Villagers in Southwestern China Grapple with Climate Change

As nations struggle to agree on post-2012 approaches to global warming, China has come under scrutiny for being the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases yet not having any mandatory emissions reduction scheme in place.

Critics argue that after the so-called “carbon trading mechanisms” under the Kyoto Protocol expire in 2012, rapidly developing countries like China and India should be required to comply with mandatory emissions caps. Currently, developing-nation signatories to the Kyoto agreement are responsible only for producing carbon “credits” for sale to industrialized nations, not for cutting their own emissions. Worldwide, the political will for tackling climate change is building in the face of mounting scientific evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that global temperatures will rise by 2-6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, causing floods, famines, and violent storms and risking millions of lives. Other economic and political analyses, such as the recent report by British economist Nicholas Stern that estimates climate-change related costs at 5-20 percent of global GDP, have put these threats in the context of global security and international policy. “What this means is that we need to treat climate change not as a long-term threat to our environment but as an immediate threat to our security and prosperity,” UK climate change envoy John Ashton noted in September. In China, where greenhouse gas emissions are quickly catching up with those of the United States, people are already starting to feel the effects of a changing climate. Chinese coastlines experienced some of the worst typhoons and floods on record this summer, while the western provinces suffered severe drought. Between January and September, natural disasters forced the evacuation and relocation of 13.2 million people and killed more than 2,300, causing direct economic losses of US$24 billion. According to recent estimates by Qin Dahe, director of the China Meteorological Administration, extreme weather now hampers China’s economic growth by between 3 to 6 percent of GDP, or US$70-130 billion, per year. Residents of China’s rural west are observing the impacts of warming in their daily lives. In the region of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain outside Lijiang, Yunnan province, many locals lament the changes of recent decades. Xie Qiong, a 31-year-old taxi driver and Lijiang native, remembers the cold-weather clothing of her childhood. “When I was a little girl I used to wear extremely thick sweaters in winter. My arms and legs could hardly bend in them. Now, at the coldest time of year, I’m just wearing a thin windbreaker, and it’s enough.” She also points to the changing landscape. “In the past, Snow Mountain would be completely white year-round, and all of the lakes in the area would freeze over. Now there’s hardly any snow on it, even in the middle of winter, and we can fish in the lakes year-round. It snowed once two years ago but hasn’t snowed since.” Gou Xunming of the Lijiang Development and Reform Commission similarly recalls the frigid winters of his youth. “When I was a student here in 1982 I used to have cold blisters all over my fingers by this time of year. Now you can just walk around with a thin shirt on.” Li Xiaohui, a lay Buddhist at the Yufeng Monastery outside of Lijiang, notes that these changes have occurred rapidly, and cannot be ignored. “In the last 20 years, we have seen 200-years-worth of changes in climate,” he explains, noting that the winter season is several months shorter, the snow cover on Snow Mountain has declined 60 percent, and animals and plants he saw as a child are now gone or extremely rare. “The snow flowers were once so abundant in this area that there is a village called ‘Snow Flower.’ But they are now endangered,” Li observes. Mr. Xu, a hotel owner who moved to Lijiang from Guangdong province 20 years ago, also emphasizes the rapid changes, especially in recent years. “They say that Yunnan is the land of ‘four seasons of spring,’ but in the last three years we’ve really seen what happens when we lose our seasons. Compared to when I first moved here 20 years ago, it is much warmer all year round now. Especially these past three years, the sun feels hotter and it has hardly rained at all.” Although there is general consensus that change is occurring in the region and affecting plants and animals, the impacts on human society remain unknown. Some residents worry about the social implications of warmer temperatures. “Climate change is terrifying,” says Xie Qiong, “Every day we see reports on television about intense weather. But we are not used to intense heat in this area. It will be very difficult for us to get used to a whole new kind of climate.” Xie observes that while tourists come to the region to appreciate the beauty of Lijiang, “they are already too late. The feeling of the area now is already completely changed from that of my childhood.” Mr. Xu similarly laments the impact of climate change on the quality of life. “It makes people sad, because the people here prefer colder weather. And because the feeling now is completely different from the feeling before. This creates internal conflicts in people who remember the good old days.” Others worry about the resource issues that have arisen in the hotter, dryer climate. “When I was little, the water in the old town flowed abundantly,” remembers Xie Qiong. “We used it for everything-washing, cooking, drinking, playing. But now there is so little that we can only look at it, and pretty soon that may be gone too.” According to scientists, loss of glacial water is one of the most pressing concerns posed by climate change in China, where 23 percent of the population depends on glacial water. The Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has estimated that China will lose two-thirds of its glaciers by 2050, putting at least 300 million people at risk. In just the past 20 years, Lijiang’s Snow Mountain glacier has receded by 250 meters. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain’s glacier, which provides the region’s water, has receded some 250 meters in recent years. But not everyone believes the changes are bad. Recalling the bitter cold winters of his childhood, Gou Xunming argues that while the animals and some of the flora around Lijiang may suffer, global warming will benefit the region overall, because “warmer temperatures are good for humans.” Gou believes that except for a shortage of water and a change in lifestyle habits with the warmer temperatures, climate change will “not likely influence human society” very much. He remains confident in the government’s ability to provide enough water or other resources as they become necessary. For many residents, making sense of the causes of and solutions to climate change is not always as easy as describing the warming itself. Mr. Xu looks to population growth for the roots of climate change. “Global warming is like a room with too many people. It gets hot and stuffy and we can’t breathe. Now there are more and more people, and we can’t just open a window, so the atmosphere gets warmer and warmer.” On the other hand, Gou Xunming argues that climate change is the result of “natural changes” in the atmosphere. “There are not very many people in Lijiang, but the climate is still warming here too. So how can we say that it is human-caused? The atmosphere would be getting warmer naturally, even without humans.” But Xie Qiong sees climate change in the larger context of misguided human development. “We are ruining ecosystems everywhere. Climate change is just another example of the poor environmental protection ethic of humans. They are always saying that development is going to make our lives better. We will be modern and rich. But in reality, our quality of life is getting worse.” Many Lijiang residents feel urgent action is needed to address climate change but fall short when asked about specifics. Because global warming is abstract and global in scale, the problems-and their solutions-can seem distant, even in places like Lijiang where it is already having direct impacts. “There’s nothing we can do, it is a problem bigger than us,” says Xie Qiong. Most residents questioned agree that the Chinese government can take some action, such as planting trees or limiting the number of tourists to the area, but believe other countries should shoulder most of the burden. “The Americans have caused the most damage to the world’s environment,” reasons Mr. Xu, “So they should be responsible for solving global warming. The [Chinese] government also has some responsibility in this area, such as planting trees. But that’s all we can do.” Xie argues that the solutions should come from outside of China, whereas “China’s main responsibility is to cooperate with global initiatives and help in any way that they are asked to.” Similarly, Li Xiaohui suggests that a United Nations-style coalition is needed to tackle climate change. “This is a global problem, so we need to form a global team to solve the problem, like with the UN for world security.” So far, few domestic NGOs in China have tackled the global warming issue. With the exception of a few projects such as energy efficiency campaigns and Clean Development Mechanism initiatives, climate change projects generally originate among the international groups working in the country, such as Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Growing global attention to the issue, however, is having an impact on China, where climate change is increasingly discussed not just in environmental terms but also in terms of domestic growth and security. The Kyoto Protocol, which came into force in early 2005, has generated profits from emissions reduction activities in the nation’s renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors. Trading in carbon credits under the Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism is expected to be worth 20 billion euros (US$25.6 billion) this year. While these efforts are promising, many questions still remain about the role the Chinese government, business community, and civil society will ultimately play in addressing global warming. A meaningful, timely solution will likely require the cooperation of all sectors of society, including the increasingly vocal residents of Lijiang. Lila Buckley is assistant executive director of the Global Environmental Institute, a Worldwatch Institute affiliate based in Beijing.
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