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All in all, this isn't bad.
March 3, 2014 5:52 PM   Subscribe

China's air pollution is now so bad it "resembles nuclear winter", say Chinese scientists. The pollution is impeding photosynthesis and potentially wreaking havoc on the country's food supply.

Time magazine calls it China's Apocalyptic Hellscape. ABC calls it a "Respitory nuclear winter" (video). The reporter travels over 400 miles south of Beijing (eg. Boston to DC) through smog-pasty fields before it begins to lift.

The Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences said Beijing’s pollution has made the city almost "uninhabitable for human beings". But many in China simply ignore the problem. "China has 1.3 billion people, fighting these kinds of environmental problems will take a long time, and anyhow, we are satisfied with our lives," said one man. "When Mao was alive, we didn’t have any time off -- no matter if it was raining or windy, we had to work. All in all, this isn't bad."

One man, for the first time, is suing the government. "This is the first ever case of a citizen suing the government regarding the issue of air pollution."
posted by stbalbach (53 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wait for the export!
posted by BlueHorse at 5:55 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]


I wonder how far cancer incidence and respiratory ailment rates will go up on the west coasts of the North and Central Americas. On the other hand, China's pollution is probably mostly due to making stuff to sell in our WalMarts and Amazons, so maybe it is environmental justice of a kind.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:03 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


Well I'm sure they'll come to a good stopping point and say "no more!" and sort out green technologies I mean everyone else did right?
posted by angerbot at 6:07 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


Well I'm sure they'll come to a good stopping point and say "no more!" and sort out green technologies I mean everyone else did right?

Well, yes. The air is much cleaner in European and North American cities than it used to be. You don't need "green" technologies. The technology exists today to make power plants and cars quite clean - spending the money on those technologies just hasn't been a priority for China. That will change as China gets richer.
posted by Dasein at 6:13 PM on March 3 [14 favorites]


Growth!
posted by j_curiouser at 6:14 PM on March 3


Their enforcement of antipollution laws may result in more than a slap on the wrist.
posted by el io at 6:16 PM on March 3


But who cares?? This air pollution is good for military defense!
posted by astapasta24 at 6:18 PM on March 3


There are two big obstacles to China's ecological reform: 1) The thought of "the West did a lot of polluting to get where it is, so why shouldn't China get to do the same thing?" (and they have a point -- demanding that developing nations obey rules the developed nations never had to is a sort of double standard); and 2) the need for constant growth to minimize popular unrest. The government is trying to become greener, though. I hope they succeed.
posted by jiawen at 6:24 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]


Ok. What nuclear winter means is almost no sunlight reaches the ground for at least a year. Perpetual darkness.

Hyperbole doesn't impress me.
posted by eriko at 6:26 PM on March 3 [5 favorites]


The air is much cleaner in European and North American cities than it used to be. You don't need "green" technologies.

That's kind of overlooking how much heavy industry has moved to China from Europe and North America. Our cities are cleaner in part because we outsource a lot of our pollution to China.
posted by anonymisc at 6:26 PM on March 3 [23 favorites]


I am betting they will fix the worst of it fast. Unfortunately part of that will be shifting the dirtiest polluters to poorer places like Vietnam. But more will be in genuine improvements.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:28 PM on March 3


Ok. What nuclear winter means is almost no sunlight reaches the ground for at least a year. Perpetual darkness.

Hyperbole doesn't impress me.


It looks like nuclear winter to me - if some of those photos represent "normal", then it looks like plants would be be getting "almost no sunlight" for at least a year.
posted by anonymisc at 6:29 PM on March 3


I kind of get a kick out of the Chinese looking at the nuclear winter, shrugging, and lighting off a cigarette on their way to work.

Very metal.
posted by codswallop at 6:33 PM on March 3 [5 favorites]


Measuring economic success, in part, by the number of people who can now afford to drive cheap inefficient cars may be part of the problem.
posted by islander at 7:01 PM on March 3 [5 favorites]


I lived in Beijing in 2001-2002 and it was nothing like this. At this time of year, it was all bright blue sky and winter wind, and even at other times, I never noticed anything really bad. There was certainly pollution - but it was much better than Shanghai - you could leave things outside and they wouldn't get filthy with coal smoke, and frankly Beijing just wasn't as smelly as Shanghai (although Shanghai is a jewel among cities, all things considered). It's amazing to me that in a decade things have gotten so bad. It's also sad. Beijing is a gorgeous city with wonderful parks and places of interest, plus of course the mountains out beyond the city. How I loved living there, and how sad it makes me that in such a short time so much that made it delightful has gone.
posted by Frowner at 7:02 PM on March 3 [4 favorites]


I'll copy-paste from elsewhere: Chinese getting manufacturing is the greening of the West.
posted by sieve a bull at 7:06 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]


They'll grow rich. Then they'll start to worry about living long enough to enjoy their riches. Then they'll go green and clean up. Then they'll tsk-tsk at the heedless polluters in other less developed places. And then those in turn will go through the same cycle.

From what I'm reading, however bad the Chinese air pollution is, apparently India has them beat - Delhi is even worse than Beijing.

The good news is that China and India are the two big population hot spots. Once those go green (eventually), there just won't be that much left - Africa is relatively sparsely populated for the size of their land mass, Latin America is well on it's way etc..

One keeps hoping that someone will be able to escape this horrible cycle and manage to develop without paying a horrible ecological price, but so far no luck. Maybe by the time it's time for for example, Africa, they'll escape the same fate.
posted by VikingSword at 7:23 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]


What nuclear winter means is almost no sunlight reaches the ground for at least a year

I can't find that definition of nuclear winter anywhere.

From what I can tell from Googling, "nuclear winter" means a significant reduction in sunlight for a period of months or more. Only at the extreme end of things that are considered nuclear winter would we be talking about "almost no sunlight", and it looks like no model says that degree of reduction would last for more than a year. (Sunlight reduction and cooling could both last many years though, just not at the level of being almost entirely blocked for more than a year.)

[Best single site I found, and a TED talk and PDF from it.]

Looks like a reduction in sunlight enough to significantly reduce photosynthesis or shorten growing seasons can be compared to a nuclear winter without hyperbole.
posted by philipy at 7:35 PM on March 3 [4 favorites]


anonymisc: "It looks like nuclear winter to me - if some of those photos represent "normal", then it looks like plants would be be getting "almost no sunlight" for at least a year."

From what I've heard from friends living in Beijing, these photos are not doctored, but they don't represent "normal" either, it's what it looks like on the absolute worst day. Also, I understand that some of the more dramatic shots are taken using a telephoto lens from far away, so it looks like you're close to a building and yet it's totally obscured, whereas in reality they're shooting through a huge amount of air between the camera and the subject.

None of which is meant to minimize how shitty things are. By all accounts, it is shitty. Just don't interpret the photos as typical scenes.
posted by Bugbread at 8:28 PM on March 3


Guess building nuclear power plants or windmill farms or solar tech would have made a lot more sense than building huge cities that have no residents.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:32 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


All in all, this isn't bad.

It has electrolytes!
posted by flabdablet at 9:54 PM on March 3 [3 favorites]


1) The thought of "the West did a lot of polluting to get where it is, so why shouldn't China get to do the same thing?"

Such strange logic, really. "The people who went first got to make a crapton of mistakes as they were figuring this stuff out, why shouldn't I be entitled to make all those same mistakes?" What are you, teenagers? You're supposed to be learning from those other peoples' mistakes so you don't have to make them.

Of course I was in Phoenix last month and from the top of South Mountain you can visibly see the contrast between the brown haze that hangs over the whole city with the actual blue of the sky up above the haze. So it's not really like the US has got this one completely figured out yet either. But it wasn't anywhere near as bad as any of those pictures, even on the worst days I was in Phoenix. I can't imagine how just...depressing it would be, to live in that smog.
posted by mstokes650 at 10:33 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


For more fun with regional issues: I don't know the exact number, but supposedly Hong Kong's air quality is so bad that the skyline of Hong Kong island is visible from Kowloon (ten minutes across the harbor by Star Ferry) less than 100 days out of the year (this might be out of date, though I remember being shocked at the decline of the air there during my visits in 98, 2000, and 2003).

Japan has ongoing issues with the desertification of northeast China, so much so that parts of Japan end up covered with a fine layer of yellow sand every year. The drift of pollution is certainly not going to make already tense relations suddenly better.
posted by Ghidorah at 10:49 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


mstokes650: "Such strange logic, really...You're supposed to be learning from those other peoples' mistakes so you don't have to make them."

I think we've learned a lot about how not to create a lot of pollution, but we haven't learned a lot about how to drastically increase a nation's prosperity without creating a lot of pollution. They're not saying "They fucked up, so we get to fuck up, too, even though there are better ways!" but "They fucked up, but it put them on top. Nobody has come up with a way to get on top without fucking up. Why is it when we try to get up on top by doing the same thing, we get yelled at for it?"

Not saying they're right, but the logic isn't strange.
posted by Bugbread at 10:52 PM on March 3 [3 favorites]


There's also the image of success as it's evolved over generations in China. Where before, the big three things that every successful family should have were a refrigerator, a radio, and a washing machine. Now that China's middle class is growing, and growing more wealthy, the standards have expanded. Families should have cars. Meals should include beef, and more of it. The image of success has become the standard of living of Americans, who, again, this might be out of date, something like 25% of the world's resources, but with a fraction of the population. Now over a billion people think that that's the lifestyle to aspire to. Who tells them no? Who has the right to?

Going hand in hand with that, look at efforts to convince Americans to consume less. Every time intiatives towards smaller, more efficient cars are introduced, car companies continue releasing giant gas guzzlers that consume tons of gas. And hey, American air quality is much better than it used to be, especially now that the factories that used to foul the air have all been moved to China... oh, wait.

Yeah, we're fucked.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:02 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


I wonder how far cancer incidence and respiratory ailment rates will go up on the west coasts of the North and Central Americas.

I am spending the winter in a rural prefecture on the Japan Sea coast. Last week, we had our first PM 2.5 warning *ever*. It was crazy - there was a thick smog covering everything for several days. It's frightening. I've lived here off and on for the past 20 years, and I've never seen anything like it.

There is no heavy industry here. The pollution comes across the Sea of Japan. Likely there is some photochemical reaction with the salt in the sea air that intensifies the smog.

People like to say "oh, this is payback for all the Walmart crap we outsource" but that is a very glib response to a terrible, terrible problem.

There are a lot of people in China. The northeast is very dry, and desertification is part of the problem. Combine that with the massive number of coal-fired plants needed to power an emerging economy.

The whole thing makes me sick, both spiritually and (presumably) physically. Where I live in Japan is such a beautiful place, and Japan has worked so hard over the past 50 years since the Olympics to clean up its environment.

Welcome to the Chinese Century, I guess. It's going to be a doozy.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:28 AM on March 4 [6 favorites]


antipasta24: But who cares?? This air pollution is good for military defense!

And it helps ward off aliens!
posted by JiBB at 12:37 AM on March 4


The ridiculous, complacent, cavalier and unsophisticated rube-like attitudes described in the LA Times link from above are simply maddening.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:46 AM on March 4


Very metal.

Very heavy metals you mean.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:05 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I wonder how far cancer incidence and respiratory ailment rates will go up on the west coasts of the North and Central Americas.

Considerably less than it's going up here in Korea, I reckon. Or, per KokuRyu, Japan.

It really is the Chinese century, following on from the American century, at least based on the change in the ratio of my swearing at them.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:34 AM on March 4 [3 favorites]


Does anyone have data on how this compares to the pollution of Pittsburgh in the middle of the 20th century or that of the Great Smog in the UK that killed 4000 people?

What about how Tokyo had terrible air quality in the 1970s?

This site on air quality compares various megacities around the world.
posted by sien at 2:55 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


This site on air quality compares various megacities around the world.

22 year old data! But still, interesting.
posted by lawrencium at 3:24 AM on March 4


They'll grow rich. Then they'll start to worry about living long enough to enjoy their riches. Then they'll go green and clean up. Then they'll tsk-tsk at the heedless polluters in other less developed places. And then those in turn will go through the same cycle.

And, eventually, the Chinese or Ghanaians or Haitians or whoever is then at the top of the wheel will build their dirty factories in the hollowed-out cities of bankrupt Europe and the USA.
posted by acb at 3:29 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


We went to 300+ in Singapore for a few days, and it was business as normal for many cities in China, while we all freaked out and rushed to get masks and air filters. Friends took their kids out of the country if they could and my family debated taking the toddler to Cambodia for fresh air...

The scariest part of the sudden haze was how fast you adjusted to it and how down on the ground level, it was actually hard to see the haze, or feel it. You could smell it and taste it when you first went from a clean space to outdoors, but rapidly adjusted. We live on the 34th floor, so we could clearly see visibility - nearby apartments vanished, so we would say "Oh hey, I can see the clock tower today!" if it cleared, but down on the ground, it was just a vaguely stinky pre-storm thickness to the air at most.

If you lived with it, you would just adapt. Then die earlier.
posted by viggorlijah at 4:10 AM on March 4 [2 favorites]


I use this site to monitor my town's air quality. It seems to jibe with how bad things look, day to day.

This is what Beijing looks like right now, according to that site. The bottom graph shows wind, which tends to be inversely correlated with the pollution levels. (Sorry, nearby countries.)

We were the dirtiest town in China one day a couple months ago and the kids were all mad because the schools were closed in the next town over. We moved to a kind of podunk town hoping to avoid the pollution, but they burn the garbage right next to the apartment complexes, they burn the fields in the fall, and even local teachers have cars. There seems to be no avoiding it. A lot of the masks I see people wearing are the really cheap papery ones, which I think don't filter the smaller, scarier particles.

I'm glad that Chinese people are complaining out loud about the pollution. The younger generations, unlike the guy quoted in the FPP title, want their fancy stuff: more meat, more milk, more stuff, but they know this isn't "the weather," and I think they'll end up forcing a change. (Or the government will head them off at the pass and force changes before people can get too angry). Better than "when Mao was alive" isn't going to be good enough.
posted by MsDaniB at 4:15 AM on March 4


This is what Beijing looks like right now, according to that site. The bottom graph shows wind, which tends to be inversely correlated with the pollution levels. (Sorry, nearby countries.)

Yeah, when Beijing looks that good, it can only mean Korea is going to get smog. I think the only thing that is saving Japan at the moment is a southerly frontal system that is keeping the smog cloud at bay.

I look at PM25.jp. There's a nifty climate model that shows how the smog cloud is moving. The entire situation reminds me of Nausicaa.

I notice that small city where I live has gone from "green" to "yellow" in the last couple of hours.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:29 AM on March 4


I recently moved back to the US from Beijing and what's odd about the air pollution there is that it can change so dramatically in just a few hours, from off-the-scale hazardous to very good. When it's bad, it's really bad. But when it's good, you have blue skies, bright sun and at night a huge bright moon. Very strange. If you look right now at the US Embassy twitter feed and scroll back over the past 24 hours, you'll see what I mean.
posted by mono blanco at 7:21 AM on March 4


We moved to a kind of podunk town hoping to avoid the pollution, but they burn the garbage right next to the apartment complexes, they burn the fields in the fall, and even local teachers have cars. There seems to be no avoiding it.

Rural pollution is a big issue in China. Every fall in Nanjing, we'd have pollution problems and everyone blamed the farmers. I saw some fields burning firsthand. The practice was made illegal, but it seems like it's not enforced much; locals said farmers would wait for night or foggy days to start their burns. Indoor air pollution is another major concern, coming from fuels used for heating and cooking. Just found this abstract in a quick googling, but I'm sure there are better sources.
posted by msbrauer at 8:14 AM on March 4


I had two stays of a few months last year in Kaohsiung in Taiwan, where the daytime PM2.5 level is around 150 almost every day. Both times within a couple of weeks of arriving I developed a cough that stubbornly refused to go until I returned to London.

There it's mostly from scooters (Kaohsiung and neighbouring Pingtung have two of the highest rates of use in Asia) and from the chemical plants on the edge of the city. The levels also noticeably spiked at Chinese New Year on the days when everyone was out burning ghost money in front of their homes and businesses.
posted by kerplunk at 8:31 AM on March 4


It's not going to be the Chinese Century if they're all dying from cancer in 20-30 years.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:39 AM on March 4


The ridiculous, complacent, cavalier and unsophisticated rube-like attitudes described in the LA Times link from above are simply maddening.

And therein is the problem, right? Out of 1.3 billion people, only 1 person is suing the government.

When it's bad, it's really bad. But when it's good, you have blue skies, bright sun and at night a huge bright moon. Very strange.

A PM2.5 > 20 is considered hazardous. Since the beginning of February there have been no days below 20. See this graph which charts it day by day (bottom of page). Most days are > 150. You don't need to see the pollution for it to be dangerous, but when it's pea soup 500+ PM it's "inhabitable for humans" and "nuclear winter" levels.

he pollution of Pittsburgh in the middle of the 20th century or that of the Great Smog in the UK that killed 4000 people?

Those were certainly bad but China is different due to the scale. I doubt the fog in London covered a 400+ mile circle around London. And it's not just one city, there are other Chinese cities worse than Beijing. The pop. of 19th London is a small city in China (which has 50+ Londons), and just like London they burn coal in open cookstoves.
posted by stbalbach at 9:33 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I should have linked in the FPP: China Air Daily has a lot of great resources.
posted by stbalbach at 9:33 AM on March 4


FYI, the U.S. has more than a few air pollution issues, too. FYI that photo is from the Salt Lake Valley, which fills up with smog regularly several times each year when a temperature inversion traps emissions in the valley. One of the reasons I'm not living in that area now . . .

One of my observations after the Beijing Olympics, was that the Chinese government and people would sooner or later be pressing hard for cleaner air. It's easy enough to resist the pressure of outside groups and dissident groups. But nobody wants to live in and breathe that stuff--and you don't want your kids breathing it, or your elderly parents, and so on all up and down the line.

That applies to ordinary people but even more so to government and business leaders. Who tend to live in the most polluted places like Beijing and Shanghai because that is where government and business happens.
posted by flug at 11:29 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I recently moved back to the US from Beijing and what's odd about the air pollution there is that it can change so dramatically in just a few hours, from off-the-scale hazardous to very good. When it's bad, it's really bad. But when it's good, you have blue skies, bright sun and at night a huge bright moon. Very strange. If you look right now at the US Embassy twitter feed and scroll back over the past 24 hours, you'll see what I mean.

Yep. I live in the worst air quality of major U.S. cities (Los Angeles). And today, for example, right now, the air quality in Los Angeles is worse than in Beijing:

Los Angeles-North Main Street Air Pollution: Real-time Air Quality Index (AQI)

For parts of LA it's 95 and for Beijing it's 63. So there.
posted by VikingSword at 11:58 AM on March 4


everyone blamed the farmers. I saw some fields burning firsthand.

The reason for the burning is because there is nowhere to put chaff, weeds, and stalks etc. from last year's harvest. The other reason is because burning the fields is a quick and effective way to restore nutrients to the earth for better planting.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:00 PM on March 4


KokuRyu, I haven't lived in the Japanese countryside in a long, long time, but you're there now, right? Is it still pretty common to burn garbage?
posted by Bugbread at 3:52 PM on March 4


VikingSword: "For parts of LA it's 95 and for Beijing it's 63. So there."

I don't think the claim is that the pollution in Beijing (and other Chinese cities / downwind rural areas / etc.) is always higher than any Western cities, just that the average and the peaks are much higher.
posted by Bugbread at 3:54 PM on March 4




This article has a useful overview of some of the reasons that China's air is so bad. One particularly interesting point it makes is that because China regulates the price of fuel at artificially low levels, refiners and power plants can't produce and burn cleaner-burning fuels.
posted by Dasein at 9:02 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]








Can't help a wry chuckle at the fact that the picture in that article captioned "An unmanned aerial vehicle flies over Shashi Airport in Jingzhou city, China, during a smog clearing test" appears to show a small plane emitting a lot of smoky exhaust.

On further reading, it seems that the correct solution to having a lot of shit in the air is to spray more shit into the air.

I do wonder how long it's going to take us, as a species, to work out that we simply don't have an "away" to throw things to.
posted by flabdablet at 12:37 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


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