As a China follower who has visited the country numerous times over the past 40 years, I have an enduring love affair with the “old” China, which prided itself on balancing the harmony of nature with its decision-making. It is tragically ironic that despite this impressive historical and cultural backdrop, current choices have pushed the country’s harmony with nature beyond the tipping point.
The atmosphere in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in central China, tells a cautionary tale of China’s current emphasis on economic growth at the expense of its citizens’ health. With lower annual sunshine totals than London, Chengdu’s perpetually grey, cloudy horizon graphically illustrates the massive industrial waste and coal-fired pollution that plague this booming city.
In April, global health experts convened in Chengdu at the 5th International Academic Conference on Environmental and Occupational Medicine, which was co-sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Chinese CDC offices, to report on the impact of climate change on public health.
Because of its geography, the mountain-encircled basin in which Chengdu sits is the natural point of release for daily deposits of air pollutants and dust blown in from India and other countries to the west. A rapid series of satellite views presented by John Petterson, director of the Sequoia Foundation, brought gasps from conference attendees, as these accumulated industrial wastes were shown concentrating against the massive southern Tibetan mountain range, then turning grey and black as they moved east, before being deposited on Sichuan’s vulnerable (and already heavily polluted) basin.
Environmental risk factors, especially air and water pollution, are a major–and worsening–source of death and illness in China. Air quality in China’s cities is among the worst in the world, and industrial water pollution is a widespread health hazard.
And although air pollution is clearly a complex global problem, individual nation-states continue to approach this dilemma as though it lies between its borders alone.
Luckily, this conference was prefaced by a number of timely scientific articles on China in the Lancet. The predominantly Chinese authors clearly take the critical risks that we expect from the Lancet, which is a defender of accountability and transparency in global health. This issue brings shame to other publications who still consider their “place” to be protecting the conventional politico-economic emphasis on decision-making inherent to most industrialized countries.
At the conference, public health and climate experts openly voiced their frustration at the blatant privileging of economic priorities over the health of unknowing populations. China–the fastest growing economy in world history, with unprecedented growth driven by external “demand” and precipitous acceleration of domestic consumption–has become the poster-child for global ignorance. However, the West is an equal and essential partner, having moved their manufacturing to China for cheap labor, lax environmental regulations, and higher profits.
Dr. Mark Keim, senior advisor for the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, presented irrefutable evidence that root structure erosion from advancing saltwater has led to starvation in Polynesia, the first recorded evidence-based outcome measure of climate change’s public health effects.
At Mark’s request, I presented evidence on the worsening health impacts of rapid urbanization, specifically within urban enclaves that expand due to dense population growth before protective public health infrastructures and systems are in place (forthcoming in Prehospital and Disaster Medicine). Currently, the megacities in Asia and Africa–where sanitation is ignored and infectious disease is prevalent–now have the highest infant and under-age five mortality rates in the world.
Today, we face the largest gap in health indices between the haves and have-nots since the alarming days before the Alma-Ata Declaration. This new health data was an uncomfortable surprise to many conference attendees, most of whom were experts in the physical and environmental sciences.
We have become too “vertical” in our research over the past 50 years, and thus we fail to recognize that solutions to problems facing the global community must be trans-disciplinary and multi-sectoral, and serve multiple ministries and decision-makers.
If not undone by human decisions, global climate change and climate-warming greenhouse gases will rapidly intensify. This effort requires the best collaboration between science and the humanities, as well as the harmonious lessons of the “old” China.
Frederick M. Burkle, Jr., MD, MPH, DTM, is a senior public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a senior fellow of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Photo Credit: Chengdu skyline in smog, courtesy Flickr user lonely radio.