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.”

 

“Under the Dome,” Censorship, Class Divides, California Lessons, Nuke plants, Coal and Metal

“Under the Dome” with English subtitles

* “China Blocks Web Access to ‘Under the Dome’ Documentary on Pollution” – The New York Times:  “Under the Dome,” a searing documentary about China’s catastrophic air pollution, had hundreds of millions of views on Chinese websites within days of its release one week ago. The country’s new environment minister compared it to “Silent Spring,” the landmark 1962 book that energized the environmental movement in the United States. Domestic and foreign journalists clamored to interview the filmmaker, a famous former television reporter, though she remained silent. Then on Friday afternoon, the momentum over the video came to an abrupt halt, as major Chinese video websites deleted it under orders from the Communist Party’s central propaganda department. The startling phenomenon of the video, the national debate it set off and the official attempts to quash it reflect the deep political sensitivities in the struggle within the Chinese bureaucracy to reverse China’s environmental degradation, among the worst in the world. The drama over the video has ignited speculation over which political groups were its supporters and which sought to kill it, and whether party leaders will tolerate the civic conversation and grass-roots activism that in other countries have been necessary to curbing rampant pollution. “It’s been spirited away by gremlins,” said Zhan Jiang, a professor of journalism and media studies in Beijing …

* “China’s Real Inconvenient Truth: It’s Class Divide” – Foreign Policy: China is talking about its pollution problem, but its equally serious class problem remains obscured behind the haze. Smog leapt to the forefront of Chinese national discourse after the Feb. 28 release of Under the Dome, a 103-minute-long documentary quickly hailed as China’s version of the Inconvenient Truth. In the film, which immediately went viral on social media and garnered 150 million online views within days before being censored, investigative reporter Chai Jing explained the root causes of air pollution that has ravaged so much of China in the past few years. But there’s a sharp class angle to the pollution question that Chai’s documentary did not engage. While smog is the most visible problem afflicting the middle class in mega-cities like Beijing and Shanghai, China’s other half — the rural and poor population — often suffer a nasty pollution paradox: They face health risks from their air and water, but also depend on polluting industries for their livelihoods …

* California, China Join Forces to Tackle Climate Change” – The Desert Sun: World leaders fighting to limit climate change should look to the partnership between California and China for inspiration, according to a new report co-authored by the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage. The report, released Wednesday at a San Francisco event attended by Gov. Jerry Brown, says California has “helped create something of a state model for subnational international cooperation on climate change and energy issues.” The New York-based Asia Society wrote the report with help from the Annenberg Foundation Trust, which operates the famed Sunnylands estate. “Both California and China are reaping benefits from their collaborations,” Geoffrey Cowan, president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust, said in a statement. “Not only are these partnerships uncovering solutions to protect the air, water, and ecosystems within each country, but they are also catalyzing increased trade and investment in clean technology in both countries.” The Sunnylands Center and Gardens — as the estate of the late diplomats and philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg is formally known — has proved fertile ground for launching climate-related collaborations between the United States and China. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a summit there in June 2013, reaching an agreement to reduce the production of one type of greenhouse gas, hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs …

* “Watch This Haunting Seven-Minute Film About China’s Insane Air Pollution” – TIME:  Greenpeace East Asia today released a seven-minute film by director Jia Zhangke about China’s toxic air. The impressionistic piece, Smog Journeys, follows two families — one rural, one urban — as they live, play, and work in the country’s polluted northeast. “When it comes to smog, no matter what jobs we do, it is still a problem we all face,” says Jia in an interview released online. Jia is one of China’s most renowned filmmakers. His work is famously gritty, filled with tales of alienation and strife, and shot in shades of brown and gray. His last feature, A Touch of Sin (2013), was a critical hit abroad, but was considered too politically sensitive to be shown on the Chinese mainland …

*”China’s Nuclear Plant Plans Get New Momentum“- China Daily USA: China’s nuclear energy development plans got a fresh impetus on Wednesday after the State Council gave the green light for new reactors at the Hongyan River nuclear power plant. According to industry sources, units 5 and 6 of the Hongyan River nuclear plant in the northeastern Liaoning province got construction approval from the State Council before the Lunar New Year. “It is a big step forward for China to revive the industry and more nuclear projects are expected to start construction this year. However, the official documents are yet to be finalized,” a source in a State-owned nuclear company told China Daily …

* “China to Reduce Coal Consumption to Lessen Pollution” – Newsmax: China will reduce coal consumption and boost energy efficiency as part of efforts to lessen air pollution, according to an action plan released by the government on Friday. The world’s top consumer will cut coal consumption by over 80 million tons by 2017 and more than 160 million tons by 2020 through efficiency measures, under the 2015-2020 plan from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. China’s annual coal consumption, at about 3.7 billion tons, accounts for roughly 66 percent of the country’s energy demand. The coal-dominated energy mix in China has been identified as a major cause of the hazardous smog that frequently shrouds cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, as well as a significant source of climate-warming greenhouse gases. China aims for a reduction of dust emissions by 500,000 tons and sulfur dioxide by 600,000 tons by 2017, according to the plan. China is trying to strike a balance between improving its environment and restructuring away from an economy dominated by energy-intensive industries such as steel production. Premier Li Keqiang told the annual session of Parliament that the government planned to cut the country’s energy intensity, the amount of energy used per unit of GDP growth, by 3.1 percent in 2015, compared with a 4.8 percent fall in 2014. Li made fighting pollution a priority and is striving for zero growth in coal consumption in key areas of the country. By 2020, emissions of dust would be cut by 1 million tons and sulfur dioxide by 1.2 million tons, the ministry said …

* Our book, The People’s Republic of Chemicals takes silver at the Pacific Rim Book Festival

 

 

End of Summer Summation … The People’s Republic of Chemicals Will Roll This Fall

chipbook * With less than three months to go until the launch of The People’s Republic of Chemicals,” here’s some leg-teasing, early reviews. Many ones pending.

– Five star from Clare O’Beara: the book “should make you think more about where your electronic and other goods come from, and I hope you will feel moved to contact companies through their social media sites, or by writing, and ask them about their policy on pollution.”

– Five star from Pam Thomas: “An exceptional book and a brilliant read. I learnt so much about air pollution and the collateral damage …”

– Goodreads recommendation love: Introducing China and Third World Medicine

Meantime, around the warming planet, here are a few of the stories we think are worthy:

* People’s misconceptions about water usage. From the Los Angeles Times:

– Americans use twice the amount of water they think they do, and appear to be particularly oblivious about how much H2O they flush down the toilet on a daily basis, according to new research. In a paper published online Monday in the journal PNAS, a researcher concluded that Americans underestimated their water use by a factor of 2, and were only slightly aware of how much water goes into growing the food they eat. “In general, people tend to underestimate water by a very large magnitude,” said study author Shahzeen Attari, an assistant professor in the Department of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. The study’s conclusions were based on an Internet survey of 1,020 people, and comes amid a national drought that extends from the Pacific Coast to portions of the Mississippi Valley, with the most severe conditions in California. “Most Americans assume that water supply is both reliable and plentiful,” Attari wrote. “However, research has shown that with climate change water supply will become more variable due to salinization of ground water and increased variability in precipitation.” …

* Just in case you figured you’d be ducking the effects of global warming in your lifetime, better start buying shorts and taking boating lessons, among other steps. From the “Native Intelligence” writers at the  LA Observed blog:

–  Sea level rise from global warming is likely to lead to unprecedented coastal, bay, and inland tidal flooding in California within the next several decades. And never before seen floods are likely to begin occurring annually within the lifetimes of Californians now under 40 years old, according to new research from Climate Central, an independent nonprofit organization of journalists and scientists based at Princeton University. This is no longer an abstract, distant threat or a scene from a Hollywood movie. Real people alive today will experience these floods in California. A new interactive map developed in a collaboration among Climate CentralStamen Design, and New America Media–in which I participated–shows the who, what, where, when, and why of these “surging seas.” …

* Speaking of climate change, the West is going to be thirsty, dry and hot for the foreseeable future, and that’s no green-mongering exaggeration. From the Washington Post:

– When the winter rains failed to arrive in this Sacramento Valley town for the third straight year, farmers tightened their belts and looked to the reservoirs in the nearby hills to keep them in water through the growing season. When those faltered, some switched on their well pumps, drawing up thousands of gallons from underground aquifers to prevent their walnut trees and alfalfa crops from drying up. Until the wells, too, began to fail. Now, across California’s vital agricultural belt, nervousness over the state’s epic drought has given way to alarm. Streams and lakes have long since shriveled up in many parts of the state, and now the aquifers — always a backup source during the region’s periodic droughts — are being pumped away at rates that scientists say are both historic and unsustainable …

– If the drought could take disturbing selfless, here’s what it’d show (courtesy of Vox.com) 

* The forgotten trash that well doom us all. From Medium.com 

… Plastic doesn’t readily biodegrade, of course. That is one of its great anti-microbial virtues, as well as its curse. It can persist for centuries in landfills, and longer in the sea, scientists believe. Plastic does photodegrade, however. Exposed to sunlight, it loses its useful qualities, its plasticity—becomes stiff and brittle and breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces. Meanwhile, as a typical 2-liter soda bottle made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) circles the drain, eventually breaking up into bits, it acts as a molecular sponge for whatever poisons it encounters, absorbing “persistent organic pollutants” like PCBs—which are known to cause cancer in lab animals and are probable human carcinogens linked to increased incidence of melanomas, liver cancer, and gall bladder and brain cancer. Many POPs are “lipophilic,” that is, attracted to fatty tissues, but also oily substances such as petroleum-based plastics. Hideshige Takada, a Japanese scientist studying plastic particles from the Western Pacific Garbage Patch, found them to be one million times more toxic than the ambient seawater in which they floated …  A Greenpeace study estimated that it would take 68 ships trawling 24 hours a day an entire year to cover 1 percent of the Pacific. They would burn up a tremendous amount of fuel and do more harm than good …

* So far, the damage mankind has inflicted on Mother Earth is far outpacing man’s effort to reverse it. And the clock is ticking on our emissions-reduction sweepstakes. Only everything is swinging on it. From The New York Times:

– Runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” over the coming decades, according to a draft of a major new United Nations report. Global warming is already cutting grain production by several percentage points, the report found, and that could grow much worse if emissions continue unchecked. Higher seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain and other climate extremes are also being felt around the world as a result of human-produced emissions, the draft report said, and those problems are likely to intensify unless the gases are brought under control. The world may already be nearing a temperature at which the loss of the vast ice sheet covering Greenland would become inevitable, the report said. The actual melting would then take centuries, but it would be unstoppable and could result in a sea level rise of 23 feet, with additional increases from other sources like melting Antarctic ice, potentially flooding the world’s major cities …

Smogtown Goes to China, arguably civilization’s most polluted nation ever, and Opens Some Bloodshot Eyes.

81bxHcWN15L._AA1500_ Our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles (The Overlook Press/Penguin Group U.S.A.) was released in November 2008, just as the U.S. economy began to crater into that steaming hole we call the  Great Recession. Despite that inauspicious timing, the book garnered critical success, but still came up a wee bit short of our expectations. The monstrous air pollution, toxic waterways and blighted soil of China 2.0 that sprung up there after its admission to the World Trade Organization has done more than capture the green-world’s horror. It’s given our book about one of the modern world’s first environmental catastrophes a second life. Smogtown is now available in China, both in its original English form and, excitedly, also in Mandarin, replete with newly designed cover and title through the Shanghai Scientific and Technical PublishersLos Angeles Haze Revelation. So far, the later is doing very well if the grapevine and Amazon rankings mean anything. We say, thank you, China, and thank you to our foreign publisher. With The People’s Republic of Chemicals – our sequel about China’s eco-morass and Western blood  on its hands  — on the launching pad, we couldn’t be more humbled.

For kicks, we thought we’d use Google Translate to see what Chinese experts and book-readers are saying about the book so far as a lodestar to start reversing Asia’s ecological blitzing, a good slab of it from producing Western manufactured goods. Excuse the choppy language in their comments. Not easy switching tongues, though we’ve tried to clean up the comments for obvious grammar issues.

Academician Zhisheng: This is a vivid representation of the Los Angeles air-pollution control process; popular science; it has science, but it’s not daunting; it is literary, well-founded; concise language, the story exciting.

Academician Zhou Weijian: Free breathing air is not a dream; the key is how to do it.

Reader Susan:  … the Los Angeles Haze Apocalypse (or “Revelation” as it’s also sometimes called)  is worth reading. It took four nights, as well as time reading it going to work on the subway; it’s emotional reading. History always repeats in stages. Many of the plots in the book are taking place  on our side. Facing the haze, many Los Angeles/California officials vowed that within five years that they’d strive to solve the problem. Was it possible? Los Angeles suffered the first serious haze in 1943. After sixty years of treatment, the air quality in Los Angeles has undergone a drastic improvement, though in comparison Los Angeles smog still ranks first among major U.S. cities. Controlling visible pollution is an enormous task. I recommended Chinese officials take time  to read this book. In fact, as a matter of controlling China’s smog, everyone should. Blind pursuit of so-called “high quality of life” — luxury cars, mansions — continue to make “contributions” to the problem. So in order to have the blue sky,we need to  drive less and a promote a low-carbon life.

Reader Vividts: I do not know where to begin. Even with an essential, home air purifier, buying 3M masks and paying attention to the daily PM2.5 index, friends and colleagues will not stop lamenting that this is happening and ask how the predicament can be reversed? At the ideological level, we’ve never seriously thought about where haze (smog in all its malicious varieties) comes from? Why the frequent days of fog and haze? What do we have to sacrifice to get the blue sky back? We lack the ideological inspiration. But, is controlling smog really is the government’s task? After reading this book, I do not think so. From the government down to every citizen, we should unite to think about this question. The environment cannot be repaired by the power of the government/Establishment on its own. In order to promote change that produces ideologically effective action, this book is worth reading! Star recommendation.

Reader Lianggh17Smog has hit us. You can’t avoid it. The question is how to solve this vexing problem. Anyone can enjoy their own things from this book.