Adrienne Caffarel is a freshman politics major.
As an opaque, toxic smog slowly enveloped Beijing, the president elect of the United States celebrated his recent election victory, a victory brought about partially by claims that climate change was created “by and for the Chinese.” President Trump promised that the U.S. would stop wasting resources on environmental impact reforms and claimed that climate protections hampered businesses with excessive regulations.
The United State’s future climate protection initiatives are now in question, and an ever-worsening ecological situation in China forcing the Chinese administration to focus on environmental issues. So we have to ask, will China take over the role the United States used to play in climate change reforms?
China and the United States notoriously contribute to climate change, but they also both hold great power to slow it down. Through the Obama administration, the United States set a precedent for being a global leader in combatting climate change. The United States, followed by China, were among the 197 member parties of the Paris climate accord of 2016. The accord, ratified by 142 nations as of November of last year, is meant to unify efforts across the world to slow and reverse the harms caused by climate change.
Among examples of Mr. Trump’s disregard for environmental efforts, one major point of contention within his camp has been his promise to pull the U.S. from the Paris accord. The potential that the United States might withdraw from The Paris Agreement poses a major setback to the progress of climate protection.
Contrary to what our new administration may believe, environmental damages like pollution are not to be trivialized, particularly for nations like China. The smog that settled over Beijing and its five million inhabitants lasted for approximately five days in mid-December of 2016. Anywhere else in the world those five days would have been the things of nightmares. But in Beijing, extreme examples of air pollution have become almost commonplace.
It’s been long known in China that air pollution is a leading cause of death. In 2015, Berkeley Earth, a climate research organization, calculated that about 4,400 people die every day in China due to air pollution. The World Health Organization determined that air toxicity was shortening the average lifespan in China by 25 years.
Even after years of evidence, Beijing still found itself blinded by smog only a few months ago. But finally, after the fifth day of smog, the gears of reform began to turn. Regulations were instituted or reaffirmed on manufacturing, a satellite was launched to monitor carbon dioxide levels and officials pledged to ensure an improvement in urban air quality.
After standing on the brink of a potentially catastrophic ecological disaster, China is left with the opportunity to turn around and take its place as a world leader in climate protection. Not only does it look like there soon may be an open seat at the table of global climate reform, but China has perhaps the most to lose if that seat stays empty. As one of the world’s worst offenders in terms of pollution, China also has the greatest ability to effect global improvement by cleaning up their act, both metaphorically and literally.
We have yet to see if the United States will truly give up the Paris deal, what the future of the EPA looks like or what funding and initiatives will actually be left for the environment. What we can see is the improvements being made from an unlikely quarter. We can see the urgent need for action to alleviate the critical state of China’s air. And we can hope that China’s new drive to create a healthier country will act as a strong wind, dispersing the smog across a world that could certainly do with a little more fresh air right now.