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.”

 

Hitting the Smoggy Road



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* We’re pleased to announce that Chip will be speaking at a pretty cool event in May at Beijing’s first ever CHINA US CLEAN AIR SYMPOSIUM. Also participating in this two-day exchange of ideas and viewpoints is a dude named Al Gore, a Southern California clean-air legend, Dr. James Lents, and a passel of other learned people and government officials. Chip is humbled to be part of this effort to learn from our hazy past in a world sucker-punched by pollution far and wide.

* On a similar upbeat note, Bill will be speaking in Rhode Island at Brown University’s Watson Institute China Summit 2015The theme is “China’s Stride Forward.” From the introduction: “Today, more than 60 years after formation of the People’s Republic of China and three decades of unparalleled rapid economic growth, what lies ahead for this nation is an interesting and important topic that warrants examination. During this exciting time of transformation, newfangled ideas become the norm. Brown China Summit 2015 explores perspectives from education, entrepreneurship and technology, art, and environmental public policy to facilitate discussion on and promote a deeper understanding of China’s “new normal.”

The People’s Republic of Chemicals Named a 2014 IndieFab Awards Book of the Year Finalist!

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Thank you Forewords, and best of luck to all the finalists. Ecology & Environment competition – the Authors

Luminous review & Chip talks Emissions Frankenstein of a Microwaved Planet As the PRC Finally Gets Ready to Roll

Booklist awards “The People’s Republic of Chemicals” a starred review. Breathe it in while you can.

November 15th, 2014 · No Comments

Riots cops with shields at Qidong protest agailnst industrial waste pipeline

BOOKLIST magazine awards our sequel to SmogtownThe People’s Republic of Chemicals, a starred review!: The Smogtown (2008) authors return with a look at China’s air pollution problem, and it is a doozy. Combining a crash-course history lesson that includes everyone from Confucius to Chairman Mao with a withering rant about the country’s nonexistent environmental policies, Kelly and Jacobs give readers everything they need to know about why China is ground zero for the planet’s future, including its coal bases serving as “global warming daggers.” There is a lot to take in here, and the narrative’s power is as much due to its style as substance. The prose is sharp, vivid, and direct, leading readers through hard-hitting chapters about the Beijing Olympics, America’s Walmart, made-in-China addiction, and the casual way in which ecostatistics are manipulated. Kelly and Jacobs pillory the actions of as many American politicians as Chinese, noting policy missteps and political weakness with a take-no-prisoners attitude that readers will find refreshingly candid. While the tone can sometimes seem a bit glib, its bracing nature will likely be a tonic to those seeking a straightforward take on this urgent subject while also making for a surprisingly enjoyable read. — Colleen Mondor

* Back from the Big Apple book tour, Part I. Here are the links where I talk Frankenstein of emissions on The StreetAOL-Huff Post Live & Brainstormin’

As the countdown goes on, Kirkus gets our message in terrific review

Kirkus banner“A scathing denunciation of how America outsourced its industrial capacity to China, a package that included catastrophic pollution.

Investigative journalists Kelly and Jacobs again team up in a hard-hitting follow-up to their 2008 environmental page-turner Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles. As “self-deputized gumshoes” covering the environmental beat, the authors felt they could not ignore the ugly reality in China. As the air in LA improved, in China, a “nauseating, gray-brown cloud from an oversaturated sky” was darkening the landscape. China’s reliance on coal to fuel its industrial machine depends on coal imports from the U.S., creating a new market for the American mining industry. In 2013, Kelly traveled to China to examine the situation, while Jacobs constructed a dossier on the real story of how the U.S. created cleaner air on the homefront by turning manufacturing plants into shopping malls that sold cheap merchandise produced in China. One of their examples is a “$200 million-plus shopping mall called the Burbank Empire Center [that] rests on the land where Lockheed’s B-1 plant used to be.” China’s adoption of an open-door policy for American manufacturers was a devil’s bargain. The authors have harsh words for the “Clinton-Gore pairing,” which allowed American industry to get out from under environmental regulation and benefit from cheap Chinese labor. Despite Gore’s prescient warnings, they write, they “failed to construct any backstop of ‘ecological accountability,’ especially in the world’s fastest-growing economy.” Kelly provides an on-the-ground report on the new China, which combines an across-the-board improvement in the standard of living with a quality of life made miserable by unbreathable air, polluted water and more. He finds increasing popular unrest with the situation and a central government hamstrung by corruption, struggling to deal it.

 A powerful warning that “a growing cloud of toxins aloft [are] swirling in the winds around the world” and recirculating the pollution we hoped to shed.”

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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.