China Environmental News Digest

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

One Voice in a Billion: Changing the Climate in China Friday, May. 16, 2008

Like a lot of Americans, Taylor Francis can trace his global warming conversion back to the day he walked into a movie theater and watched An Inconvenient Truth. Before he saw the documentary, Francis says, he knew climate change was a problem, but not something that could end civilization. "I was stunned," he says now. "I came away from the theater determined to do something about this."

For most of us, that might have meant switching to more efficient light bulbs, or maybe if we were particularly motivated, buying a hybrid car. Francis went a bit further. In December 2006, along with 200 other people, Francis traveled to Al Gore's home city of Nashville — otherwise known as the new Mecca of environmentalism — to be taught as a global warming educator by Al Gore himself, as part of the Climate Project, a nonprofit that promotes public awareness. Fourteen years old at the time, Francis was the youngest person ever trained by Gore. Back home in San Francisco he delivered a customized version of the most famous PowerPoint presentation ever developed, and since, he's given his talk to nearly 10,000 people, mostly high school students. Francis persuades his teenage peers to realize that global warming, far from being a threat of the distant future, will directly affect them. "This problem is my problem," says Francis, who speaks with a precision that reminds me of, well, Gore, without the Tennessee twang. "It's not abstract for us. The effects will be felt in our lifetime."

OK, so, after doing the hard work of educating apathetic high schoolers about the dangers of climate change, Francis has done his part, right? Not quite. As he researched global warming further, Francis came to the same realization that many climate experts have: while the United States is by far the world's biggest carbon emitter historically, it's China that truly holds the key to slowing climate change. China, which just passed the U.S. as the world's top greenhouse-gas emitter on an annual basis, will be putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other nation for the foreseeable future. Fail to convince the Chinese of Gore's inconvenient truth, and the game will be lost. The best targets, Francis knew, would be Chinese his own age. "Working with China is so important," he says. "The young are a source of possibility."

So it was off to China — first, in a test trip last summer, where Francis taught Chinese fifth graders about global warming for an hour a day for three days. "They had more questions than I had answers," he says. Once he got back to the U.S., Francis — who at 16 seems to possess a level of enthusiasm and organization those twice his age would envy — began setting up a more substantial journey to China. Next month, he'll be embarking on a tour of the country that will take him to Shanghai and Beijing, where he'll be addressing students at high schools, universities and international schools in China's most important cities. He'll also be meeting with some of the country's more prominent greens, like Zheng Shigrong, the billionaire founder of the solar panel manufacturer Suntech. It's all being arranged by members of China's Minister of Environmental Protection (Francis's teacher in San Francisco has impressive contacts).

Presenting in China will be a challenge, and not just because Francis will have to make use of a translator. The Chinese view the politics of climate change in a fundamentally different way than much of the developed world. We've had our time to grow rapidly, pollute and clean up, but China is just starting. We think of greenhouse gas emissions as something perhaps easy to limit — just get those better lights and better cars. But for China, those vastly accelerating greenhouse gas emissions are just another measurement of how life is getting better for more and more Chinese in the cities: more cars, more electricity, more gadgets, more stuff, all of which carry a greenhouse gas cost. Asking China to limit greenhouse gas emissions even as its GDP continues to grow at nearly double-digit rates is like asking them to give up the good life they're just beginning to taste. It's not going to happen — and yet to avert dangerous climate change, it has to happen. That's the paradox of global warming politics.

It's a bit much to ask Taylor Francis to untie that Gordian knot, but he's trying his best. Francis says he'll make the pocketbook argument that China's astonishing levels of pollution are already damaging the country's bottom line. "There's an estimation that China's environmental problems are already costing their economy 10% of GDP a year," he says. "The economic costs are immense and they will only get bigger." That much is known in China, and although the country gets a deservedly bad rap for its pollution — all those Beijing Olympics jokes — the truth is that there is a serious movement going on today to green China. "China stunned the world with its economic growth," says Francis. "Now there's a chance for China to show the world another model of development — green growth." It needs help, and it needs young people who are enthusiastic about saving the Earth — like Taylor Francis.


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