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China, Coal-Fired Power Plants, and Ecological Disaster

Here’s an article by Peter Lehner, Executive Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who writes on the levels of air pollution in Beijing, which last week reached a level of 755–on a scale of 0 to 500 (the scale on which our Environmental Protection Agency here in the U.S. rates anything over 300 as “hazardous.”) The Internet is littered with vivid descriptions and photographs of the viscous brown haze that hung over the city (this taken from the BBC), the terrifying statistics of people of all ages who became acutely sick from the pollution, and of the dire predictions for a future in which China’s consumption of coal (currently half that of the entire planet) continues to grow unchecked.

Lehner suggests:

This could be China’s Cuyahoga moment: when an instance of pollution so severe, like the river that caught fire outside Cleveland in 1969, moves the people, and the government, to action. China has set soft targets for coal consumption in the past, but these are routinely, and overwhelmingly, exceeded. By setting a mandatory, enforceable cap on coal, China can make its air and water cleaner and its people healthier.

Good stuff, Peter. I would go on to suggest an even loftier potential outcome – a world that sees past its history of national isolationism and begins to see the challenge here as one that embraces all of humankind. Until we begin to see ourselves as “citizens of the world” and act accordingly, it’s hard to imagine a soft landing for our civilization vis-à-vis climate change, ocean acidification, the loss of biodiversity, water and food shortages, etc.

Put another way, perhaps this is China’s Cuyahoga moment. But I suggest we need “Earth’s Cuyahoga moment,” one which will cause huge populations to demand solutions to the rapidly unfolding disaster we face on a planetary scale.