Sunday, 23 August 2009

Are Chinese and Indian elites right in blaming the West for the world's ecological problems?

Chinese and Indian elites want to place the blame for the ecological crisis firmly on developed countries, and therefore want these countries for take the full (or at least the major) responsibility for paying the cost of addressing it.

The argument is simple: it was the industrialisation of the West, over 200 years or whatever, that has caused environmentally harmful substances, for example CO2, to be accummulated in the atmosphere to such an extent that it is now creating environmental problems.

Though China and India may be producing more pollution now than the West, Chinese/ Indian pollution is still lower in per capita terms than the West - therefore, it is up to the West to take the lead in paying for sorting out the mess. When they are prepared to do so, we might be prepared to think about making some token contribution.

This sort of "macro-level argument" is attractive for the elites in China and India because we can, by using such arguments, absolve ourselves of the responsibility of changing our own ways.

But the moment one takes one's eyes away from the stratosphere and looks closer home, the possibility of such stratospheric blame-transfer fails.

For example, when one looks at India one sees plastic bags and bottles everwhere, littering the streets and railway lines - and even the villages. In a country with a hydrocarbon shortage, this indicates a close to criminal misuse of hydrocarbon resources. Is the original misuse of the resource the fault of the West? Is the lack of concern for the plastic (and other) litter the fault of the West? No - it is our own very dear fault. Which is why no one talks about it or does anything about it, except a few brave souls such as Dr Ken Gnanakan.

Or, when one looks at China (if one ignores the political question of whether these areas "belong" to China, and simply focuses on the fact that China has had actual control of these areas for the last sixty years or so, which is when these problems have arisen), one is confronted with the extensive denudation of these areas and the consequent warming of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau whose glaciers are receding at such an dramatic rate that they could disappear within my remaining life (and I am over 60 years old).

The glaciers are the world's third-largest store of ice. Their continued disappearance threatens something like 2.7 billion people who depend on the various rivers that arise in this Himalayan plateau -including the Yangtse, the Ganges and the Indus.

"The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is among the regions worst hit by global warming" Qin Dahe of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is reported to have said. "Glaciers on the Plateau are retreating at a speed faster than in any other part of the world". Eighty two per cent of glacier surfaces on the plateau have already retreated. The glacier area itself has decreased by 4.5 per cent during the past 20 years. This is already causing, and will cause even more in the immediate future, the expansion of lakes, more floods and and a greater flow of mud and silt.

The pattern as well as the intensity of the summer monsoons in Asia has already changed, and will change even more, further intensifying drought in north India and China, as well as floods in southern China and Eastern India.

Temperatures in Tibet have risen by an average of 0.32 degrees Celsius every 10 years between 1961 and 2008, even faster than the average across China, where temperatures rose by between 0.05 and 0.08 degrees. Tibet's average temperature in July this year was the highest since 1951. During the same month, there was between 30 and 80 per cent less rain in western and southern Tibet than in the same month in all previous years on record.

Yao Tandong, one of China's leading glacier experts and director of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, points out that glaciers are accurate archives of climate changes. "Glaciers on the plateau show warming has been abrupt and exceptional. It is warmer now than at any time during the past 2,000 years," he said.

Why is all this happening? Because China has been cutting down the trees, employing the area for agriculture, and adding concrete, housing and tourism at an unprecedented rate.

The West no doubt deserves the blame for many things and it is right for us to blame them for those things, just as the West has done many good things and it is right for us to appreciate and even learn from those things.

But we also need to recognise where we are at fault, and not simply pride and preen ourselves on the things we do right.

Our pride and our preening are all very well but they are worse than useless when they stand in the way of our learning what we urgently and speedily need to learn if we are not to destroy ourselves - even if we ignore the unimaginable horrors that we are already beginning to unleash on the rest of the world.

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