Chip’s Q&A in the South China Morning Post: “How the US and the West Contributed to China’s Addiction to Dirty Development”

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Los Angeles-based author Chip Jacobs became well known in China for his book, Smogtown, about  
pollution in the Californian metropolis, which he co-authored with William Kelly. The pair have now turned their attention to China’s struggle with pollution in their book, The People’s Republic of Chemicals. Jacobs spoke to LI JING

What are the root causes of China’s pollution problems?

I think it’s connected with China’s tragic history – whether with the foreign occupation, the Opium Wars, the Japanese invasion or the cold war. All those historical events in some way encouraged China to continue using coal to fuel its industry, warm its homes and maintain development. For years, China was stuck in old-fashioned coal dependence.

In the 1990s, the US was eager to bring China into the world of nations. The cold war had ended and the Soviet Union had dissolved, but China remained a mystery. The US leadership of Bill Clinton and Al Gore wanted China to be involved in the global economy, but they made a fundamental mistake that led to a fight with Washington. Gore wanted any deal that brought China into the World Trade Organisation to include controls on China using dirty coal, which increased global warming and created air pollution. But he lost his fight.

Record pollution levels in Beijing regularly blot out sunlight during the daytime. Image: SCMP

China went on to become a gigantic export powerhouse. At that time the central leadership was looking for an edge, to make China competitive. It was a perfect storm for China to have a very dirty industrial revolution. The US had a very dirty industrial revolution at the dawn of the last century – and a lot of people died. It’s as if the lessons were never remembered.

China was so hungry to pump up its economy and to export its products, which it produced at a cost that did not fully reflect their true environmental cost. Americans, through buying a huge amount of those goods, only encouraged China to manufacture in a dirty way. I realised that was the byproduct of globalisation – a story that no-one had really told.

Severe pollution and haze chokes Beijing. Image: Simon Song/SCMP

Could tougher rules have avoided China’s environmental crisis?

Yes, the US helped create this environmental Frankenstein. On the one hand, we brought China into the WTO – on the other, we feverishly bought its cheap, non-environmentally friendly products. When Barack Obama visited China last November he said that he wouldn’t let his daughters breath Beijing’s polluted air. I wish he had said that the US bore some of the blame here. I don’t think he was telling the full story. Within a few years of joining the WTO, China’s greenhouse gas emissions were exploding.

But didn’t China willingly choose that path of development?

I think China’s leadership faced a great dilemma. It had elevated between 300 to 400 million people out of poverty, but at the same time a respected study – [whose findings were released this year by Berkeley university] showed that that about 4,000 Chinese were dying every day from its air pollution. The Communist Party must have felt it had made a pact with the devil, because China doesn’t have many energy resources other than coal .

Where I do think the Chinese government needs to change is how it disseminates information. Only recently did it officially acknowledge the existence of cancer villages [that have abnormally high rates of the disease, linked to pollution].

What I don’t get about China is why such a powerful country cannot accept valid criticism. Whenever people demonstrate about a polluting factory, state censors block blogs, track down those writing them and crack down on electronic communication.

I think that creates a lot of resentment and suspicion [towards the government]. I just hope China’s leadership will feel more confident to allow people to become informed, without worrying about whether it would cause social unrest.

Industrial pollution in China. Image: SCMP

Do you think mounting public pressure will force real change?

I believe China is getting on the right path. The leadership pledged big funds for a cleanup, even though China still lacks a national air quality plan that everybody can understand, or an air pollution inventory.

But things are getting better. Besides promises of more funds, and making firm plans such as peaking coal consumption in 2030, China’s anti-corruption campaign has arrested “tigers and flies” in the energy sector. To me, it’s the Communist Party’s way of tackling the head of the problem, because some of the big state [energy] companies were blocking reform.

I do believe that the more China’s becomes a middle-class society, the less its leadership can get away with stifling information. And I think they’re realising that they can no longer play the same game – getting mad at people who are victims, or passing responsibility for problems to the lower-ranking officials.

Smogtown & PRC Stay Ever-Green in their Tales of Searing, Brown Climates

And it’s both thrilling and depressing. 

– From environmental writer/professor/activist Jon Christensen in LA Observed’s piece: From ‘Smogtown’ to Model for the World?” 

Peyri-Herrera-150x150“It’s a tantalizing idea, isn’t it?” Jacobs responded when I asked him what he thinks of California as an example. It’s true, he said, that Chinese officials have been visiting California for years to learn how to monitor and reduce air pollution. In some cases they’ve implemented solutions in a few years that took California several decades. 

But Jacobs offers some important caveats. Most of LA’s smog came from cars, but some of it came from manufacturing that has gone overseas in recent decades. “Be careful when you ship something off to another country: you’re exporting pollution,” he said. “We allowed corporations to go and set up in cheaper more authoritarian places,” he added. “They don’t have to build in costs for pollution control. But the discount you’re getting is at somebody else’s expense.” 

As much as 20 percent of China’s pollution is caused by exports to the United States, Jacobs said. Some of that pollution drifts back over the West Coast on the prevailing winds, and the carbon dioxide China pumps into the atmosphere adds to global warming. 

Jacobs also said that while Chinese officials–and officials from other governments as well–are often eager to learn about scientific and technological solutions, they’re not as quick to embrace another element of California’s success: the ability of citizens to get access to information and to sue the government to take action. Some technocrats here have sometimes publicly wished that they could have the power of authorities in China just for a day. 

But if the history of Smogtown is any guide, the power of the people is key to success. Public protests, environmental organizers, nonprofit lawyers, investigative scientists, crusading journalists, dedicated public officials, and democratically elected leaders all contributed to enacting laws and policies that have steadily ratcheted down pollution levels through regulations, taxes, and incentives. 

Perversely, that success now leaves Jacobs worried about his hometown, too. “My biggest fear is public complacency,” he said. We’ve paid our way out of our biggest problems, and we no longer “have an active, zesty engagement,” he said. Aside from the hardcore activists and Prius drivers, “I’m not convinced Californians are dynamite environmentalists. People hate smog but they love their cars more. It’s a passive environmentalism,” he said.

“We’ve improved technology. We haven’t changed the culture,” Jacobs concluded. “We’re a stabilized pollution island.”

– Then there’s good, old Jerry Brown, as visionary and sweepingly rhetorical as ever. So what if he embellished about L.A. inventing smog to make a point? From Politifact California …

First, it’s clear L.A. has no ownership over the term smog. Brown sounds like he was having some politifact-photos-BrownLASmog103015P-1-150x150
fun with the “invented in Los Angeles” portion, from listening to him speak. Still, he was literally and blatantly wrong.

News articles from as early as 1905 credit London doctor Harold Des Veaux with coining the word smog to describe natural fog contaminated by smoke, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Great Britain’s affliction with foul air is referenced in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, written in 1606. But its soot-choked skies date as far back as the 12th century, when wood became scarce and residents turned to burning coal to keep warm, according to a history of the country’s air pollution by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

It’s clear that other urban centers fought the effects of smog long before anyone imagined the metropolis we call Los Angeles.

So, what kind of smoke was the governor blowing?

“Jerry Brown — brilliant as he is — is confusing some facts,” said Chip Jacobs, author of Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles. “We didn’t invent smog. Smog has been known to arise in many parts of the world well before he was born.”

We were headed for a False or Pants On Fire!

Then, Jacobs added this comment: “Brown did have something right in his jumbled pronouncement — the Caltech professor.”