How to fight extreme weather before it's too late

Posted on : 2021-08-30 18:09 KST Modified on : 2021-08-30 18:22 KST
What we need is a climate strike led by people throughout the region
People walk down a flooded road after record downpours in Zhengzhou, China, on July 20. (AP/Yonhap News)
People walk down a flooded road after record downpours in Zhengzhou, China, on July 20. (AP/Yonhap News)

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of China’s state-run Global Times and a fiercely nationalistic pundit, said on July 17 that the disastrous floods that had struck Western Germany, Belgium, and France five days earlier, on July 12, “illustrated the level of governance in the West and the bankruptcy of [Western] humanism.” Hu went on to rave about the high-speed railway network and cities that China has built.

These were tactless comments to make after a disaster that had taken the lives of over 220 people. Hu was also contradicting himself, considering that he’d criticized the Communist Party of China’s Central Politics and Law Commission a few months before when it posted a meme on its official social media account mocking Indians suffering from the coronavirus. Titled “lighting a fire in China vs. lighting a fire in India,” the post juxtaposed an image of the launch of a Chinese rocket with the cremation of Indian victims of COVID-19.

“Governmental bodies’ official [social media] accounts need to raise the standard of humanitarianism and take the moral high ground,” Hu wrote at the time.

Governments’ emphasis on “natural disasters”

Around that time, a prodigious amount of rain was falling on the city of Zhengzhou, in Henan Province. The city’s weather agency sent out an emergency alert at 9:59 pm on July 19, warning that 100 millimeters of rain would fall over the next three hours. The next day, the city issued no fewer than four red alerts for heavy rain.

Under province regulations for handling catastrophic weather conditions, the authorities are supposed to take emergency measures that include suspending work and classes and halting traffic. But the residents of the city had to make their way to work through the torrential downpour.

According to China’s National Meteorological Center, Zhengzhou was drenched in 201.9 millimeters of rain between 4 and 5 pm that day. That was more than the average precipitation for all of July and smashed a record set during a massive flood in August 1975.

In Henan Province alone, 302 people died and 50 went missing. The storm inconvenienced 14,531,600 people in 150 cities and 1,663 villages. The urban design and high-speed railways praised by Hu Xijin couldn’t withstand an extreme weather event.

What was behind this unprecedented flood? Experts point to climate change.

With the North Pacific high-pressure system located above the East Sea, east of the Korean Peninsula, Typhoon In-fa was carried by easterly winds inland over China, rather than heading north. The typhoon and the subtropical high-pressure system drove large amounts of water vapor inland. This wet air was bottled up by the Taihang Mountains and by cold dry air blowing from the north.

Concentrating so much water vapor in a single area naturally led to the scope and intensity of the heavy rainfall that descended upon Henan Province. The causes here are similar to those of the huge floods in Europe, as well as the cloudbursts that the Korean Peninsula has been seeing with greater frequency of late.

Record-setting flooding also occurred throughout Japan around this time, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. The Japanese government predicts that the incidence of flooding will double, triple, or even quadruple.

The Chinese government has stressed that the recurring floods are a “natural disaster.” That’s an attempt to distance itself from responsibility for the disaster. Online, Beijing is being aided by right-wing populists like Hu Xijin, who stress that disasters are inevitable and vociferously argue that the flooding in Henan Province and Europe are different in nature.

These populists have also pushed back furiously against anyone who criticizes the Chinese government for having responded poorly to the disasters. They’re so intent on arguing that China is superior to the West that they have little attention to devote to the climate crisis that’s actually the heart of the matter.

Extreme weather is becoming routine. On July 22, when Zhengzhou was being inundated with heavy rain, Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, said that rainfall is increasing around the world because of anthropogenic global warming. Two weeks later, Taalas warned that humans are seeing the harsh reality of climate change unfolding in real-time, before their very eyes, citing heatwaves and fires in Greece and Turkey, forest fires in Siberia, and heavy rain in China and Germany.

On July 14, Greenpeace East Asia published a report assessing risks associated with climate change for major cities in China and predicting future conditions there. The report found that extreme precipitation — based on the number of days and frequency of heavy rain — had increased sharply over the past 60 years.

Over the past few years, China has often seen heavy rain that breaks records in a short period of time. These disasters represent a greater risk to vulnerable groups, including the poor in small and medium-sized cities with decaying infrastructure and strained finances.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that humanity must keep average surface temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial levels by 2100 in order to prevent the risk of climate change.

These now routine disasters are the result of global warming, which is caused by the greenhouse gases emitted when we consume energy derived from fossil fuels. The report approved by the IPCC in its most recent session, which wrapped up on Aug. 6, projects that global temperatures will rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2021 and 2040 if we maintain our current level of greenhouse gas emissions.

That basically speeds up the timeframe presented in the IPCC’s special report in 2018 by more than a decade. It’s expected that cloudbursts and other extreme weather events will occur more frequently and with greater ferocity because of high temperatures and rising sea levels.

South Korea’s National Institute of Meteorological Sciences said that “indicators related to the intensity of extreme weather tends to increase in all scenarios” in East Asia, and particularly in southern China, the Korean Peninsula, and Japan, in a report about national scenarios for climate change titled “Future Prospects for Extreme Weather in East Asia Based on Shared Socioeconomic Pathways.” The result is that “heat waves and other extreme high-temperature events will be stronger and more frequent in the future,” the institute said.

East Asia is an area where rainfall is concentrated in the summer because of the monsoon system. Extreme precipitation is closely tied to floods and droughts, which inevitably have various negative impacts on water resources and the food supply.

Nevertheless, the governments and moneyed interests in these countries are ignoring these warnings. China has the world’s most carbon emissions by far, with Japan ranking fifth and South Korea ranking ninth.

That doesn’t mean that South Korea is better than China or Japan, of course. Based on per capita emissions, South Korea ranks up there with the US and Canada as one of the planet’s “climate villains.” At this very moment, South Korea, China, and Japan are adding more coal-fired power plants, and the Korea Electric Power Corporation is investing in coal plants in Indonesia and Vietnam.

Furthermore, the scenarios presented by Korea’s presidential committee on carbon neutrality by 2050 weren’t specific enough, nor has the government demonstrated the will to implement them. That’s why we can’t just sit back and hope that the government will do its job.

We need to stop regarding ourselves as spectators watching floods overseas. The catastrophic floods in Henan Province and Japan aren’t proof of Korea’s superiority — they’re a glimpse of our future.

I suppose that, even in dystopias, affluent people watch disasters on TV while worrying about their bottom line, but that’s not an option for the rest of us. Should we really be debating which country made a worse mess of things when our very future is being destroyed?

The climate crisis can’t be fixed by the actions of any single country, nor can we hope for wise measures from various governments. Disasters may well exacerbate inequality between both classes and countries, given the varying capacity to respond to them.

Perhaps what we need is a climate strike led by people throughout East Asia. We’ve got to stop this train before it runs off the cliff.

By Hong Myung-kyo, staff reporter

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