China’s Environmental Meltdown

For two weeks while watching the Olympic Games the world glimpsed into the most polluted country on earth. The athletes competing outdoors were breathing a lethal cocktail of dust, contaminants and poisonous gases that attack the immune system causing respiratory disease, heart failure and cancer. The air in Beijing is so thick with toxic particles and soot emitted from the outdated coal-fired power plants nearby you can taste a searing sensation in the back of your throat.  Don’t be fooled by the temporary improvement in the air quality during the Olympics when virtually all factories were shut down and cars were prohibited near the Olympic venues. The air will return to its pre-Olympic state almost immediately.

It’s now official; China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2). The setting of this world record should be no surprise. The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) recently released its report for 2007 showing China accounted for 24 percent of global CO2 emissions compared with the United States at 21 percent. Carbon dioxide is the main heat-trapping gas produced by human activity that causes global warning.

It is now predicted by 2030 China’s CO2 emissions will equal the entire world’s carbon dioxide production of today. As if the impending catastrophe gathering in our atmosphere is not terrifying enough, this is only one aspect of the rape of our planet thrust upon us for the purpose of economic competitive advantage. To know the magnitude of environmental disdain gone mad, take a journey with me to China’s neighboring countries.

It was fascinating to witness the transformation of South Korea leading up to the 1988 Olympics. Overnight Seoul shrugged off its backwater, under-military siege mentality to morph itself into a glamorous city of glass towers, expansive parks and high fashion. The towering buildings of Yoido and Gangnam-ku, Olympic Village and the promenade and beautiful bridges along the Han River are truly remarkable.

Even the rowdy hot spots of Itaewon were reinvented into a respectable enclave of nightclubs, restaurants and shopping complexes. Itaewon is at the center of Seoul and about a mile outside the American military base, Yongsan, the headquarters for the U.S. military presence in South Korea. During the day international visitors to Seoul would wander the labyrinth of alleyways bargaining for high quality knock-offs of Louis Vuitton, Channel, Gucci and any other luxury brand you can think of. At night it once was a soldier’s paradise of well deserved R&R.

In keeping with South Korea’s ’88 Olympics induced respectable make-over, the knock-offs were banished underground. The girlie-bars with names like The Cadillac Bar, Love Cupid and The Texas Club all suddenly disappeared in a manner that only a domineering patriarchal government so common in Asia can so effectively pull off.

Seoul has come so far since the ’88 Olympics despite having the million-man army of North Korea, armed to the teeth and on a hair trigger, just thirty miles from its northern gate. The frequent check points randomly set up along Seoul’s streets and highways manned by South Korea’s military are a distant memory. The high profile presence of the U.S. military in and around Seoul has vanished. It no longer feels like a city under siege as it did just a short time ago.

However Seoul today is a city under vicious attack. China has unleashed upon it a deadly wave of airborne pollutants known as “yellow wind”.  These massive dust storms engulf the region, especially prevalent in the spring. The dust mixes with billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that China emits each year into the atmosphere. Most of China’s emissions come from its coal-fired electrical generation plants and furnaces. China brings on line on average one coal-fired power plant every week. It is their stated policy to do so for years to come. These plants are quick and cheap to build. They use antiquated technology developed prior to World War II. These plants have a lifespan of seventy-five years meaning they will be spewing out death and destruction for decades to come. Already China burns more coal than the United States, European Union and Japan combined.

For many weeks each year Seoul is covered in a yellow toxic haze. School is cancelled and people are told to stay indoors because of a multitude of health risks. Acid rain pours down poisoning lakes, rivers, forests and crops. Yellow wind swallows up the entire Korean peninsula and most of Japan.

Numerous scientists believe this phenomenon will accelerate and continue to worsen impacting the western United States within a decade. Others suggest the effects of yellow wind can already be detected as far away as Kansas. .

The deforestation of China’s north and northwest provinces has created a large, desert wasteland. Decades of timber exploitation, slash and burn farming techniques and population growth has resulted in desiccation or the elimination of water resources as plant life disappears, rainfall shrinks and lakes disappear. More than fifty percent of China’s land is either arid or semi-arid, mostly the result of man-made activities.

Recently I stood on the 23rd floor of a downtown Seoul office building. In the middle of the day I could barely see the silhouettes of buildings nearby. The sun was blotted from the sky. The people outside scurried about with white masks covering their faces as if attacked by biological weapons. A thick grimy dust coated everything. No matter how hard and often you scrub you can never make it go away. Let this be a stark warning to the citizens of San Francisco, Seattle and Portland.

The ecologically sensitive tropical rain forests of Kalimantan (the Indonesian portion of Borneo) and Sumatra are rapidly disappearing, by no small measure resulting from America’s demand for cheap Chinese furniture. As China has destroyed forever much of its forests, they have turned to Indonesia where corrupt officials are plentiful and ready to plunder its resources for a price. After the forests have been illegally cleared of its valuable timber they are set on fire to make way for sprawling agricultural estates. These fires often burn out of control for weeks until the monsoon rains arrive. A highly toxic, thick black cloud covers the region. More than 150 million people in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and southern Thailand are impacted; the air unfit to breathe leading to long term healthcare problems.

Borneo is undoubtedly one of the most important habitats of wildlife in the world. It is one of only two places on Earth where orangutans, elephants and rhinoceros can be found. There is believed to be thousands of plant and animal species still undiscovered. It is unthinkable but many of these species will become extinct before we ever knew they existed.

Since the mid 90’s when China’s economy kicked into high-gear, nearly five million acres per year of Indonesian tropical rain forests have been destroyed for their timber. This is an area about half the size of the Netherlands. As a result pygmy elephants, clouded leopards, gibbons, orangutans, sun bears and rhinoceros are just a few of the species hovering on the edge of extinction.

It would be irresponsible to believe the wanton destruction of China’s environment and the surrounding region is their problem alone. It is sheer idiocy to suggest American trade policies towards China have not contributed to the greatest environmental meltdown in the history of our planet. It is time to fess up. Over thirty percent of Chinese emissions are a direct result of exports for consumption by the United States and the European Union. The destruction of Southeast Asia’s tropical rain forests is rife with our fingerprints. We have been willing participants in these horrific crimes.

The Kyoto Protocol, the global-warming treaty that excludes and forgives China, is not the answer. China, India and Brazil have no obligations other than to monitor and report omissions. China’s increase in omissions over the next ten years will surpass by five times the decreases the Kyoto Protocol seeks from the industrialized world. To make matters worse India is right behind China in the construction of outdated coal powered plants.

The answer must be enshrined in a comprehensive U.S.-China Free Trade Agreement. Under the present arrangements of our bilateral trade, China can not continue to grow its economy without plunging the world into an environmental abyss. Trade with the United States must be conditioned on environmental protections that are strictly enforced and monitored by American scientists. Our most recent Free Trade Agreements negotiated with Colombia, Korea and Peru include strong language on the environment. We must go much further with China.  No matter what the China pundits and apologists may argue, China will not risk its trade relations with the United States for all the tea in China.

We must convey in the strongest language possible we will no longer be accomplices to these crimes. These are crimes against all humanity. Crimes that is soon to be committed against our own citizens in their yards, streets and playgrounds.

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