China’s summer floods and heat waves fuel plans for a changing climate

The Washington Post
Zhang Xinghua, 41, at a vantage point on the Yangtze River, in the town of Youxizhen in Sichuan province, China. Flooding of the river and its tributaries damaged crops days earlier.

Last month, in Dapocun village, on a tributary of the Yangtze River in southwest China, rushing waters flooded a bridge and nearby houses. Heavy rains felled cornstalks. Ponds overflowed, leaving fish all over the road.

“This year was the biggest,” local resident Li Zhongfu, 55, said of the flood. “I think the last one like this was some 20 years ago.”

Data suggests Li is right. Jiangjin, the district surrounding Dapocun, had 84.7 millimeters (3.3 inches) of rain within one hour, the highest category for torrential rain.

Between March and June, rainstorms in southern China mostly matched or exceeded what had been the highest recorded levels. At the same time, a heat wave in northern China pushed temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), creating record demand for electricity to power air conditioning in Henan province. The National Climate Center this week predicted more severe flooding and droughts for the rest of the summer, with more than 600 millimeters (23.6 inches) of rain expected near the southern border and temperatures regularly above 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) in much of northern China.

Public attention to extreme weather adds urgency to President Xi Jinping’s promises that China, the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases, will be able to transition to a carbon neutral economy faster than any other nation. But even as China invests heavily in renewable energy, its reliance on coal-fired power and a carbon-intensive model of economic growth continue to alarm climate activists, who fear Beijing is pivoting too slowly.

Last year, dramatic scenes of passengers trapped in a subway car in Zhengzhou as water rose around them awoke many Chinese cities and their residents to the perils of extreme weather events made more frequent and intense by climate change. The downpours, typhoons and heat waves of 2022 have underscored how far there is still to go to mitigate the worst damage.

Li Shuo, a policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia, said that over time, growing evidence of the effects of climate change will become a strong driver of Chinese climate action, much as public concern over air pollution did 10 years ago.

“It’s still early to tell if this summer will elevate public concern on extreme weather events and climate impact to the same level as we saw last year, but the trend line is clear,” he said.

The need for greater preparedness was hammered home by a drumbeat of dramatic images and traumatic headlines in recent weeks.

In the southern town of Qingyuan, a lone white pagoda stood above waters that had submerged smaller buildings nearby. In the northern city of Shijiazhuang, gale force winds decapitated an ornamental archway; its crown of reinforced concrete and tile crushed eight people. Off the coast of Guangdong, a typhoon tore apart a Chinese engineering vessel working on an offshore wind power farm, killing about half the crew.

Xi’s ambition for China to be seen as a global leader in tackling global warming has drawn fresh attention to climate change in the country. Mentions of the subject in tightly controlled Chinese media rose sharply over the past two years. Worsening floods, heat waves and dust storms, despite being a long-standing feature of China’s springs and summers, are increasingly connected to shifting global weather patterns.

The impact of these changes is felt at the local level in towns such as Youxi in the southwestern city of Chongqing, where Zhang Xinghua’s family’s fields of Sichuan peppercorns, the spice that gives local cuisine its distinctive numbing flavor, were submerged.

“The flooding was very sudden this year,” said the 41-year-old shopkeeper, who added that the changing weather has strengthened his belief in climate change. “The rains came down. The wind was strong, and the rain was strong.”

In response to the rising threat of climate-related extreme weather events, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment last month launched a multi-department effort to draw up a national climate change adaptation strategy set to be finalized by 2035. But experts worry about persistent gaps in early warning systems.

Luo Jingjia, a scholar at Nanjing University of Science Information and Technology, said that meteorological departments often worry about being held responsible for predicting a severe event that doesn’t materialize, especially because local governments want a clear, yes-or-no answer.

Luo added that the problem is not just with the science of prediction but also with governance. “There are problems with the response to extreme weather because of the level of communication between departments, which causes catastrophic losses,” he said.

After the Zhengzhou floods, China’s Ministry of Emergency Management launched a new warning system to better coordinate between departments and break information silos that separated weather prediction from flood response, according to Yin Jie, a professor at East China Normal University who was an expert adviser for the project.

“The system of disaster prevention and mitigation in China does not yet come under a unified jurisdiction and needs further integration. It is still in an early stage and is not that accurate yet,” Yin said.

Under Xi, China’s position in international climate change debates has evolved away from being a passive actor, cajoled into action by developed nations, into a bid to become a climate-fighting leader for the developing world. But at home, discussion of global warming’s role in worsening extreme weather remains carefully controlled.

Environmentalists’ excitement over China’s pledge that its carbon dioxide emissions would peak before 2030 and that the country would reach “carbon neutrality” by 2060 has been undercut by Beijing’s failure to rapidly shift away from coal.

For state planners, even a huge build-out of wind and solar power – China plans to install about the equivalent of the United States’ entire current capacity this year – will be unable to keep pace with energy demand in the near term. The top leadership has consistently reiterated in recent months that coal is, for now, the “mainstay” of the country’s power generation and will remain so for the near future.

Rather than aiming to cap emissions as soon as possible, China’s vast rollout of 570 gigawatts of solar and wind power between 2021-25 is aimed at laying the groundwork for a sharp decline in the second half of the decade, according to analysis from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).

After 2025, coal should be phased down, transitioning from a “mainstay” to “supporting” power source, meaning that new power stations fueled by coal should only be built to ensure stability of the power grid, but many new projects approved in recent months fail to meet those criteria, CREA wrote.

When it comes to climate action, the Chinese Communist Party leadership faces a series of unattractive trade-offs. To force carbon-intensive industries to curb greenhouse gases quickly threatens to undermine an already fragile economy. But fail to transition toward sustainable growth in time and the effects of global warming could be far worse.

Aside from damage caused directly by storms and heat waves, projections suggest rising temperatures could increase food insecurity in China’s arid north or lead to rising sea levels that within 50 years could submerge east coast manufacturing hubs.

“Even if industrial carbon emissions now return to what they were 100 years ago, equivalent to no development, or achieving carbon neutrality or zero carbon emissions, the laws of nature will still continue for hundreds of years,” Yin said. “It is difficult to reduce atmospheric extremes. We now have to do more to adapt.”