Christine Xu, Program Assistant, China Program and Energy & Transportation Program , Washington, D.C.

“All weather events are affected by a warming planet,” said President Obama during his climate change speech on June 25th.

Thumbnail image for OBAMA (2).jpg June 25: President Obama wipes away sweat as he announces his new climate change plan in Washington, D.C. under 92 degree temperature.

President Obama is right. All around the world, extreme weather is becoming a new commonplace (see how climate events are disrupting your own hometown with NRDC’s mapping tool). Studies linking extreme weather events such as heat waves, storms, and droughts to global climate change are becoming more conclusive. Already, 2013 has seen some of the most severe weather events in history, and the World Resources Institute’s infographic serves as a visual reminder of the impacts that global climate change is having on our livelihoods and ecosystems, not to mention the heavy economic toll in infrastructure damages, higher health care bills and insurance premiums, lost productivity, and lower of crop yields.

Extreme weather has plagued China particularly bad this year, with both the cold and heat at their historical highs. The average temperature in northern China--which relies heavily on coal for heating--dropped to a 42-year low of 18.7°F. Coupled with a weather inversion, the air pollution from coal-fired power became trapped and led to the “airpocolypse” – a spate of air pollution so severe that even state-run media criticized the government and urged the country to wean off coal.

The crisis also raised very important questions of the short and long-term impacts that air pollution has on public health. In Beijing, the prevalence of asthma among children under fourteen hiked from 0.88 percent in 1990 to 3.68 percent in 2010. Among the elderly, air pollution can exacerbate lung disease and diabetes, and increase the chance of heart disease and stroke. In 2010 alone, air pollution caused 1.2 million pre-mature deaths in China, while a recent study showed that people living in northern China have a life expectancy of 5.5 years shorter than people living in southern China due to air pollution. Meanwhile, at the other end of the extreme, summer heat waves in southern China broke records this July, and turned a region of 314 million people into a giant baking oven, literally, as citizens began frying eggs on manhole covers.

As greenhouse gas concentrations rise in the atmosphere, so do the intensity and frequency of extreme precipitation events. Last June, nearly five million people were evacuated due to torrential rain and flooding in China, which cost 67 lives and $2 billion in economic losses. Just one month later, the heaviest rain in 60 years washed over Beijing and completely overwhelmed the city’s drainage system. The flood caused 79 deaths as well as farmland and farm animal losses and infrastructure damages that totaled at least 6.1 billion yuan ($955 million).

                            Courtesy of former NRDC colleague, Michael Davidson

While some regions have been inundated, others have been suffering from severe droughts: in 2011, the worst drought in 60 years struck the country’s major agricultural region, leading the United Nations’ food agency to issue a shortage warning on China’s grain production. This year, a drought that began in mid-June has left 5.95 million people and 1.72 million livestock across 13 provinces short of drinking water, 350,000 hectares of farmland unharvestable, and 12.1 billion yuan ($1.98 billion) in economic losses.

With weather disasters wreaking havoc on so many fronts –air, water, food, health, economy—along with mounting public pressure, China has been forced to act by adopting a host of measures, showing a new sense of urgency in dealing with climate change. Here are a few examples:

  • On June 7, Shenzhen was the first of seven cities to roll out a pilot emissions trading scheme, which could pave the way for a national system by as early as 2015. The seven markets, once established, will cover up to 700 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and will be the second largest system in the world after the EU.
  • China is looking into how it might establish and mandate a cap on total coal consumption with assistance from NRDC.
  • China, already the world’s largest investor in renewable energy, plans to invest 4.1 trillion yuan ($669 billion) to develop renewable energy, energy efficiency and emission reduction projects through 2015, along with 100 GW of installed wind power capacity and over 35 GW of solar power.
  • There are also much-needed bilateral efforts between the U.S. and China, the world’s biggest energy users, to exchange best practices and introduce advanced technologies aimed at accelerating environmental protection through increasing energy efficiency and tackling harmful pollutants, such as HFCs. Our sister organization, the China-U.S. Energy Efficiency Alliance, is gearing up for a trade mission from California to China, which will  bring U.S. businesses and government officials to meet their counterparts in China and form partnerships.

Of course, the problem faced by every nation is cost. It takes money to install new pollution-reduction technologies and to upgrade existing infrastructure to better withstand weather events. However, if we don’t take action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions now, we will continue to suffer the consequences of climate change, and we can all expect to see extreme weather events as the new norm.


Co-authored with Wei Xin.