China's extreme weather warnings avoid mention of climate change

A village official evacuating a child from a flooded area on Monday following heavy rain in Dazhou, in China's south-western Sichuan province.
A village official evacuating a child from a flooded area on Monday following heavy rain in Dazhou, in China's south-western Sichuan province.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIJING • As unprecedented heatwaves sweep across large parts of the northern hemisphere, China is telling its people to brace themselves for another summer of dangerous floods and droughts.

China's National Climate Centre this month predicted "generally poor weather conditions" for the rest of the summer and warned that the country will face more extreme weather events than usual.

In some areas, precipitation could be 20 per cent to 50 per cent higher than normal. Some major rivers, including the Yellow River that runs through nine provinces, are set to cause serious flooding.

In a separate report, the agency said average temperatures for the first half of the year were the highest since 1961 and about 1.2 deg C above normal levels.

When local news organisations reported on power shortages caused partly by hotter-than-expected weather in the manufacturing hub of Guangdong, there was no discussion of how a warming planet could play a role in the unpredictable weather that caused factories to shut down for days.

"As someone working at China's top meteorological department, we're not allowed to over-stress the danger of climate change, which would be irresponsible and cause unnecessary fears," said a National Climate Centre researcher who requested anonymity.

"Whatever we write and publish has to be backed by data, but China started climate research very late," the researcher added.

The caution is at odds with President Xi Jinping's push to establish China as a global leader on climate change, and zero out the world's largest carbon emissions by 2060.

Last summer, as China's worst floods in decades caused 279 people to die or go missing, some social media users began drawing a connection between the heavy rain and record-breaking temperatures in the Arctic.

Dr Song Lianchun, director of the National Climate Centre, denied at a press conference that the two phenomena were linked.

Other government departments amplified the message on their official Weibo accounts, saying Dr Song had "refuted the rumour".

Government officials and media often frame climate change as a global problem that China can lead in solving, not as a crisis that affects its citizens' daily lives.

In fact, the world's second-biggest economy could suffer greatly from unchecked global warming.

The Pearl River Delta, a manufacturing hub home to tens of millions of people, is the world's most at-risk urban centre from rising sea levels, according to a report by Verisk Maplecroft, a Britain-based risk and strategic consultancy.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study showed that the North China Plain, the nation's most populous and agriculturally important region, is at risk of deadly heatwaves that could make some areas uninhabitable.

The gap in China's climate discourse means the public generally agrees with the government's official position, but few grasp the urgency of the crisis or what it means for their individual futures.

In a recent survey of 5,400 Chinese aged 18 to 24 by the non-profit China Youth Climate Action Network, more than 40 per cent of them called climate change the biggest threat to the world.

Yet, almost 60 per cent of them failed a simple test about the issue. They agreed climate change is caused by a hole in the earth's atmosphere, confusing the impact of greenhouse gas emissions with the depletion of the ozone layer.

Dr Liu Junyan, a campaigner at Greenpeace, said: "It's important to point out the effects of climate change in these natural hazards."

They would be more willing to act, she said, if they realised that "fighting climate change is not a sacrifice for others, it's for themselves".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2021, with the headline 'China's extreme weather warnings avoid mention of climate change'. Subscribe