiency
Cleaning the environment (“Superfund” Sites)
Public information and right to know
Before the EPA, American communities faced numerous perils without even knowing it. For baby-boomers and those born earlier, vivid images of American rivers so contaminated they could be actually lit on fire and choking smog-filled skies over major cities are etched in the mind. And that was just forty years ago — not so long when one considers the profound improvements that have been achieved in our air and water quality since then. In the same time, China has achieved the reverse; my Father, who visited China for the first time in 1983, reported NO smog or other pollution….
China is facing their own similar crossroads. The New York Times claims that “[China’s] environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party.” According to the Chinese Ministry of Health, industrial air pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death. And the problem has moved beyond China’s borders: sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides created in China fall as acid rain on Seoul, South Korea, and Tokyo. According to the Journal of Geophysical Research, pollution made in China even reaches across the Pacific Ocean and is now a constant and recent import at Los Angeles, USA.
Despite the Chinese government’s best efforts to temporarily curtail and hide rampant pollution, the air in Beijing quickly returned to a stifling gauzy white, registering as “very unhealthy” on the US embassy’s air quality scale. But apparently the government there is not about to take any drastic corrective actions necessary to change their country’s path. For example, after the summit, China and the United States announced that their two nations would work to reduce greenhouse gases and restrain pollution. The United States vowed to cut carbon emissions to levels 25% below those recorded in 2005 – an amazingly lofty goal, but China only agreed to “limit” their peak carbon emissions by 2030 (the first time China has agreed to cap their emissions) and strive to achieve 20% of its energy from sources that do not produce carbon emissions. Seems like a pretty ding-dang crappy deal if you ask me, not balanced in the least. From all quarters, it appears that China is simply not organically structured to create, implement and empower an EPA of their own…even though they already have one.
For me, I will never curse the EPA ever again. Seriously. Yes, it is expensive to live cleanly. And yes, it does involve government oversight and regulation. But left to our own devices, unchecked and unregulated free-market capitalism would destroy the environment; there simply is too much money to be made. And our focus is generally and, for many, necessarily, on short-term consequences. Like protecting jobs and ensuring economic growth. But certainly the last 40 years under the EPA has demonstrated, quite conclusively, that we can have them all – a clean environment, jobs, and sustained growth in GDP!
As a 10 year old kid on his first trip to Europe circa 1976, I immediately noticed the offensive and noxious fumes along the busy roads of Rome. Later I learned it was lead in their automobile fuel – something the EPA had removed from American gas before I could remember. That small change with such dramatic consequence has always stayed with me, highlighting really how easy it could be to protect the earth. But this trip to China has driven home the dangers of unchecked, unfettered human activity. After all, in the final analysis, if we mortally wound Mother Nature, jobs and the economy matter not.
Next time you enjoy twinkling stars in the sky, or a clear, cool glass of tap water, or unobstructed clear blue skies of most of our cities, thank the EPA. Without it, we might be a lot more like China that we could ever imagine.
For more information, please see the sources used in drafting this blog: