Over the past six months, two important international reports have highlighted the urgency of environmental challenges.
In May, the United Nations issued The Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, updating its 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. This report generated headlines, including one in the Washington Post May 6: “One million species face extinction … humans will suffer as a result.”
In August, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) issued a Special Report on Climate Change. Its previous report, issued in 2018, warned that the world faces a tipping point if global temperatures warm more than 1.5˚C above preindustrial levels, and that actions to prevent that threshold from being passed need to be implemented no later than 2030. These two reports discuss the linkages among climate change, food security, deforestation, species extinction and human well-being.
Clearly, these reports and voices point to current concerns that need action.
We are not unique in world history in confronting these issues. China has the world’s longest continuous historical record, reaching back over 3,000 years, and a rich archeological record stretching back another 6,000 years to the beginnings of agriculture and civilization following the previous ice age. From these records, we can see how people in one civilization created and addressed environmental change.
As agriculture spread throughout Asia, farmers not only produced enough food to sustain growing human populations, but also, by 5,000 BCE, clearing land of forest and irrigating rice paddies sent significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Surprisingly, those early anthropogenic emissions of GHGs (greenhouse gases) may have halted a return of ice-age conditions and provided the more-or-less benign climate over the past several millennia that supported the rise and spread of civilizations. Not all climate change has been deleterious to humans.
Over the past 3,000 years, the Chinese have pushed their agro-ecosystem into the far reaches of their empire. Deforestation followed in its wake, but so did vast increases in agricultural productivity, allowing the Chinese population to rise from 60 million 2,000 years ago to 400 million in 1850, and over one billion by the 1970s.
This record of “success” for the Chinese state and people led to a largely deforested country, with evidence of soil exhaustion, erosion, increased floods and droughts, mass migrations, social disorder and species extinctions. Not only was China’s natural world degraded and impoverished, but so, too, were its people. To feed the growing population, even more forest — this time in the tropical south and the temperate northeast — was removed to make way for more farming.
At various times in their long history of environmental change, the Chinese expressed concern about the damages to their natural world it was causing and warned about the baleful impacts those changes could have for humans. The breakdown of China’s imperial state in the early 20th Century in the midst of a vast environmental crisis was followed by decades of civil war that brought the Chinese Communists to power in 1949, along with the call of their leader, Mao Zedong, that “man must conquer nature” in order to ensure the fastest possible industrialization. Over the past 30 years, China has succeeded in building the world’s largest economy while creating massive environmental problems and contributing to the global warming problems that Earth faces.
As the world’s oldest continuous civilization, China has been an agent of climate change for 4,000 years. Now, its role as the world’s biggest contributor of greenhouse gases is even more acute than in the past. That makes China’s participation in a global plan to act all the more vital: China has a huge stake as its people will suffer inordinately if climate changes rapidly, and at the same time it has an extraordinary history of creativity and technological advancement that will certainly contribute to a solution. The United States and China must therefore manage their relationship, which is now strained, so that collaboration remains possible on behalf of all humankind.
Robert B. Marks is author of numerous books and articles on environmental, Chinese and world history.
China and climate change lecture
What: China: Environmental Crises, History and Lessons for an Anxious World
Where: Albuquerque Journal auditorium
When: 3-5 p.m. Nov. 1
How Much: $15/Albuquerque International Association members, $25/non-members; free/ students under age 30 with ID
For info: www.abqinternational.org