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See Inside August 2008

After the Quake: Helping China Clean Up Their Environment

Aiding the earthquake victims should not distract from other challenges

Online associate editor David Biello arrived in China this past May with the intention of reporting for Scientific American’s Web site on the country’s daunting environmental and health challenges. Those subjects suddenly redefined themselves on the afternoon of May 12, however, when a massive magnitude 7.9 Wenchuan earthquake tore apart Mianyang, Chengdu and other communities in the western province of Sichuan. Nearly 70,000 people were killed, and millions were abruptly left homeless.

Biello’s reports on the tragedy, which are available at www.SciAm.com, describe some of the resulting chaos. In the wake of such disasters, the most desperate physical needs—for food, drinking water, sanitation, shelter and medicine—grab priority: efficiently addressing the needs of the hungry, injured and homeless has to be the focus of any aid. Unfortunately, such acute concerns can pull attention away from more persistent catastrophes brewing in the environment, and China will have an abundance of those long after the last traces of this recent quake’s damage have been cleaned up. In its rush to industrialize and raise its economy, China has incurred nightmarish air and water pollution hazards, among other environmental burdens.

Journalist Dan Fagin writes about one such newly discovered problem in his article “China’s Children of Smoke”. As he reports, Frederica Perera, an investigator in the young field of molecular epidemiology, has found that in China, children born and raised under the clouds of smoke spewed by a coal-burning power plant have slightly smaller heads and lower scores on developmental tests than kids exposed to cleaner air do.

Fundamentally, China is on an earlier, dirtier segment of the economic development curve that all the industrial superpowers followed. In China, however—at least around the major cities—the transition back to a more benign environment is happening about twice as quickly as it did historically. Western nations were able to clean up in part because they outsourced their dirty industries to other countries. (Indeed, we Westerners should feel some responsibility for China’s current woes because most of its polluting industries feed our demand.) China has its own version of outsourcing: its cities are getting cleaner because the factories are moving to more rural areas, where they affect fewer people.

Ultimately, China (and other rising nations) needs technologies for producing energy and goods with less pollution. The U.S. and Europe could and should do more to help developing countries get those technologies. For example, the U.S. has in effect stalled in its efforts to develop ways to burn coal more cleanly. Yet those technologies will be crucially important not just in the U.S. and China (where they might improve local environments) but globally, because “clean coal” power will be essential for controlling global warming. Working on cleaner coal may not have the humanitarian immediacy of helping earthquake victims, but it may someday save even more lives.

Note: This article was originally published with the title, "Helping China".

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