China's extreme weather warnings avoid talk of climate change

Rescuers evacuating residents from a flooded area following heavy rains in Dazhou, Sichuan, on July 11, 2021.
Rescuers evacuating residents from a flooded area following heavy rains in Dazhou, Sichuan, on July 11, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - As unprecedented heatwaves sweep across large parts of the Northern Hemisphere, China is telling its people to brace 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 is estimated to be 20-50 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.

Not once did the centre mention the phrase "climate change".

The ominous forecasts did not get a lot of attention on social media, either.

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 more 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 to discuss private details about the issue.

"Whatever we write and publish has to be backed by data, but China started on 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, encapsulated in his pledge to zero out the world's largest carbon emissions by 2060.

At home, the impacts of global warming are often presented in state media and official documents as far off in the future, or misfortunes occurring in other parts of the world, from wildfires in the United States to heatwaves in Europe, rather than present dangers that could stoke criticism of government policy.

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.


People walk along the swollen Rongjiang river after heavy rains in Guangxi, China, on July 2, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

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

The Pearl River Delta, a manufacturing hub that is 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 global risk and strategic consulting firm.

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.

A Greenpeace analysis found that 21 out of the 30 most-populated Chinese cities saw temperatures hit 30 deg C at least three days earlier than average from 2001 to 2020 compared with the two decades before.

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.


Workers clear water outside a shopping mall after a rain shower in Beijing, on July 12, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

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

"It's important to point out the effects of climate change in these natural hazards," said Dr Liu Junyan, a campaigner at Greenpeace who suggested that one of the reasons why Beijing's green agenda encounters resistance from local governments could be that people do not see how global warming affects them.

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".