China’s summer of extreme heat and rainfall highlights climate change threats

Since the start of the summer, scenes of devastation and misery have been unfolding across China as the world’s most populous nation grapples with a relentless torrent of extreme weather emergencies.

Scientists have been warning for years that the climate crisis will amplify extreme weather events, making them deadlier and more frequent. Now, like much of the world, China is reeling from its impact.

Since the start of the country’s rainy season in May, heavy downpours have caused severe flooding and landslides across large swathes of southern China, killing dozens of people, displacing millions and causing economic losses amounting to billions of yuan.
In June, extreme rainfall broke “historic records” in coastal Fujian province and parts of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. At the same time, a heat wave began to envelope northern China, pushing temperatures to over 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
This heat wave has now engulfed half the country, affecting more than 900 million people, or around 64% of the population. All but two of northeast China’s provinces have issued high temperature warnings, with 84 cities issuing their highest red alerts last Wednesday.

In recent weeks, a total of 71 national weather stations across China recorded record-breaking temperatures. Four cities — three in central Hebei province and one in southwest Yunnan — saw temperatures hit 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit), according to the National Climate Center.

The sweltering heat has coincided with a rise in Covid cases, making government-mandated mass testing all the more excruciating for residents – including the elderly – who have to queue in the sun. It has also become a dangerous task for health workers who, under the government’s zero Covid policy, are required to spend long hours outdoors, covered from head to toe in airtight PPE equipment while they administer the tests.

Several videos of Covid workers collapsing to the ground from heatstroke have gone viral on social media.

The heat wave has also caused power shortages in some areas and affected the country’s agricultural production, threatening to drive up food prices further.

And the worst may be yet to come, according to Yao Wenguang, an official with the Ministry of Water Resources in charge of flood and drought prevention.

“It is expected that from July to August, there will be more extreme weather events in China, and regional flood and drought conditions will be stronger than usual,” Yao told the news agency. Xinhua official last month.

Count the fees

China is a “hot spot” that has been significantly affected by climate change, with temperatures rising faster than the global average, according to the country’s latest Blue Book on Climate Change, released by the China Meteorological Administration in last August.

Between 1951 and 2020, China’s annual average surface temperature rose at a rate of 0.26 degrees Celsius per decade, according to the report. Sea levels around China’s coasts rose faster than the global average from 1980 to 2020, the report said.

Climate change can make extreme weather events – such as summer floods, which China has faced for centuries – more frequent and intense, said Johnny Chan, professor emeritus of atmospheric science at City University of Hong Kong.

A warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor, potentially leading to more severe thunderstorms, while global warming can alter atmospheric circulation, which can contribute to extreme weather such as heat waves, Chan said. .

“We should be really worried, because these extreme weather events are actually affecting the most underprivileged, underprivileged and most vulnerable sections of the population – those in rural areas, or those who don’t have air conditioning or live in crowded conditions,” he added. Chan said.

Residents spend their time in an air-raid shelter to escape the summer heat amid a heat wave warning in Nanjing, Jiangsu province on July 12.

For China, the sheer size of its population and economy means that the scale of damage from extreme weather events is often massive.

According to a report released last year by the World Meteorological Organization, tropical cyclones, floods and droughts cost China about $238 billion a year, the highest amount in the Asia-Pacific region and nearly three times the estimated losses incurred by India or Japan.
Heatwave-related mortality in China quadrupled from 1990 to 2019, reaching 26,800 deaths in 2019, according to a Lancet study published in 2020.

New reality

Meanwhile, many Chinese are just beginning to realize that climate change will affect them personally.

In 2019, researchers found that compared to other countries, public concern about global warming and climate change in China was “relatively low”.

The Chinese government has promised to bring greenhouse gases to a peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

For many Chinese, the dangers of extreme weather fueled by climate change hit last summer, when devastating floods killed 380 people in the central city of Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan province.
Rescuers help evacuate residents stranded at a highway entrance in Zhengzhou, central China's Henan province, July 23, 2021.
Last July, the city of 12 million was bombarded by what its water station described as a “once in a thousand year” downpour, but local authorities were ill-prepared and failed to resist. account of the five consecutive red alerts for the torrential rains – which should have prompted authorities to halt gatherings and suspend classes and businesses. Floodwaters gushed through the city’s subway tunnels, trapping hundreds of passengers and killing 12 in a tragedy that gripped the nation.

Liu Junyan, climate and energy project manager for Greenpeace East Asia, said the flooding in Zhengzhou was a wake-up call to the Chinese government and public.

“Central government and local governments have started to realize that climate change is such a huge threat to society and its sustainable development,” she said, adding that she had noticed more and more discussions about climate change and extreme weather in Chinese traditional and social media.

Since last summer, many Chinese cities have improved their emergency response systems for extreme rainfall. In May, authorities in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou suspended schools, advised residents to work from home, closed construction sites and suspended public transport in parts of the city following torrential rain alerts.

"Once every thousand years"  rains have devastated central China, but little is said about climate change
Last June, the Chinese government issued a new policy document to improve its response to climate change, which it says not only creates long-term challenges, but also makes the country more vulnerable to “sudden and extreme” events.

“Climate change has already had serious negative impacts on China’s natural ecological system, and has continued to spread and permeate the economy and society,” the government said in its National Climate Adaptation Strategy. climate change.

He pledged to make China a “climate-resilient society” by 2035, by establishing a national climate risk monitoring and assessment system and building early warning capabilities.

Liu said the policy document is “very important and ambitious” guidance for local governments, but lacks details on implementation.

“The impact of climate change can be very localized and its threat to vulnerable communities can be very different from place to place,” she said. “Local governments have yet to develop more detailed and tangible plans to implement this grand strategy.”

Teresa H. Sadler