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Prof. discusses China and climate change

David Campbell spoke about China’s role in fighting global warming. Photo by Chris Lee.

On Wednesday, April 23, Henry R. Luce Professor of Nations and the Global Environment David Campbell, Biology, gave a talk entitled “Will China Save the World?” as part of the week’s Earth Day programming. Campbell presented data and research on current trends in the environment, the economic development of China and the importance of the energy sources the Chinese economy will use as it continues to develop. He sat down with the S&B’s Kieran Connolly ’17 to discuss fracking and ways to balance the concerns of China’s growing middle class with their increasing carbon emissions.

David Campbell spoke about China’s role in fighting global warming. Photo by Chris Lee.
David Campbell spoke about China’s role in fighting global warming.
Photo by Chris Lee.

What must happen if China is to save the world? What would that look like?

China has to be frightened about its future. It has to understand that proceeding with all of these coal-powered plants to generate electricity is destructive to China and the Chinese people, and a path that no one there can afford to embark on. And once the Chinese people and the leaders embark on that, they have the force of will and the political prowess to change their trajectory. They just have to understand it.

In that path, what is the importance of natural gas?

Let’s face it, the best of all possible worlds would be a future for the U.S. and China both where there’s renewable energy as much as possible. That could be a pathway for the U.S. Remember when I gave those curves that showed China’s energy consumption rising, but the U.S. is kind of flat? We’re kind of at status quo. We’re not anticipating much growth in terms of our energy economy. So in those circumstances, we can try to shift our energy generation to renewable. China doesn’t have that privilege, it’s got another half billion people who want to be middle class, and they deserve electricity, they deserve light bulbs, they deserve refrigerators, they deserve clinics with cold vaccines—all these things—and they’re not getting it. And the government and the Chinese people feel they have a moral obligation to provide these elementary services, and fast, otherwise China will destabilize. Otherwise there will be a lot of political anger. And so they may not have the time or the privilege to experiment as fully as we all may like with renewables. So, I think if you’re going to get a crash energy development program, you can switch it from coal burning to gas burning, that’s a major step. You eliminate half the carbon from the process, and that’s real progress.

How does China’s authoritarian political system help or hinder its ability to help the environment?

It does both. Authoritarian governments can make rapid decisions. Sometimes they’re benign, more often than not they’re malignant. So, you just have to hope. You have to hope it’s done right. But by and large, I think the Chinese government in the last few decades has been very enlightened. By and large, look what’s happened. There’s been a magical transformation of the economy and of the welfare of its people. And it’s been brilliant. No other civilization in the history of our species has accomplished so much, so fast. Magnificent.

What is the role of the U.S. and the rest of the world in fighting climate change?

The U.S. has about seven percent of the world’s population and it makes [more than 20 percent] of the carbon. So obviously, we’re grotesquely immoral in our per capita carbon consumption. There’s no reason why we can’t institute economies both at the production and usage end of the carbon change. So, I think we have a moral obligation to reduce our per capita consumption. It can be done without any sort of financial hardship, really. Nothing substantive. It’s chump change, compared to our economy, to do that. And it will go a long way to fix the atmospheric commons. That’s what we should do.

The developing world is angry that they’re being called upon to remedy a problem that was made before anybody was born by the developed world. That’s how we got rich, by being energy-profligate. But that’s just not an option for the developing world anymore. [If] everybody went our benighted pathway, then we’d be cooked. So the developing world must realize that it must proceed as ethically as it can, to look out for the welfare of its people, like China is, but as ethically as it can as well in trying to be a guardian of the atmospheric commons and a good global citizen. We should do everything we can in the developed world to facilitate that. Transfer technologies for energy efficiency—that’s one thing we can do right away. We have brilliant technology. That’s not just our duty, it’s our moral obligation to do that. 

How should environmentalists approach natural gas given the very negative image of fracking in the U.S.?

It goes back to that level curve for the U.S., that line that doesn’t show us increasing our carbon production much, versus the steep one for China. Fracking, in a regime where there’s an emergency like China’s—where you’ve got to provide power, fast, for a lot of people—might be something you just have to swallow hard and do. But in the U.S., I think we should be a little more cautious. I’m scared of fracking. I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad thing if it’s done sensibly and transparently, but right now it’s not transparent. We’re shooting all these proprietary formulas down into the earth, and nobody knows what they are except the fracking companies. In any sort of capitalist system there’s always an imperative to save money and cheat on the mix, and I worry that might be happening in some of these fracking wells. It might be happening in China, too. China is a bastion of corruption, that’s one of the biggest threats to its future. But in this country, we don’t have an emergency, and China does. I think we should proceed much more cautiously with fracking. Not stop it, but just make sure it’s being done sensibly and transparently.

And finally, what is the long-term solution that you might see for a world that does not have to deal with the severe tipping point of climate change?

 Well, all these things we’re talking about. I think we’re going to cross that tipping point if nations don’t adopt a mindset of emergency. This is a global emergency, and it’s something that may be the biggest existential threat to our economies, our welfare and health, the quality of living, our social security, that’s ever come along in human history. And it’s the biggest threat to biological diversity in the last 40 or 50 or 60 million years. And that’s a great magnitude. It’s a tremendous responsibility. We have to treat it like an emergency, and I don’t see that in the political dialogue in this country. What’s interesting is I see it in the words of Prime Minister Li [Keqiang] in China. It’s what he said: “we’re going to treat it with the same sense of urgency [with which] we licked poverty” … But I think that’s pretty awesome. That man, one of the top leaders of China, is speaking so emphatically about this, it’s brilliant. China just may lead us out of this mess.

What do you see that we should be doing as individuals in the U.S.?

Well, one of the things that we all can do, if we have the stomach for it, is be vegetarian. … The more people on this planet that eat the primary productivities, that eat soybeans instead of a chicken or cow, the lower on the food chain you eat,  the better off the planet will be. I didn’t mention one thing—the different destinies that China and India face, India being significantly vegetarian because of all its Hindus, and China being really carnivorous. And those are very different pathways. And so India’s food security [issues] will never be as great as China’s, but for fundamental reasons. India has more arable land.

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