Laowai in Beijing
Smog and pollution bring early winter
A friend of mine recently had a conversation with his host father where he joked, “I smoke, so my lungs are black.” His host father replied, “Mine are blacker because I live in Beijing.” It’s true, too. Some reports say that breathing Beijing air is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. It was really strange to realize that I’ve been in Beijing long enough that I’ve started to regard the heavy, unnatural haze that descends over the city on certain days as simply another part of the weather. Some days I can look out from my apartment and see the Summer Palace in the distance. Other days the smog is so thick I can barely see across to the next apartment building. But in a lot of ways I’ve ceased to notice it. You can get used to anything I guess. It’s only when I go outside of Beijing that I am reminded of air quality by how my lungs rejoice in taking full, deep breaths of non (or less, more accurately) polluted air. Recently, however, Beijing’s climate has become much more noticeable, mostly because the government has been interfering with it. Now understand, Beijing’s climate is normally very arid and dry with little rain or snow. But in an attempt to clear the air and reduce the smoggy days, the Beijing Weather Modification Office uses a technique called “cloud seeding,” which involves firing rockets containing silver iodide into the sky to encourage precipitation, which in turn temporarily eliminates most of the smog. The technology was originally used in preparation for the 2008 Olympics but has been used since to relieve drought or make sure the weather and air quality are good for special events such as this past October’s 60th anniversary celebrations.
On Halloween this year, the handful of foreign students gallivanting around in costumes not only earned the stares of locals unfamiliar with the American holiday but also nearly froze from the chill of an unexpected snowstorm, the earliest and heaviest snowfall Beijing has experienced since 1987. In the past couple weeks there have been several more snowy days, causing a whole slew of problems in a city where this much snow is unnatural and residents are unprepared. It is widely agreed that these snowstorms must be due to cloud seeding, but officials seem unwilling to confirm this. If they do admit it, officials argue that the measures are necessary to relieve the drought northern China has been experiencing over the last decade. It’s hard to know how to feel about the government’s way of addressing Beijing air quality. Wanting to clear the air is all well and good, but I can’t help but think that there are unforeseen consequences to this technology that make using it for event planning suspect. Already there are reports of fatalities in traffic accidents, avalanches and collapses of buildings. There are questions being raised about the effects of the 5,500 tons of highly erosive chemicals that were used to clear the roads during the last snowfall.
At the very least it is a temporary solution to a very pressing climate problem the equivalent of sweeping the dirt under the rug. There are hopeful signs that the Chinese people are starting to take pollution and climate change seriously. My Chinese friend at Beida told me that many students are signing petitions and taking action to encourage the government to negotiate on climate change. The little news I can get here says that U.S.-China bilateral diplomacy is starting to focus more and more on joint climate change policy. I hope these schemes bear fruit domestically and internationally because, if nothing else, living in Beijing has definitely opened my eyes to the real consequences of pollution and environmental degradation and the real need for permanent solutions to this problem that we all face.