Arquivo da tag: Poluição

Poor air quality kills 5.5 million worldwide annually (Science Daily)

Date: February 12, 2016

Source: University of British Columbia

Summary: New research shows that more than 5.5 million people die prematurely every year due to household and outdoor air pollution. More than half of deaths occur in two of the world’s fastest growing economies, China and India.

New research shows that more than 5.5 million people die prematurely every year due to household and outdoor air pollution. More than half of deaths occur in two of the world’s fastest growing economies, China and India. Credit: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), University of Washington

New research shows that more than 5.5 million people die prematurely every year due to household and outdoor air pollution. More than half of deaths occur in two of the world’s fastest growing economies, China and India.

Power plants, industrial manufacturing, vehicle exhaust and burning coal and wood all release small particles into the air that are dangerous to a person’s health. New research, presented today at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), found that despite efforts to limit future emissions, the number of premature deaths linked to air pollution will climb over the next two decades unless more aggressive targets are set.

“Air pollution is the fourth highest risk factor for death globally and by far the leading environmental risk factor for disease,” said Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health in Vancouver, Canada. “Reducing air pollution is an incredibly efficient way to improve the health of a population.”

For the AAAS meeting, researchers from Canada, the United States, China and India assembled estimates of air pollution levels in China and India and calculated the impact on health.

Their analysis shows that the two countries account for 55 per cent of the deaths caused by air pollution worldwide. About 1.6 million people died of air pollution in China and 1.4 million died in India in 2013.

In China, burning coal is the biggest contributor to poor air quality. Qiao Ma, a PhD student at the School of Environment, Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, found that outdoor air pollution from coal alone caused an estimated 366,000 deaths in China in 2013.

Ma also calculated the expected number of premature deaths in China in the future if the country meets its current targets to restrict coal combustion and emissions through a combination of energy policies and pollution controls. She found that air pollution will cause anywhere from 990,000 to 1.3 million premature deaths in 2030 unless even more ambitious targets are introduced.

“Our study highlights the urgent need for even more aggressive strategies to reduce emissions from coal and from other sectors,” said Ma.

In India, a major contributor to poor air quality is the practice of burning wood, dung and similar sources of biomass for cooking and heating. Millions of families, among the poorest in India, are regularly exposed to high levels of particulate matter in their own homes.

“India needs a three-pronged mitigation approach to address industrial coal burning, open burning for agriculture, and household air pollution sources,” said Chandra Venkataraman, professor of Chemical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, in Mumbai, India.

In the last 50 years, North America, Western Europe and Japan have made massive strides to combat pollution by using cleaner fuels, more efficient vehicles, limiting coal burning and putting restrictions on electric power plants and factories.

“Having been in charge of designing and implementing strategies to improve air in the United States, I know how difficult it is. Developing countries have a tremendous task in front of them,” said Dan Greenbaum, president of Health Effects Institute, a non-profit organization based in Boston that sponsors targeted efforts to analyze the health burden from different air pollution sources. “This research helps guide the way by identifying the actions which can best improve public health.”



The research is an extension of the Global Burden of Disease study, an international collaboration led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington that systematically measured health and its risk factors, including air pollution levels, for 188 countries between 1990 and 2013. The air pollution research is led by researchers at the University of British Columbia and the Health Effects Institute.

Additional facts about air pollution:

  • World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines set daily particulate matter at 25 micrograms per cubic metre.
  • At this time of year, Beijing and New Delhi will see daily levels at or above 300 micrograms per cubic meter metre; 1,200 per cent higher than WHO guidelines.
  • While air pollution has decreased in most high-income countries in the past 20 years, global levels are up largely because of South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China. More than 85 per cent of the world’s population now lives in areas where the World Health Organization Air Quality Guideline is exceeded.
  • The researchers say that strict control of particulate matter is critical because of changing demographics. Researchers predict that if air pollution levels remain constant, the number of deaths will increase because the population is aging and older people are more susceptible to illnesses caused by poor air quality.
  • According to the Global Burden of Disease study, air pollution causes more deaths than other risk factors like malnutrition, obesity, alcohol and drug abuse, and unsafe sex. It is the fourth greatest risk behind high blood pressure, dietary risks and smoking.
  • Cardiovascular disease accounts for the majority of deaths from air pollution with additional impacts from lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and respiratory infections.

China’s Communist-Capitalist Ecological Apocalypse (Truthout)

Sunday, 21 June 2015 00:00 By Richard Smith, Truthout | News Analysis 

A pedestrian wearing a protective mask in Beijing, Jan. 17, 2012. Decades of coal-powered industrialization combined with the government-promoted car craze have brought China the worst air pollution in the world. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)

A pedestrian wearing a protective mask in Beijing, January 17, 2012. Decades of coal-powered industrialization combined with the government-promoted car craze have brought China the worst air pollution in the world. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)

This article seeks to explain why China’s environmental crisis is so horrific, so much worse than “normal” capitalism most everywhere else, and why the government is incapable of suppressing pollution even from its own industries. I begin with an overview of the current state of China’s environment: its polluted air, waters, farmland and the proximate causes, including overproduction, overdevelopment, profligate resource consumption, uncontrolled dumping and venting of pollutants. I then discuss the political-economic drivers and enablers of this destruction, the dynamics and contradictions of China’s hybrid economy, noting how market reforms have compounded the irrationalities of the old bureaucratic collectivist system with the irrationalities of capitalism resulting in a diabolically ruinous “miracle” economy. I conclude with a précis of the emergency steps the country will have to take to take to brake the drive to socio-ecological collapse, with dire implications for us all.

The first time Li Gengxuan saw the dump trucks from the nearby factory pull into his village, he could not believe his eyes. Stopping between the cornfields and the primary school playground, the workers dumped buckets of bubbling white liquid onto the ground. Then they turned around and drove right back through the gates of their factory compound without a word.

In March 2008, Li and other farmers in Gaolong, a village in the central plains of Henan Province near the Yellow River, told a Washington Post reporter that workers from the nearby Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Company had been dumping this industrial waste in fields around their village every day for nine months. The liquid, silicon tetrachloride, was the byproduct of polysilicon production and it is a highly toxic substance. When exposed to humid air, silicon tetrachloride turns into acids and poisonous hydrogen chloride gas, which can make people dizzy and cause breathing difficulties.

Ren Bingyan, a professor of material sciences at Hebei Industrial University, contacted by the Post, told the paper that “the land where you dump or bury it will be infertile. No grass or trees will grow in its place … It is … poisonous, it is polluting. Human beings can never touch it.”

When the dumping began, crops wilted from the white dust, which sometimes rose in clouds several feet off the ground and spread over the fields as the liquid dried. Village farmers began to faint and became ill. And at night, villagers said “the factory’s chimneys released a loud whoosh of acrid air that stung their eyes and made it hard to breath.”

“It’s poison air. Sometimes it gets so bad you can’t sit outside. You have to close all the doors and windows,” said Qiao Shi Peng, 28, a truck driver who worried about the health of his 1-year-old.

China’s rise has come at a horrific social and environmental cost.

Reckless dumping of industrial waste is everywhere in China. But what caught the attention of The Washington Post was that the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Company was a “green energy” company producing polysilicon destined for solar energy panels sold around the world. Indeed, it was a major supplier to Suntech Power Holdings, then the world’s leading producer of solar panels, and Suntech’s founder, Shi Zhengrong, topped the Hunrun list of the richest people in China in 2008. (1)

Silicon tetrachloride is an unavoidable byproduct of polysilicon production. But reckless pollution of farm villages is not unavoidable. Today, China is the only country in the world where such criminal behavior and cynical disregard for the health and lives of farmers and workers has become standard practice on a national scale by governments at every level, even as the government’s own environmental agencies decry such behavior and struggle, mostly in vain, to stop it. As one Chinese researcher told the Post, “If this happened in the United States, you’d be arrested.” But in China environmental regulations are regularly flouted by state-owned and private industries with the connivance of government officials at all levels while protesting farmers, workers and environmental activists are arrested, jailed, beaten or worse, and their lawyers with them.

Polysilicon production produces about four tons of silicon tetrachloride liquid waste for every ton of polysilicon produced. In Germany, where Siemens produces solar panels, pollution recovery technology is installed to process the silicon tetrachloride waste and render it harmless. But such environmental protection technology is expensive. In 2008, the cost to produce polysilicon safely was about $84,500 a ton in Germany and would not have cost much less in China. Chinese companies have been producing it for $21,000 to $56,000 a ton, saving millions of dollars a month, by just dumping the toxic waste in rural areas on helpless village communities.

Gaolong village is a mirror to China. It illustrates how the marriage of capitalism and Stalinist bureaucratic collectivism has created a diabolically destructive hybrid economic system, a rogue economy that is ravaging China’s environment, ruining the health of Chinese people, rendering more and more of the country unlivable, driving the country to ecological collapse and threatening to bring the whole planet down with it. (2)

I. China Self-Destructs

For more than three decades, China’s “miracle” economy has been the envy of the world or at least the envy of capitalist economists for whom wealth creation is the highest purpose of human life. Since 1979, China’s GDP has grown by an average of just under 10 percent per year. Never, the World Bank tells us, has a nation industrialized and modernized so quickly or lifted so many millions out of poverty in such a short time. From a backward, stagnant, largely agrarian socialism-in-poverty, Deng Xiaoping brought in foreign investors, introduced market incentives, set up export bases, turned China into the light-industrial workshop of the world and renovated China’s huge state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

“Fast fashion” is speeding the disposal of the planet.

Three and a half decades of surging economic growth lifted China from the world’s 10th largest economy in 1979 to No. 1 by 2014. What’s more, after decades of export-based growth, China’s 12th Five-Year Plan 2011-2015 sought to refocus the economy on internal market demand to realize Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation and turning China into a mass consumer society on the model of the United States. As China sailed right through the global near-collapse of 2008 to 2009, hardly missing a beat, while Western capitalist economies have struggled to keep from falling back into recession, even the Thatcherite Economist magazine had to concede that China’s state capitalism may be in certain respects superior to capitalist democracies and is perhaps even the wave of the future.

But China’s rise has come at a horrific social and environmental cost. It’s difficult to grasp the demonic violence and wanton recklessness of China’s profit-driven assault on nature and on the Chinese themselves. Ten years ago, in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine in March 2005, Pan Yue, China’s eloquent, young vice-minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) told the magazine, “the Chinese miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.” Pan Yue added:

We are using too many raw materials to sustain [our] growth … Our raw materials are scarce, we don’t have enough land, and our population is constantly growing. Currently there [are] 1.3 billion people living in China, that’s twice as many as 50 years ago. In 2020 there will be 1.5 billion … but desert areas are expanding at the same time; habitable and usable land has been halved over the past 50 years … Acid rain is falling on one third of Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one fourth of our citizens do not have access to clean drinking water. One third of the urban population is breathing polluted air, and less than 20 percent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner … Because air and water are polluted, we are losing between 8 and 15 percent of our gross domestic product. And that doesn’t include the costs for health … In Beijing alone, 70 to 80 percent of all deadly cancer cases are related to the environment.

And criticizing Western economists who reassure us that more growth is the key to repairing the environmental damage done from growth, Pan said:

And there is yet another mistake … It’s the assumption that economic growth will give us the financial resources to cope with the crises surrounding the environment, raw materials, and population growth. [But] there won’t be enough money, and we are simply running out of time. Developed countries with a per capita gross national product of $8,000 to $10,000 can afford that, but we cannot. Before we reach $4,000 per person, different crises in all shapes and forms will hit us. Economically we won’t be strong enough to overcome them. (3)

Pan Yue’s searing honesty got him sidelined but if anything, he understated the speed, ferocity and scale of China’s ecological destruction, a destruction that extends far beyond China itself.

A. Consuming the Planet to Support Unsustainable Growth

As China’s growth took off in the 1980s and 1990s, the industrial boom rapidly depleted the country’s resources, especially lumber, oil and minerals, forcing Beijing to turn outward to feed its voracious engines of growth. The manic and thirsty industrialization boom in China’s northern industrial cities drained China’s northern fresh aquifers leaving some 600 cities, including Beijing, facing dire water shortages while severely polluting most remaining reserves. Profit-hungry loggers cut down most of what was left of China’s forests, recklessly denuding mountains and precipitating such extensive flooding and loss of life in 2009 that the government banned domestic logging. Chinese loggers then turned to plundering Siberia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and even New Guinea and parts of Africa. China had little oil to begin with so industrialization and automobilization quickly turned China from a modest oil exporter into a net importer in 1993 and the world’s leading oil importer by 2013. China’s iron ore, copper and other critical industrial mineral reserves have also been rapidly drawn down, forcing the country to import growing quantities of minerals.

The government has squandered astounding quantities of resources building entire industries China does not need.

In result, today, with 20 percent of the world’s population, China is now by far the world’s largest consumer of marketed primary industrial raw materials (cement, metal ores, industrial minerals, fossil fuels and biomass). China consumes more than 32 percent of the world’s total of these resources, nearly four times as much as the United States, the second largest consumer. China consumes just over half the world’s coal and a third of the world’s oil. China is the leading producer and consumer of steel with 46 percent of world output and now relies on imports for 77 percent of its iron ore. (4) China has become the world’s largest consumer of lumber and forest products, leveling forests from Siberia to Southeast Asia, New Guinea, Congo and Madagascar. Greenpeace concluded that on current trends “future generations will be living on a planet without ancient forests.” (5)

Of course, China has the world’s largest population and is industrializing from a comparatively low level just three decades ago so it’s hardly surprising that it would consume lots of resources to build infrastructure and modernize. But the fact is, most of these resources have been squandered on a stupendous scale, and for all the waste and pollution, most Chinese have gotten surprisingly little out of it all.

The Disposables Revolution and “The Great Acceleration” of Global Consumption

For a start, look at the export bases that have powered China’s rise. When China launched its “reform and opening” (gaige kaifang) in the early 1980s and invited foreign investors to set up joint-ventures and special economic zones, China’s combination of ultra cheap labor plus few-to-no environmental restrictions attracted many of the world’s dirtiest and least sustainable industries. Steel, coke, aluminum, cement, chemicals and petrochemicals, metal plating, leather tanning, plastics, paints and finishes, synthetic fibers and textile production, fabric dyeing, paper production, along with auto battery and electronics recycling – most of the toxic and smokestack industries facing increasingly tough environmental restrictions at home in the United States and Europe, relocated to China after 1980. (6) Seventy percent of the world’s e-waste is dumped in China.

On top of this, China’s masses of low-paid migrant workers were a magnet for the world’s most labor-intensive manufacturing and assembly industries. By the 1990s, China had more than 104 million manufacturing workers, about twice as many as the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom, combined. And they worked eight- to 16-hour days, often seven days a week, for an average of $0.57 per hour in 2002, by one estimate, less than the handloom operators earned in the early Industrial Revolution in England. This “China Price” set the global floor for high-volume, light-industrial manufacturing from the 1980s. (7)

The price collapse spurred the biggest boom in global consumption in history and this in turn accelerated global resource plunder on an unprecedented scale. The sudden availability of such a huge pool of ultra-cheap workers also spurred a minor industrial revolution enabling producers to annihilate most of the remaining categories of durable goods and replace them with cheaper, disposable substitutes. With the disposables revolution, local tailors and alteration shops, shoe repair shops, appliance repair shops, TV repairmen and the like all but vanished in the West as it became cheaper to toss these items and replace them than repair them.

The Chinese Communist Party promoted the car craze to bolster status-seeking middle-class political support.

Take clothes: “Fast fashion,” (also known as “trashion fashion”) from H&M, Target, Zara and others, now rules the women’s apparel market with clothes so cheap it’s often not worth the cost of dry cleaning them. As Elizabeth Kline relates in her recent book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, “seasonal shopping patterns have given way to continuous consumption.” Zara delivers new lines twice a week to its stores. H&M and Forever 21 stock new styles every day. In Kline’s words: “Buying so much clothing and treating it as if it is disposable, is putting a huge added weight on the environment and is simply unsustainable.” To say the least.

The US cotton crop requires the application of 22 billion pounds of toxic pesticides every year. Most fiber is dyed or bleached, and treated in toxic chemical baths to make it brighter, softer, more fade resistant, waterproof or less prone to wrinkles. Upholstery fabrics and children’s pajamas are treated with ghastly chemicals to make them stain resistant or fireproof. These toxic baths consume immense quantities of chemicals and water, and it goes without saying that in China, the chemicals are routinely just dumped in rivers and lakes, untreated, just like that silicon tetrachloride poured out on Li Gengxuan’s cornfield. Then after all the chemical treatments, the fabrics have to be dried under heat lamps. These processes consume enormous quantities of energy.

The textile industry is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and it’s growing exponentially. In 1950, when there were about 2.5 billion people on earth, they consumed around 10 million tons of fabric for all uses. Today, we are 7 billion, but we consume more than 70 million tons of fabric annually, nearly three times as much per person as we consumed in the 1950s. Producing 70 million tons of fabric consumes astounding quantities of resources including more than 145 million tons of coal and between 1.5 and 2 trillion gallons of fresh water, every year. Synthetic fibers like polyester and such (now 60 percent of the market) are the worst: They consume between 10 and 25 times as much energy to produce as natural fibers. In short, “fast fashion” is speeding the disposal of the planet. (8)

And what’s true for China’s garment industry is true for most of the rest of China’s export industries. From cheap, disposable shoes and clothes, toys, tools, housewares, Christmas junk and flimsy plastic appliances to meticulously made and expensive but nevertheless designed-to-be-obsolesced iPhones and 60-inch flat-screen TVs, most of the world’s light-industrial goods are made in China and they are, for the most part, deliberately designed to be unrepairable and mostly unrecyclable. After their short life, they all end up piled on the world’s ever-growing garbage mountains, sent back to China in containers filled with e-trash to be “recycled” by children melting the plastic off motherboards over open fires, or left floating around the world’s oceans in giant plastic gyres over vast stretches of oceans, hundreds of feet deep. (9)

Scenes of Planetary Destruction From the 12th Five-Year Plan

When we turn to China’s domestic economy, the waste is breathtaking. As China’s economy opened to the West and China’s exports began returning billions of dollars in foreign exchange, Beijing launched wave after wave of gargantuan development projects: dams, airports, rail systems, roads, subways, sewerage systems, new industries, new housing, new cities, new ports and more. China’s supercharged government planners have been showcasing China’s engineering prowess and economic might by building the world’s biggest dams, the tallest skyscrapers, biggest airports, longest and highest bridges, longest rail and road networks and longest tunnels.

Since the 1980s, China has built enough new housing to re-house the entire population.

Since Deng Xiaoping launched his “Four Modernizations of agriculture, defense, science and technology” and reform and opening up, the country has been in perpetual Great Leap Forward mode: Five-Year plans have set annual industrial growth rates of 8 percent and promoted successive sets of “pillar” industries – autos, electronics, petrochemicals, clean energy and so on. In the current 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), the State Council calls for development of “seven strategic emerging industries” including 1) energy efficient and environmental technologies like “clean coal,” 2) next generation IT and cloud computing and the “Internet of Things,” 3) biotechnology, 4) high-tech manufacturing of vehicles and aircraft, expanding high-speed rail service to 45,000 kilometers, expanding motor expressways to 83,000 kilometers, 5) new-generation nuclear power, more solar and wind energy systems, 6) new materials including development of rare earths, special glass and ceramics, high-performance fiber and composite materials, 7) new-energy vehicles: motor batteries, drive motors, electronic controls, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles, low-emissions vehicles. (10)

No doubt, the Chinese have benefited from new housing, infrastructure, schools, hospitals and so on. But the government has also squandered astounding quantities of resources building entire industries China does not need, building useless vanity projects, superfluous housing, redundant infrastructure and more. From the start this investment boom has been characterized by uncontrolled overproduction and out-of-control pollution.

Scene 1: The “Car Craze” China and Planet Earth Did Not Need

The 12th Five-Year Plan calls for “enhancing China’s independent capacity to manufacture automobiles, domesticating production of all key parts,” for “large-scale commercialization” of energy efficient and hybrid vehicles, for “building … world-famous brands and core competencies” and so on. Hybrid or not, this is an industry the Chinese do not need. Up to 1979, China produced around 160,000 motor vehicles per year with trucks and buses accounting for 90 percent of the output. People got around on bicycles, buses and trains. In 1990, China had just 5.5 million cars, trucks and buses on the road. By 2013, China became the world’s largest auto assembler cranking out 18.7 million cars and light vehicles, more than twice the number produced in the United States in that year. By 2013, China had 240 million cars on its roads, almost as many as in the United States, and China could have an estimated 390-532 million cars on the road by 2050. The question is, why does China need anything like such a huge auto industry? The lead headline of Bloomberg News for April 9, 2014, citing the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, was “Cars become the biggest driver of greenhouse-gas increases.” What’s wrong with this picture?

China surpassed the US in 2007 to become the world’s leading carbon dioxide emitter.

The automobilization of China has brought three profound changes. First, it has dramatically lengthened the time it takes to get anywhere in China’s gridlocked cities (average speed on Beijing’s ring roads is 9 miles per hour) and created epic, world-historic traffic jams on highways feeding into Beijing and other cities. One jam-up near Beijing in 2010 stretched over 100 kilometers and lasted for two weeks. Secondly, it has added a dense new layer of smog on top of the already thick layers of smog from coal combustion smothering China’s cities. And thirdly, it has paved over much-needed farmland and wetlands and wasted enormous resources China, and the world, does not have to waste. This did not have to happen.

The Communist Party promoted joint-venture auto production as a “pillar” industry in the 1990s for two reasons: First, once the government embarked on its market-reform strategy, abandoning lifetime employment, it needed to push growth to generate private- and state-sector jobs, like capitalist governments everywhere. Speaking in November 2013, Prime Minister Li Keqiang stressed that:

Employment is the biggest thing for well-being. The government must not slacken on this for one moment … For us, stable growth is mainly for the sake of maintaining employment.

Auto manufacture and related industries now account for one out of every eight urban jobs in China excluding road building, another big employer.

Secondly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promoted the car craze to bolster status-seeking middle-class political support. In the 1980s, the CCP supported a modest consumerism. But after the Tiananmen uprising in the spring of 1989, the government opted for expansive consumerism to placate the middle classes. Hence the car craze, followed by the airline craze, the shopping mall craze, the high-speed train craze, the foreign tourism craze, and so on. It is no small irony that just as the CCP was ramping up auto production and banning bicycles from public roads in the 1990s, European countries were moving in the opposite direction – barring cars from many central city streets, promoting bicycles and car sharing, and expanding public transit. China didn’t begin expanding its urban subways in earnest until the late 2000s, after two decades of automobilization had gridlocked its cities and dramatically increased air pollution.

Scene 2: The Roads Not Taken

As China was racing to surpass the US as the world’s largest car market, the Communist Party decided that China should also “catch up and overtake” the US interstate highway system as well. So by 2010 China built 53,000 miles of intercity expressways, exceeding the US interstate highway system’s 47,000 miles. But this program, built at huge cost and by tearing through cities and paving over thousands of square miles of valuable farms, wetlands and so on, is yet another ill-conceived boondoggle because except for a few highways near major cities like Beijing or Shenzhen, China’s expressways are often little used. In places, farmers dry their crops on empty super highways. McClatchy’s Beijing bureau chief Tom Lasseter writes under this picture:

Do you see any cars along this road? One often hears about the traffic jams in the big cities of China. But here’s the flip side of the coin: In rural towns and cities in China, local officials like to build big showcase projects, displaying grandiosity but little utility. I was in the city of Fengzhen in Inner Mongolia yesterday. By Chinese standards, it is a small place, maybe 200,000 people. So imagine my surprise as we leave the downtown to come across this eight-lane highway going past a mammoth new City Hall. Nary a car on it. A passerby could keel over with a stroke on that highway and not risk getting run over for many hours. The city is already in hot water for building a power plant that Beijing says is unneeded. Across China, there are plenty of largely empty hotels, brand new empty highways, modern airports that lose money for lack of traffic, etc. What happens is that unelected local officials, not particularly responsive to local needs, find that pharaonic projects give their municipalities a luster that can attract investment, which is their path to promotion within the one-party system. So for every eight-lane road you see like this, there is a happy bureaucrat pondering a bright career ahead. (11)

How much cement has been poured, how much iron rebar has been forged, and how much coal has been burned to produce the energy to pave over so much of China – for no useful purpose whatsoever?

Scene 3: Half-Empty Trains and Subways

And how much steel, aluminum, copper, cement and electricity have been consumed to build China’s huge national network of high-speed trains? The 12th Five-Year Plan budgeted hundreds of billions of dollars to build more than 16,000 miles of high-speed rails by 2020. By 2013, China had already built more high-speed trains than the rest of the world combined. But this too is more make-work and prestige project than modernizing necessity. High-speed trains are hugely expensive to build and operate and consume more than twice as much electricity to run as regular trains, so tickets can cost 10 times the price of regular train tickets in China. Since few Chinese people can afford such prices, the trains often run at half capacity or less. Chinese transportation experts say the government is throwing money away on bullet trains, money that could be better spent on regular railroads, especially cargo lines, and developing mass transit in and around cities. (12) New York University economist Nouriel Roubini told Reuters in 2011:

“I was recently in Shanghai and I took their high-speed train to Hangzhou,” he said, referring to the new Maglev line that has cut traveling time between the two cities to less than an hour from four hours previously.

“The brand new high-speed train is half-empty and the brand new station is three-quarters empty. Parallel to that train line, there is also a new highway that looked three-quarters empty. Next to the train station is also the new local airport of Shanghai and you can fly to Hangzhou,” he said.

“There is no rationale for a country at that level of economic development to have not just duplication but triplication of those infrastructure projects.” (13)

Duplication, triplication, overconstruction and waste is everywhere in China, even with subways. Twenty-two cities already have subway systems and money was budgeted in 2012 to build subways in another 16 by the end of 2018. Wang Mengshu, a subway engineer from the Chinese Academy of Engineering who helped design China’s first subway in Beijing in 1965, says these are completely unnecessary, too expensive, again more prestige projects than public service: “Second-, third-, fourth-tier cities … those cities don’t need to build subways. Even if they can afford to build them, they can’t afford to run them. But a lot of places think that if they have a subway, then they are a big city.” (14)

Scene 4: China as “Major Aerospace and Air-Travel Power”

The 12th Five-Year Plan grandiosely calls for a push to make China a “major aerospace and air-travel power.” Plans call for nearly a hundred new airports, thousands of new airliners, thousands of helicopters, business jets and small aircraft of all varieties. Boeing estimates Chinese carriers will need more than 5,260 new airliners – worth $670 billion – by 2031. (15) Great for Boeing. But not only did China not “need” this industry, it’s just suicidal for developing countries like China to repeat the same environmental mistakes as the West did.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculates that aviation is currently responsible for about 3.5 percent of anthropogenic climate change and says that if present trends continue this share will grow to between 5 percent and 15 percent by 2050 while the absolute contribution of aviation generated emissions will soar. Aviation is already the fastest growing source of global carbon dioxide emissions and if it continues to grow at its current rate it will overwhelm all the cuts engineers have managed to make elsewhere. (16) There are not currently nor are there on the horizon any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft. This is why after surveying the literature on potentials for greenhouse gas mitigation in other forms of transportation, environmental journalist George Monbiot concludes that while some forms of transport can be rendered a bit greener, there’s virtually nothing we can do with aviation with present or foreseeable technologies:

There is, in other words, no technofix. The growth in aviation and the need to address climate change cannot be reconciled. Given that [efficiency gains tend to be canceled out by growth] a 90 percent cut in emissions requires not only that growth stops, but that most of the planes which are flying today are grounded. I recognize that this will not be a popular message. But it is hard to see how a different conclusion could be extracted from the available evidence. (17)

In a world where climate scientists tell us we need to cut global carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent by 2050, global aviation emissions are on course to double by 2030. It will be suicidal to let this happen. Absent some technical miracle, the only way to suppress aviation emissions is to suppress the numbers of people jetting around the planet, not add hundreds of millions of Chinese to this jet set. Coming to grips with this reality may not be popular in China or the United States, but the alternative is not going to be popular either.

Scene 5: Construction Frenzies, Ghost Cities and the Mother of All Real Estate Bubbles

Yet none of the above compares with the resources squandered on the construction boom of recent decades. China’s construction juggernaut has been gobbling up China’s best peri-urban farmland, expelling tens of millions of farmers and urban residents and consuming staggering quantities of resources to build unneeded housing, shopping malls, industrial parks, office buildings, power plants and infrastructure in a country already bursting with overpopulated, polluted megacities. (18) Millions of urban residents were cleared out of Beijing and Shanghai, which were completely rebuilt with thousands of skyscrapers, apartment blocks, highways and shopping malls. (19) Cities and provinces compete to build cloud-piercing skyscrapers even if they have no prospective tenants for them.

In one village, 80 percent of the population is said to have died from pollution-induced cancers since 1991.

By 2020, 12 of the planet’s 20 tallest towers are expected to be in provincial cities like Shenyang, Wuhan and Suzhou. The office vacancy rate in Shenyang is nearly 30 percent, yet three more towers, all bigger than the Chrysler Building in New York City, are under construction, and another 12 are on the drawing boards. Beijing’s premier architectural atrocity, the Rem Koolhaas-designed CCTV tower – dubbed “Big Underpants” by the locals – sits nearly empty since it was built in 2008. Cities compete to build ersatz Wall Street “financial centers” as in Beijing (abandoned) and Tianjin (abandoned and unfinished). Stunningly lavish offices for cadres are built everywhere. China’s coast has multiple redundant ports, some nearly empty, but more are planned.

Since the 1980s, China has built enough new housing to re-house the entire population but the construction boom has become a self-sustaining, perpetual engine of construction for the sake of construction – supply with no demand. And there are not just miles of empty apartment blocks but entire “ghost cities” complete with office towers, hospitals, schools, futuristic airports, museums, universities, libraries, theaters, sports fields, and miles and miles of apartment towers and subdivisions of McMansions – but almost no people. (20) Twenty-one percent of China’s urban residents, the wealthy and middle classes, own two urban apartments, some own three or four – all bought for speculation, not to live in, not vacation homes. More than 22.4 percent of urban apartments and houses remained vacant in 2014.  (21) By one estimate, more than 64 million surplus apartments had been built in China, enough to house almost half the population of the United States, yet millions more are under construction. (22) Economists have warned that what China is really building is the biggest real estate bubble in history. CBS interviewed Wang Shi, CEO of China Vanke, China’s biggest homebuilder (which makes him the world’s biggest homebuilder), who told CBS’s Lesley Stahl that this can’t last, “this is a bubble, for sure.” When it bursts, “it will be a disaster, a disaster.” (23)

Scene 6: Tofu Construction

Construction is breathtakingly fast in China but it can also be breathtakingly sloppy, dangerous and destined to a short life span. That’s because China’s local building department regulators, like food safety and environment regulators, are subordinate to local officials who partner with and profit off the very construction companies the regulators are nominally supposed to regulate. In result, safety is often subordinated to speed and cost, with predictable results. The Chinese call it doufazha, “tofu” construction. Bridges collapse regularly. Between July 2011 and August 2012, eight major bridges collapsed. An Australian reporter counted four collapsed bridges in just nine days in July 2012. (24) High-speed railway bridges collapse. Buildings collapse. Some just topple over. Millions of peasants have been cleared off the land and dumped into “new towns” around cities where the shoddy new housing is already crumbing as the displaced farmers move in. In 2010, China’s Ministry of Housing admitted the low quality of construction and warned that “China’s newly-built houses can only last for 20 or 30 years.” (25) Have the Chinese invented disposable housing?

Officials call for tougher regulations but most Chinese blame corruption. Zhu Lijia, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance in Beijing, says bid rigging is the norm and there are no checks or balances on the procurement process. “We do have relevant laws regarding the bidding process, but there is a lack of enforcement. The bidding process is only a show.” A college student, Zeo Niu, interviewed by National Public Radio after a major bridge collapse in 2012, knew the system well. Her uncle runs a construction company in central China. She said using substandard material while charging for high-quality goods is routine. What really upsets her, she said, “is that so many projects collapse, people just become overwhelmed. ‘I will never remember those victims’ names in this accident, and people won’t remember it,’ Niu said. ‘It will all be buried by another accident.'” (26)

“Twenty More Years of Roaring Growth”?

In The Wall Street Journal of August 20, 2014, Justin Yifu Lin, an economist and close adviser to senior leaders in Beijing, stated that he’s confident China can sustain its recent 8 percent per year growth rate for the foreseeable future. He predicts “20 years of roaring growth” for China. Really? Where does Yifu think the resources are going to come from for this scale of consumption? As it happens, in 2011, the Earth Policy Institute at Columbia University calculated that if China keeps growing by around 8 percent per year, Chinese average per capita consumption will reach the current US level by around 2035. But to provide the natural resources for China’s 1.3 billion to consume on a per capita basis like the United States’ 330 million consume today, the Chinese – roughly 20 percent of the world’s population – will consume as much oil as the entire world consumes today. It would also consume more than 60 percent of other critical resources.

Production Consumption* Commodity Unit Consumption Latest Year Projected Consumption 2035
U.S. China China World
Grain Million Tons 338 424 1,505 2,191
Meat Million Tons 37 73 166 270
Oil Million Barrels per Day 19 9 85 86
Coal Million Tons of Oil Equivalent 525 1,714 2,335 3,731
Steel Million Tons 102 453 456 1,329
Fertilizer Million Tons 20 49 91 214
Paper Million Tons 74 97 331 394

*Projected Chinese consumption in 2035 is calculated assuming per-capita consumption will be equal to the current US level, based on projected GDP growth of 8 percent annually. Latest year figures for grain, oil, coal, fertilizer and paper are from 2008. Latest year figures for meat and steel are from 2010. Source: Earth Policy Institute, 2011

How can this happen? What would the rest of the world live on? Already, as resource analyst Michael Klare reviews in his latest book, The Race for What’s Left (2012), around the world existing reserves of oil, minerals and other resources “are being depleted at a terrifying pace and will be largely exhausted in the not-too-distant future.”

B. Airpocalypse Now

Decades of coal-powered industrialization combined with the government-promoted car craze since the 1990s have brought China the worst air pollution in the world. Scientists have compared north China’s toxic smog to a “nuclear winter” and the smog is also sharply reducing crop yields. Lung cancer is now the leading cause of death in Beijing and nationally pollution-induced lung disease is taking the lives of more than 1.2 million people a year. With 20 percent of the world’s population, China now burns as much coal as the rest of the world put together. Twenty of the world’s 30 smoggiest cities are in China.

As domestic food grows increasingly unsafe, alarmed middle-class Chinese strip supermarkets of imported food.

Ironically, China is also a “green technology” leader, the world’s largest producer of both windmills and solar panels. Yet in China these account for barely 1 percent of electricity generation. Coal presently supplies 69 percent of China’s total energy consumption; oil accounts for 18 percent; hydroelectric, 6 percent; natural gas, 4 percent; nuclear, less than 1 percent; and other renewables including solar and wind, 1 percent. (27)China currently burns 4 billion tons of coal a year; the US burns less than 1 billion; the European Union, about 0.6 billion. China has marginally reduced the carbon intensity of production in recent years by installing newer, more efficient power plants but these gains have been outstripped by relentless building of more power plants. To make matters worse, even when power plants are fitted with scrubbers to reduce pollution, operators often don’t turn on the scrubbers because these cut into their profits.

While government plans call for reducing coal’s share of the energy mix from 69 percent to 55 percent by 2040, it projects that China’s absolute coal consumption will still rise by more than 50 percent in the same period in line with China’s projected economic growth of around 7.7 percent per year. The World Health Organization considers air pollution above 25 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter (PM2.5) to be unsafe. China’s current national average is 75 micrograms but particulate levels in many cities average in the hundreds.

In the winter of 2013, China suffered from the worst air pollution in its history as half of the country, nearly the whole of northern and eastern China, was smothered in dense smog for weeks at a time. Smog alerts were called in 104 cities in 20 of China’s 30 provinces as schools and airports closed in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. In January, PM2.5 levels in Beijing reached 900 micrograms per cubic meter. As Beijing was choking in smog in the winter of 2013, Deutsche Bank analysts gloomily concluded that even if China’s economy slowed to 5 percent growth per year from it’s current 7.6 percent rate, coal consumption would still nearly double and China’s smog could increase by as much as 70 percent by 2030. (28)

China’s leaders thus face an intractable dilemma. They can’t keep growing the economy without consuming ever more coal, oil and gas. Yet the more fossil fuels they burn, the more uninhabitable China’s cities become, the more Chinese people flee the country, and the faster China’s emissions are driving global warming.

Cooking the Planet to Produce Junk No One Needs

China surpassed the United States in 2007 to become the world’s leading carbon dioxide emitter. By 2013, China’s emissions were already nearly double those of the US. The US Energy Information Administration calculates that even if China grows at only 5.7 percent per year, 2 percent less than its current rate and about half the average rate it grew over the past decade, its carbon dioxide emissions would still soar to almost 15 billion tons by 2040, almost triple that of the US. (29) By 2013, China’s per capita emissions surpassed those of Europe. With just 20 percent of the world’s population, China already accounts for almost 30 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Coal-to-Gas Bases Will Doom the Climate

Under pressure to reduce smog and greenhouse gas emissions but still maintain economic growth, the government has begun talking about putting a cap on coal emissions. But this cap would be pegged to expected growth and demand, so coal use is likely to continue rising for years. (30) Yet the most worrisome threat to reducing emissions comes from the government’s newest plan to “clean up its cities” by building dozens of huge “coal-gasification bases” in Shanxi, the Ordos Basin, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and other remote areas. These plants will burn coal directly to generate electricity in situ and convert coal to liquid fuels like “syngas” (like natural gas but from coal), which will then be transported to the cities to be burned in power plants, factories and cars.

These huge bases, some encompassing areas larger than the states of Delaware and Connecticut, will be the largest fossil fuel development projects in the world. And far from reducing coal use, scientists say, these complexes consume so much coal-fired energy to produce the syngas and other chemicals that they generate almost twice as much carbon dioxide emissions as if the coal were just directly burned in power plants. (31) Furthermore, water-intensive coal extraction in the new coal bases in northern and western provinces threatens to seriously aggravate China’s already severe water crisis in these regions. (32) And as if all this weren’t enough, the government has also declared its intention to develop “fracking” wherever possible in China. (33)

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculates that if we’re to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, humanity cannot add more than 880 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere before 2050. Collectively, we’ve already used up more than half of that “carbon budget” leaving us a remaining budget of just 349 billion gigatons. If China produces just 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, its current rate, with no growth whatsoever, it will still consume the entire carbon budget for the whole of humanity by itself by 2050.

C. Undrinkable Water, Poisoned Soils, Toxic Food

If the air is bad, the water is far worse. In a few decades of breakneck industrialization, the Chinese have managed to severely and irreversibly pollute most of the nation’s fresh water supplies with dire implications for public health. China’s fresh water sources are contaminated by pesticides, industrial chemicals, heavy metals and myriad other toxics. China’s largest rivers resemble vast open cesspools and for much of their length the banks are strewn with every imaginable kind of trash, and numberless outlet pipes spewing multiple toxics, dead fish, dead pigs and pigswill. Gushing pollutants turn long stretches of rivers bright red or purple or milky white or inky black. Sewage is routinely dumped mostly untreated in the nation’s rivers, the same rivers many cities take their drinking water from, imperiling the health of hundreds of millions. The government has built wastewater treatment facilities all over the country but most remain unused. (34)

These days China’s state sector has all the superficial trappings of a market economy.

China’s rivers suffer huge spills of all kinds of toxic chemicals – benzene, xanthogenate, analine – every year. In north China, the Yellow River “is a catastrophe” and the 300-odd rivers that drain the North China Plain “are open sewers if they are not completely dry” in the words of Ma Jun, China’s leading authority on the country’s water crisis. (35) According to a government report, the Yangtze River, the world’s third longest, is seriously and irreversibly polluted. Long stretches are said to be in “critical condition,” in places, too dangerous even to touch. Aquatic life has all but collapsed. Pollution and shipping wiped out China’s legendary Yangtze Baiji dolphin while even common carp “are gasping for survival.” (36) The 500-mile-long reservoir filling up behind the huge Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze qualifies as the world’s biggest cesspool. In some areas groundwater is being irreversibly polluted as textile dyeing mills and other factories, looking to avoid fines for dumping their effluents into rivers, instead drill and pump them into the earth. Some “use high-pressure pumps to discharge huge volumes of their wastewater directly underground.” According to one scientist, “deliberate, malicious waste discharge by factories has already become endemic.” (37)

The China Geological Survey reported in 2013 that 90 percent of the country’s groundwater is polluted, and 60 percent of it is “severely” polluted. A survey of 11 cities across China in 2012 indicated that 64 percent of water sources were severely polluted and 33 percent moderately polluted. Only 3 percent of sources could be graded as clean. (38) It’s difficult to overstate the dire implications of these practices: In China, groundwater is not only tapped for drinking water throughout rural China as well as in many cities, but over much of the country, especially the parched northern plains, this is the main source of water for farming.

Mass Production of “Cancer Villages”

China’s rivers have received many major toxic industrial chemical spills over the years. In September 2004, Jim Yardley of The New York Times reported on the situation in the Huai River basin, upstream from Shanghai, after a huge chemical spill created an 82-mile-long band of water that killed nearly every living thing and was too polluted even to touch. And the Huai, Yardley pointed out, was supposed to have been a government “success story.” (39) In April 2014, a major leak of benzene poisoned the drinking water for millions in Gansu Province.

Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, the government promoted the development of market-oriented “township and village industries” to promote growth and employment. These industries, the darlings of the World Bank and Western market-enthusiast academics, became notorious polluters. Foreign-invested special economic zone industries are also major polluters. (40) In the 1990s and 2000s, in response to growing anti-pollution protests in the cities, the government pushed dirty industries out of the cities and into the countryside and rural towns. This brilliant move resulted in horrific contamination of whole rural regions and the mass production of “cancer villages” where extraordinary numbers of inhabitants are dying from intestinal, liver and other cancers caused by ingesting toxic water and food.

Nongovernmental organizations count at least 459 villages spread across every province except far-western Qinghai and Tibet. In one village, 80 percent of the population is said to have died from pollution-induced cancers since 1991. (41) There are villages where almost every child is lead-poisoned. (42) Dumping of toxic chemicals and heavy metals extends even to remote corners of China. In neo-tropical Yunnan Province, investigators have found “rampant chromium dumping” polluting rice paddies and drinking water.

The Damage Done

The problem with water pollution, unlike air pollution, is that it doesn’t disappear once the dumping stops. Heavy metals and other contaminants don’t easily break down or wash away. They can be very long-lived and can’t really be “cleaned up.” (43) Once groundwater is polluted, there’s just no possible remediation. This means that extensive areas of China’s farmland, especially in the north, are effectively doomed. (44) This is taking a huge toll on the health of Chinese people as well as non-human life forms and poses a mortal threat to the entire society. Elizabeth Economy, author of The Rivers Run Black (2007), writes that “Less well documented [than air pollution] but potentially even more devastating is the health impact of China’s polluted water. Today, fully 190 million Chinese are sick from drinking contaminated water. All along China’s major rivers, villages report skyrocketing rates of diarrheal diseases, cancer, tumors, leukemia, and stunted growth.” (45)

The Bad Earth and Toxic Foods

China’s farmlands are extensively polluted with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, heavy metals, sewage sludge and innumerable industrial toxics. Much of this comes from polluted irrigation water. In places, even industrial wastewater has been used to irrigate farms when local wells have dried up or are themselves too polluted to use. In December 2013, the Ministry of Land and Resources reported that 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres – roughly the area of Belgium) of China’s farmland is too polluted to grow crops on and researchers said that “as much as 70 percent” of China’s farmland could be contaminated to some degree. (46) In April 2014, the government reported that almost 20 percent of the country’s arable land, 10 percent of its woodlands and 10 percent of its grassland soils were seriously polluted with heavy metals, such as cadmium, mercury, arsenic, lead, chromium, zinc and nickel plus inorganic compounds including DDT. The survey, carried out between 2006 and 2010, but suppressed for four years as a state secret out of fear of public outrage, summed up the nation’s farmland situation as “grim”(yanjun). (47)

Shocking as this is for a nation that must try to feed 20 percent of the world’s population on 7 percent of the world’s arable land, environmentalists suspect the published figures understate the true extent of soil contamination. (48) In November 2014, the government conceded that 40 percent of the nation’s farmland is degraded from acidification, pollution and erosion, and the government “is growing increasingly concerned about its food supply after years of rapid industrialization resulted in widespread pollution of waterways and farmland.” (49)

Life in the Communist Party is not so different from life in the mafia.

In May 2013, the Food and Drug Administration of Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, reported that 40 percent of the rice tested at restaurants that spring was contaminated with cadmium, a highly toxic heavy metal than can cause bone disease, cancer and other illnesses. Since extensive national testing has not yet been done for this or other contaminants, there is concern that such pollution is widespread. Fish (and fishermen) have also been found to have high levels of cadmium, mercury and lead. (50)

To add further insult to consumers, deliberate food adulteration, contamination and fakery is rife in China. In 2008, public anger erupted after the government reported that tens of thousands of children were at risk of kidney stones and other organ damage from milk powder mixed with melamine, a chemical used to deceive protein tests. At least six infants died from illnesses linked to the tainted powder, which sickened more than 300,000 children.

Despite repeated government crackdowns, food contamination is severe and growing in China. As domestic food grows increasingly unsafe, alarmed middle-class Chinese strip supermarkets of imported food and Chinese tourists clear out the shelves of baby formula from New Zealand to Holland to pack and take home in their suitcases. Public alarm is also driving up food imports, which in turn is driving up world food prices. (51) For the first time in its history, China now imports more grain than it produces. This is bad news not only for China’s basic food security but also for natural resources around the world as China’s demand for soybeans, corn, wheat and other grains is leveling forests from Africa to the Amazon.

What’s Going on Here?

Why is it that the same government that has lifted the living standards of more people – millions – faster than any other nation in history, that has built the world’s largest high-speed rail network, the largest airports, longest bridges, skyscrapers by the hundreds and whole cities practically overnight, can’t guarantee safe drinking water or food or medicines or breathable air to its citizens? Why can’t it enforce its own environmental regulations, or its own building codes? Why can’t it stop its own local governments from squandering money building unneeded housing, airports and rail lines? Why is it that the same ruthless police state that so proficiently crushes dissent and censors the internet can’t stop producers, even state-owned companies, from making lead-paint-coated toys, poisoned milk and baby formula, and toxic meat and dumplings, and can’t suppress corruption in its own officials? The answer to all these questions is to be found in the nature, contradictions and tendencies of China’s hybrid bureaucratic collectivist-capitalist economic system.

II. A Political Economy

China’s rulers preside over the largest and most dynamic economy in the world, a powerhouse of international trade whose state-owned conglomerates count among the largest companies in the world. They profit immensely from their state-owned enterprises’ (SOEs) market returns. But they’re not capitalists, at least not with respect to the state-owned economy. Communist Party members don’t own individual SOEs or shares in state companies like private investors. They collectively own the state, which owns most of the economy. They’re bureaucratic collectivists who run a largely state-planned economy that also produces extensively for the market. But producing for the market is not the same thing as capitalism. (52)

Three of the top 10 2014 Fortune Global 500 corporations are Chinese. But they’re not owned by Chinese capitalists. They’re owned by the Chinese government. James McGregor notes, “Of the sixty-nine companies from mainland China in the Fortune Global 500 in 2012, only seven were not SOEs … [and all of these seven] companies have received significant government assistance and most count government entities among their shareholders.” Thirty-five years after the introduction of market reforms, China’s government still owns and controls the commanding heights of the economy: banking, large-scale mining and manufacturing, heavy industry, metallurgy, shipping, energy generation, petroleum and petrochemicals, heavy construction and equipment, atomic energy, aerospace, telecommunications, vehicles (often in partnership with Western companies), aircraft manufacture, airlines, railways, biotechnology, military production and more. Plus all the land and natural resources: There is no private property in China.

“Families benefited from their control of state companies, amassing private wealth as they embraced the market economy.”

In key industries SOEs own and control between 75 and 100 percent of assets including 96.2 percent of telecom, 91.6 percent of power generation, 76.6 percent of petroleum and petrochemicals, 76.2 percent of airlines, 74 percent of autos, and so on. China’s banks are 100 percent state-owned (though there are some private equity firms). (53) In the words of James McGregor, “SOEs monopolize or dominate all significant sectors of the economy and control the entire financial system. Party leaders deploy the SOEs to build and bolster the economy – and undergird the Party’s monopoly political control. The private sector provides a lubricant for growth and the opportunity for people to become rich as long as they support the Party.” (54) SOEs together with local government-owned urban collective and township and village industries currently account for 50 percent of China’s current non-farm GDP. Foreign-invested joint ventures account for about 30 percent of non-farm GDP (though Chinese partners of larger joint ventures, like auto assembly, are mostly SOEs). China’s indigenous private sector accounts for about 20 percent of non-farm GDP. (55)

SOEs resemble capitalist corporations but they’re not driven by the same motor of market competition; they don’t face the same incentives and penalties as capitalist firms, at least not to the same extent, and they’re not run like capitalist companies. (56) These days China’s state sector has all the superficial trappings of a market economy: corporations, CEOs, IPOs, stock markets and so on. The Ministry of Petroleum is now called China National Petroleum Corporation. Baoshan Iron and Steel now calls itself Baosteel Group Corp. and so on. But SOEs aren’t “corporations.”

Dozens of Chinese SOEs have held IPO listings on the New York Stock Exchange and China’s own toy stock markets in Shenzhen and Shanghai. But the government won’t allow its companies to be bought and sold. It will only permit a minority of shares, not more than 25 percent, and only non-voting shares at that, to be traded on the market. As one expert put it “the Chinese government is the only shareholder that counts.” (57) Lots of SOEs produce some or most of their output for the market. State Grid produces power for, besides China (where it has a monopoly), Singapore and Australia, and is developing facilities in the Philippines and Portugal. But State Grid does not answer to shareholders or boards. China’s SOEs are not run by boards of directors and elected CEOs. They don’t have boards of directors. And their CEOs and senior management are all appointed by the Communist Party. All Chinese state “corporations” have Communist Party secretaries who without exception outrank the enterprise CEOs. (58)

To be sure, China has a vast capitalist market economy side-by-side with the state sector. Thousands of real, foreign corporations operate in China today: Apple, Toyota, Audi, GM, Samsung, Procter & Gamble, Walmart, even the Avon lady. And China has plenty of homegrown entrepreneurs and privately owned businesses. China is said to have more than a million US-dollar millionaires and at least 89 billionaires. The private sector includes sizeable companies like Baidu (the internet search giant that dominates the China market since Google left), Tencent (instant messaging), Jack Ma’s Alibaba, real estate developers like Dalian Wanda Group and China Vanka, food processors like Wahaha Corp., insurance companies, and others. But these are not the core of the economy. China’s biggest private company by valuation, Alibaba, doesn’t produce anything at all; like eBay it just connects sellers with buyers. Most of China’s private businesses are small, on average less than half the size of SOEs, and the vast majority are even smaller. They include thousands of small coal mines, thousands of local construction companies, some small steel mills, textile and garment industries, shoemakers, retail shops and supermarkets, restaurants, self-employed truckers, family businesses and the like.

“Get Rich and You’ll Get Audited”

The Communist Party keeps its domestic capitalists on a short leash. Successful entrepreneurs soon find they need a state “partner,” or the government sets up its own competitors to suppress them, or they suffer forced buyouts. Those who cross the Party disappear and their property is seized, and worse. (59) Those whose names appear on Forbes’ list of the world’s wealthiest citizens or the Hong Kong Hunrun Rich List sometimes vanish without a trace. Chinese people call these the “pig-killing lists.” Middle-class Chinese speculate on apartments and suburban villas but the land they sit on is state-owned. Indeed, even title to the apartments and villas they’ve bought is never really secure because these can easily be seized by the state on a whim, with no recourse.

It’s been estimated that in the last three decades more than 60 million Chinese farmers and urban residents have been summarily evicted from their homes and farms to make way for government development projects of all sorts across the country. More than a million and a half farmers and townsfolk were evicted to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. Several million residents of Beijing were evicted to shabby satellite towns while their ancient Beijing homes, some dating back to the Ming dynasty, were leveled to make way for shopping malls, apartment towers and Olympic sports stadiums. (60) In such a system, arbitrary political power and generalized insecurity condition every aspect of life, even within the ruling Party itself – especially within the ruling Party.

A. Beijing’s Game of Thrones

China’s ruling class is the nomenklatura, the upper ranks of the 86-million-member Chinese Communist Party. Since the victory of the revolution in 1949, China has been run by the party-army-bureaucratic aristocracy, the leaders of which reside behind the walls of the Zhongnanhai complex adjacent to the Forbidden City. (61) In the 1950s, they nationalized the economy, divided up government administrative and economic management posts among themselves and centralized all surplus extraction. Today, this state-owned economy is run by their children and will soon be run by their grandchildren.

Since Mao’s death in 1976, the inner circle of the ruling “red families” have been headed up by the so-called “Eight Immortals”: Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun (the CCP’s leading economic planner), Wang Zhen, Li Xiannian (PRC president), Peng Zhen (NPC Congress chair), Song Renqiong (party personnel chief), Yang Shangkun (PRC president), and Bo Yibo (vice premier and last of the eight to die at 98 in 2007). (62)As the elders retired and died off they entrusted the reins of power to their children, the “princeling” (taizi dang) sons and daughters of the first generation of communist rulers. Since the bad old days when Mao and his Gang of Four dispatched their rivals to rot in dungeons, or shot Lin Biao’s plane out of the sky to prevent his escape to Moscow, the Communist Party has made every effort to present a public façade of leadership unity and discipline and portray its internal workings as “regularized” with “collective leadership,” “10-year rotations” of “presidents” and “prime ministers,” “mandatory retirement of senior officials at 65” and so on. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A study released in February 2015 declared that living in China’s cities is “as deadly as smoking.”

Today, as in Mao’s day, CCP internal political machinations resemble nothing so much as The Godfather or “Game of Thrones.” And how could it be otherwise? In the absence of the rule of law, without elections to choose government representatives, without inner-party democracy, without constitutional procedures to regularize succession to office, without an independent judiciary, justice department, attorney generals and police to systematically prosecute and punish corrupt politicians, in such a system, no one owns their office, position or job on the basis of merit, professional qualification, fixed-year terms or enforceable contracts. Every cadre’s personal and political security depends, above all, on the strength of his/her guanxi: his connections and relationships with networks of allies, their patrons above, their supporters below and especially to families, clans and factions.

From the days of Mao’s purges of “capitalist roaders” Lin Biao, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, to Deng Xiaoping’s own purge of the Maoist Gang of Four, to Jiang Zemin’s purge of “counterrevolutionaries” Zhao Ziyang, Bao Tong et al. in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen uprising, to current President Xi Jinping’s show trials of  “corrupt” rival Bo Xilai (son of Bo Yibo) and his persecution of powerful opponents in the oil faction and secret police led by Zhou Yongkang, the Chinese Communist Party’s internal political dramas differ little from the treacherous, fratricidal power struggles of the Corleones, Barzinis and Straccis of The Godfather or the bloody feudal wars of the Starks, Tullys and Boltons for supremacy in Westeros. As in “Game of Thrones,” China’s communists are embroiled in nonstop faction building, never-ending intrigue and infighting, and treacherous factional struggles while the paramount leader du jour‘s claim to the red throne in Zhongnanhai is never completely secure. (63)

President Xi Jinping came into office in 2012 on a campaign vowing to “swat tigers and flies alike.” Xi had been brought in to replace the disgraced Shanghai Mayor Chen Liangyu on the strength of his anticorruption campaigns in Zhejian Province where he once told an anti-graft conference: “Rein in your spouses, children, relatives and friends and staff, and vow not to use power for personal gain.” (64) But Xi is just as corrupt as all the rest, and just as thuggish.

Xi once remarked that as a young man he liked to watch The Godfather. Yu Jie, an exiled author of numerous critical books on China, titled his latest book, Godfather of China Xi Jinping (still awaiting publication as of March 2015). Yu told The New York Times that the film was Xi’s political study guide: “The Communist Party is China’s biggest mafia, and the party boss Xi Jinping is the godfather of China.” As if to confirm Yu’s thesis, when he tried to publish the book in Hong Kong, one publisher was arrested in Shenzhen and disappeared. A second prospective publisher received a threatening phone call from Beijing telling him that the book “absolutely cannot be published” and if he publishes it, “your personal safety and the safety of your family cannot be guaranteed” so he immediately dropped the project.

Life in the Communist Party is not so different from life in the mafia: It’s a constant, treacherous and highly dangerous nonstop factional struggle between crime family-based groupings in struggle with one another over top offices and treasure. The key to safety is building unshakable vertical and horizontal networks of support and protection – of guanxi. And the key to solidifying those networks is sharing the loot from corruption. As political scientist Minxin Pei put it: “If your patrons do not protect you, you’re toast … Corruption is the glue that keeps the party stuck together.” (65)

B. Grabbing the Brass Ring: Gangster Capitalism and the Necessity of Corruption

China’s economy mirrors its politics. China’s communist party-state has grown immensely wealthy over the past three decades from rivers of income flowing in from huge state monopolies like Sinopec (China Petroleum), State Grid, Bank of China, China Telecom, from taxing export foreign exchange earnings, and more. But the question is, how is this loot shared out among the ruling class of China, the “gang” of 86 million Communist Party members? In capitalist economies, this is entirely formalized and regularized. One’s wealth is based on property, cash in the bank, stock ownership and such – all secured by the rule of law, enforceable contracts, an impersonal state, independent judiciary and the police. But China has none of this. Cadres don’t privately own SOEs; they don’t own shares in SOEs.

Yet we know from multiple sources including trials of corrupt officials, revelations about secret offshore bank accounts, records of foreign property purchases, and especially from recent headline exposés in The New York Times and Bloomberg News on the wealth of China’s leading “princelings” including former and current heads of state, that China’s Communist Party cadres have gotten gloriously rich by way of market reforms. (66) The New York Times calculated that former Premier Wen Jiabao was worth at least $2.7 billion when he retired in 2012, all secreted under the names of close relatives. (67) As Xi Jinping climbed the party ranks, his extended family got rich in minerals, real estate and mobile-phone equipment. Today, his family is worth at least $376 million, again, with virtually all of it listed in the names of his close relatives rather than his own.

Markets and the Mother of All Moral Hazards

When Deng Xiaoping rejected Maoism and told the Chinese that now it was OK, even  “glorious to get rich,” he faced an immediate problem: To get marketization rolling, he urged the cadres to promote private businesses and joint-ventures with foreign investors, to “jump into the sea of commerce” as he said in his famous “southern tour” of Shenzhen in 1992. Deng’s market reforms thus presented the personally penniless but functionally all-powerful CCP cadres with the mother of all moral hazards. China’s reintroduction of capitalism presented the cadres with a once-in-an-epoch opportunity to grab the brass ring, to get rich, really rich, and fast. The party-state owned all land, resources and industries, and controlled the banks and pension funds, foreign trade and currency exchange, courts, police and everything else. The problem was that the only ways to profit from this were all illegal: bribery, smuggling, influence peddling, embezzling money from state industries, profiting from guandao (reselling state-owned raw materials and commodities on the free market at huge markups), asset stripping, currency manipulation, money laundering and so on.

Risky, but how could they resist? Far from resisting, they led the way in what exiled economist He Qinglian called “the marketization of power.” (68) Besides, since there was no independent judicial system, it was left to the party officials to police themselves. The very people who stood to gain the most from the coming market boom were supposed to refrain from self-dealing. Even so, the breadth and brazenness of corruption grew slowly at first. Looking back to the 1980s, Bao Tong, a senior party official arrested and imprisoned as a “counterrevolutionary” during the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown told Bloomberg News in December 2013: “A bottle of Moutai, two cartons of Chunghwa cigarettes – corruption was no more than that at the beginning…. Now an enterprise worth 10 billion yuan can be purchased with 1 billion. This would have been appalling to people back then.” (69)

“It Doesn’t Matter Who Owns the Money; It Only Matters Who Gets to Use It”

Today, the buffet of benefits available to the upper ranks includes extravagant state-provided housing, posh offices, fleets of limousines, access to state-owned vacation villas, travel and plenty of pocket change to spend on fine French wines, Rolexes, Louis Vuitton handbags and the rest. At the top, princelings are often heads of giant conglomerates, which themselves own dozens or even hundreds of individual SOEs. Presumably this gives them access to multiple income streams and ample opportunities to plunder the government’s ever-growing treasure. Princeling Bo Xilai didn’t send his son Guagua to Harrow, Oxford and Harvard, and buy him Porsches, Ferraris and fancy apartments in Oxford and Cambridge, Massachusetts, on his official salary.

Even China’s leaders complain that China’s “governments at all levels” had turned the state’s banks into “ATMs for officials and official businessmen.” (70) As one SOE boss put it: “It doesn’t matter who owns the money; it only matters who gets to use it.” (71) As individuals, they loot according to their rank, positions and guanxi. And of course, who gets to use exactly what is shrouded in secrecy. Financial Times Beijing bureau chief Richard McGregor quotes a businessman jailed on corruption charges who said: “Every official has three lives. Their public life, their private life, and their secret life.” (72)

In the boom years of the 1990s and 2000s in China’s ruling class, taking their cue from New York banksters who were becoming their partners and backers, corruption flourished on a previously unimagined scale. They siphoned huge sums from state banks, SOEs and ministries. They looted pension funds and state charities. They’ve profited from illegal arms sales and smuggling. They made vast fortunes in real estate evicting millions of farmers and selling their land to developers. They made more fortunes taking cuts from listing Chinese companies on the New York Stock Exchange. In all this, the “princeling” children and grandchildren of the “Eight Immortals” have led the way.

“The anticorruption push is more of a Stalinist purge than a genuine attempt to clean up the government.”

In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun and the other aging revolutionary generation leaders entrusted their children to run the new market-oriented state conglomerates like CITIC, China Poly Group (arms, African oil, etc.). Deng’s daughter Deng Rong and her brother Deng Zhifang were among the first to go into real estate in the 1990s. As Bloomberg reported in its investigative report on the 103 children and grandchildren of the Eight Immortals, “Families benefited from their control of state companies, amassing private wealth as they embraced the market economy. Forty-three of the 103 ran their own business or became executives in private firms … The third generation – grandchildren of the Eight Immortals and their spouses, many of whom are in their 30s and 40s – have parlayed family connections and overseas education into jobs in the private sector.” Others took over state-sector conglomerates and SOEs.

Twenty-six of the heirs of just these eight revolutionary leaders ran or held top positions in big SOEs: “Three children alone – General Wang’s son, Wang Jun, Deng’s son-in-law, He Ping; and Chen Yuan, the son of Mao’s economic tsar – headed or still run state-owned companies with combined assets of about $1.6 trillion in 2011. (73) Deng’s son-in-law Wu Jianchang got himself appointed head of numerous metals companies and then became, conveniently, minister of metallurgy. Deng’s grandson Zhuo Su got himself appointed head of a company that bought into an Australian iron ore business. Wang Jun, the revolutionary general’s son, set up a huge conglomerate, Poly Group, with Deng Xiaoping’s son-in-law He Ping, another general. Chen Yun installed his son Chen Yuan as head of the giant state-owned China Development Bank with assets of more than $1 trillion. His sister, Chen Xiaodan, worked at Morgan Stanley in New York, set up her own private equity firm, and worked with her father’s China Development Bank to support Chinese firms investing abroad in Europe and elsewhere.

Wang Zhi, General Wang’s third son, “borrowed” 300,000 yuan from his employer, the Ministry of Electronics, to set up his own company building personal computers, eventually partnering with Bill Gates to develop a Chinese version of Windows software. As Yang Dali of the University of Chicago put it, “The entire country was in business – the Party, the military, the courts, the prosecutor’s office, the police…. Insiders could get rich very quickly.” And “[w]hen the top is corrupt, this is how it will be all the way down,” said Dai Qing, China’s leading environmental activist who herself grew up in the Zhongnanhai compound with the princelings after being adopted by a famous general. (74) Bloomberg reports that, when he was lying in a hospital bed in 1990, hardline Maoist Gen. Wang Zhen (1908-1993) told a visitor that he felt betrayed by his own children. Decades after he had risked his life fighting for an egalitarian utopia, his children were only interested in getting rich: “Turtle eggs,” he said to the visiting well-wisher, using a slang term for bastards. “I don’t recognize them as my sons.” (75)

Getting the Loot Out of China

International banking connections also have been key to the princelings’ strategy of getting their loot out of China. Over the years, it has been estimated that princelings and other high cadres, cronies and capitalists have funneled $1-4 trillion in unreported assets out of the country since 2000. Credit Suisse, PricewaterhouseCoopers and UBS – Western banks with notorious experience in sheltering US and other tax evaders – set up secret companies and accounts for at least 21,000 Chinese in Caribbean tax havens including for Wen Yunsong, Wen Jiabao’s son. High cadres, their relatives and other rich guys fly suitcases of money to North America, Australia, Caribbean havens and other friendly destinations. (76)

In February 2014, it was reported that more than 45,000 (!) Chinese millionaireshad queued up in Vancouver, British Columbia, to get investor residence visas in return for five-year, interest-free loans to the Canadian government. In the US, 80 percent of the government’s EB-5 investor program visas are going to wealthy ex-mainland Chinese; in Australia, it’s nine out of 10. At least 18 of the Eight Immortals’ descendants own or run entities registered in the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Liberia and other secret offshore tax havens. (77) Bo Yibo’s wife Gu Kailai, convicted in 2012 of murdering her British business partner, controlled a web of businesses from Beijing to the Caribbean worth at least $126 million and stashed many of her assets with her sister in places like the British Virgin Islands, according to Bloomberg. (78) So it goes.

C. Implications, Tendencies, Consequences

This structural arrangement of bureaucratic/gangster capitalist power and property has given China’s economy a radically different pattern and trajectory of economic development from normal capitalism anywhere in the West. We can specify at least the following broad systemic tendencies in this hybrid economic system:

1. Priority to the state-owned economy: Shocked and riveted by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and especially the communist debacle in the USSR, Deng Xiaoping and his successors have been determined to avoid such a fate by maintaining state control over the commanding heights of the economy, avoiding substantial privatization and limiting the internal market, as noted above. That’s why the maximand of China’s SOEs is not profit maximization. Their maximand is the security, wealth and power of the Chinese Communist Party and that’s not the same thing. The Bank of China, China Development Bank, the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China and other huge state banks sit at the apex of China’s economy and count among the Global Fortune 500 largest companies. But unlike Citibank or HSBC, their job isn’t to make money. Their job is to lose money – or more precisely, to disburse it.

It’s often said that in the transition to capitalism China’s market reformers “abandoned central planning.” That’s an exaggeration. They reduced the scope of indicative planning but they did not abandon planning the state sector; they monetized it. Instead of issuing physical output targets à la Stalin and Mao, they direct most of the state economy by writing checks: by ordering state banks to disburse funds to support the production goals of the state plans (though they still set physical targets for some items – kilometers of rails, kilometers of roads, tons of wheat and cotton etc., as noted above). In the 1990s, the government leased out, sold off or closed down thousands of small unprofitable SOEs producing consumer goods including wood and leather products, furniture, building materials, garments, food products and the like. Dispensing with these, the government concentrated on restructuring, modernizing, expanding and diversifying the state’s SOEs. (79)

The government also expanded the state sector by establishing entirely new industries: consumer appliances, solar and wind power, biotech, high-speed trains, passenger aircraft, IT and others. But instead of assigning production targets for quantities of Geely cars, Suntech solar panels or China National Railways (CNR) high-speed trains, they allocate funds via state banks to support state-owned industries like CNR and to establish and support state-private joint ventures like Suntech and Geely. Since the 1990s, China’s SOEs, and the entire state industrial sector, have grown enormously. Whereas in the 1970s, China’s SOEs counted for almost nothing in the world economy, today, China’s “national champions” Sinopec, China National Petroleum and State Grid Corporation rank among the 10 largest companies by revenue in the 2014 Fortune 500.

Prioritizing the state sector means that the government often finds it rational to subvert its own market reforms to protect state interests: So when the head of a major state-owned conglomerate was removed for embracing market economics too enthusiastically, a Beijing University expert on China’s state-enterprises commented: “There’s a system in place, not just one person. The party’s appointee draws his position from patronage … and the task is to engage with state leaders and safeguard government assets, not to maximize profits.” (80) This is why the government enforces SOE monopolies regardless of efficiency, why it limits Western investor ownership share in joint ventures, why it bars Western firms from investing in key industries, and why it directs its huge sovereign wealth fund mainly to invest in the resource extraction industries China needs to fuel its national economic development even though global resource prices and resource industry profits have both been falling since 2008. (81) This is all in the collective interest of China’s state-based ruling class.

Yet at the same time, individually, princelings and well-placed cadres are simultaneously conniving, like the gangsters they are, to privatize pieces of the state-owned economy and to sell them at huge discounts to themselves, their relatives and partners, usually via private investment banks that have their real owners concealed behind multiple layers of paper and shell companies. Cadres also funnel money out of SOE profits to buy businesses and properties in the West. SOE overseas companies open still other opportunities to privately pocket profits earned overseas before they’re sent back to China. It can’t be ruled out that such trends could eventually lead to a broad selloff of state assets à la Poland. But for the present, the party seems determined to protect the state-owned economy rather than let it collapse and be sold off and privatized.

2. Hypergrowth drivers: incentives without penalties: China’s SOEs, as we noted, don’t live or die on the basis of their performance in the market. Lots of SOEs are inefficient but because many are also monopolies, they can still be gold mines. (82) As one official observed, “the overall economy has been so good that even pretty stupid SOEs could do well without much effort.” (83) Broke, indebted, inefficient or not, so long as their SOEs are in-plan, and especially if they’ve been designated “key” or “strategic” or “pillar” industries like coal, oil, autos, aerospace, biotech, high-speed rail or some other priority, SOE managers could assume that they would never be forced out of business regardless of their economic performance and generally speaking they have not been.

In result, SOE managers have had the best of both worlds: They have every incentive to borrow and spend, especially on capital construction (including those palatial offices to run the operations), but they face little or no threat of discipline for excess or failure. Given the profit-sharing arrangement between the center and the SOEs, for SOE bosses, it’s capitalism when the SOE is making money but socialism when it needs a government bailout. This is the main driver of “blind growth” across the economy and this can be expected to continue.

3. Hypergrowth drivers: job creation: In capitalist economies, neither individual companies nor governments are obliged to create jobs, though in extreme circumstances like the Great Depression, governments have set up jobs programs to keep the peace. But in China, in the old Maoist bureaucratic collectivist system, the government was the only employer, so it had to employ everyone because there was nowhere else to find work. In Mao’s day, successive generations of workers were simply assigned to work units (danwei) with the result that China’s industries and government offices were often abundantly overstaffed. But with the turn to the market, the government abolished guaranteed employment in the mid-1990s and SOEs laid off some 50 million superfluous workers in the 1990s to make their industries more efficient.

By then however, many excessed workers could find jobs in the new parallel market economy while others were forced into retirement on subsistence pensions. The destruction of millions of state jobs with state benefits provoked widespread protests and unrest in the late 1990s and early 2000s. To contain this unrest, and also to keep up with China’s relentless population growth, the government has been forced to spend heavily on wave after wave of WPA-like, make-work capital construction projects across the country since the 1990s, even if much of what got built was unneeded, as noted above. Given the special threat that extensive unemployment poses to a nominally workers state, this pattern of make-work overproduction and overdevelopment can be expected to continue.

4. Collective property weakens efforts to reduce pollution: Collective ownership means that even with its police-state dictatorship, the center can’t always enforce its will against lower-level officials because those local, country, provincial, ministerial officials, SOE bosses and so on are more partners with Beijing in their joint ownership of the national economy than strictly subordinates. They all have their own guanxi networks to defend their turf and promote their own interests in contravention of central initiatives when it suits their purposes. This is why central efforts to restrain pollution tend to be subverted or defeated by local officials whose overriding concern is to keep the economic engines running regardless of the smog.

China has comprehensive environmental legislation on the books. It has its own Environmental Protection Agency equivalent, the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). It has a State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) and other regulatory agencies. But the evidence everywhere is that regulation is largely a failure. (84) Here and there SEPA has managed to enforce some cleanups and shutdowns of some conspicuous polluters, usually smaller operations. But more often than not, SEPA regulators are powerless against polluters because environmental protection officers are subordinate to and even paid by local officials who profit from and generate jobs in the same polluting industries SEPA wants to suppress. (85)

In her documentary Under the Dome, Chai Jing asks Ding Yan, the director of the government’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) Vehicular Pollution Research Institute, about why his agency doesn’t force China’s vehicle manufacturers to stop selling trucks with fake National Standard 4 emission stickers certifying that the vehicles meet the highest emissions standards when in fact they only meet the lowest National Standard 1. “If you (the MEP) assert you have legal authority, no one can deny that, so why not just execute the law?” Ding told her that regardless of the law, his agency had no real power to enforce it: “Nowadays, I don’t dare open my mouth out of fear that [the polluters] will see that I have no teeth” (at 48:19).

Since the highly personalized and politicized state can’t rely on the rule of law, independent courts and police to enforce its environmental regulations, the government has to resort to “campaigns” to enforce environmental compliance. But this approach is hopelessly ineffectual. Beijing issues big directives, sends inspectors around and fines the polluting companies. But as often as not local government partners just pay the fines, or block regulators from shutting down the polluters, or let the regulators shut them down but then let the companies reopen under a new name. If all else fails, there’s always bribery. MEP officials are regularly bribed to let polluters continue operations. (86)

A year after Xi Jinping launched his “war on pollution,” the official press describes Beijing as “all but unlivable.” A study released in February 2015 declared that living in China’s cities is “as deadly as smoking.” (87) The government’s ambitious plans to improve water quality and safety have likewise failed. The 12th Five-Year Plan goal of “completely solving rural drinking water issues” by the end of 2015 “will not be met, and some villages are going backward because of scarcity and pollution.” Urban water safety has not improved and even bottled water is often contaminated. (88)

Moreover, the center itself is conflicted about enforcing its own pollution regulations because the central government, as much as local governments, needs to maximize growth to meet its plan targets and maintain employment to keep the peace. So while it talks about cracking down on pollution, more often than not Beijing also has to prioritize job creation over environmental protection. (89) Therefore, so long as there is no real separation of powers, these trends can be expected to continue and China’s pollution problems will remain essentially unsolvable.

5. Bureaucratic particularism and competition drive redundancy and overinvestment: SOE bosses, and local, provincial and ministerial officials may not face market competition in the same way and to the same extent as capitalist firms, but they face intense bureaucratic competition for access to resources and appropriations from the center. This particularistic intra-ruling class struggle over access to state funds also shapes the broad pattern of China’s economic development, powering tendencies to redundancy, duplication, irrational investment and waste throughout the economy. Thus, in his book on China’s growing airline industry, James Fallows writes:

Foreign reports often present these projects as carefully coordinated expressions of China’s larger ambitions for a modern transportation system and to an extent they are. But there is also bitter bureaucratic and commercial rivalries between the airline and railroad interests within China, each seizing on any opportunity to argue that it reflected the wiser and more farsighted use of the country’s resources. (90)

In China’s hybrid economic system, generally speaking, officials can only profit from their own units – their localities, ministries and SOEs. Cadres can’t buy shares in SOEs anywhere in the economy like in capitalism. No cadre in Sichuan can invest in and profit off of state-owned industries in Shanghai or Shenzhen. So if Sichuan officials wanted to profit from Premier Wen Jaibao’s call at the launching of the 12th Five-Year Plan, to “enhance China’s automobile manufacturing capability,” their only way to do was to build auto plants in their own province. And that’s what happens. That’s why China has more than 130 auto plants, thousands of power plants (one for every three square kilometers in Jiangsu province), roads and bridges to nowhere, more than 30 airlines, near-empty airports everywhere, more than 800 shipyards, redundant ports, redundant “world financial centers,” redundant shopping malls and ghost cites, with all the waste those entail. These tendencies are, again, built into the bureaucratic collectivist nature of this economic system and will continue as long as this system is in effect.

6. Rampant, ineradicable corruption: Anticorruption campaigns have been a feature of CCP inner-party struggles since long before the founding of the People’s Republic. They reached their apogee of hysteria in Mao Zedong’s terror campaign of the “cultural revolution” against “capitalist roaders” in his own party. These days the party brags that it disciplines tens of thousands of corrupt officials every year. Prominent party and state figures tried and punished in recent years include Beijing Mayor Liu Zhihua who received a suspended death sentence in 2009 for bribery. Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu got 18 years in 2008 for corruption. Zheng Xiaoyu, head of China’s SFDA, was executed in 2007 for taking bribes to approve an antibiotic blamed for at least 10 deaths. Rixin Kang, former head of China’s nuclear power agency, was sent to prison for life in 2011; Cheng Tonghai, former head of Sinopec, got a suspended death sentence in 2009. Li Peiying, the head of Beijing’s Capital Airport, was executed in August 2009. Railway minister Liu Zhijun was given a suspended death sentence in 2013. Bo Xilai, the first member of the Party’s Politburo to be arrested since the end of the Mao era, was given a suspended death sentence in 2013. In January 2015, 70 SOE bosses were nabbed in one sweep, 16 generals in another.

Yet for all the campaigns, arrests and executions, corruption only grows worse every year. And why would it not? Opportunities for getting rich quick have grown as fast as the economy. And despite all the lurid press reports, the chances of getting caught are miniscule and for most corruption cases the consequences are not nearly as dire as the headlines imply, especially for the most elite, the biggest gangsters. (91)Geremie Barmé of the Australian National University says that in his research, for all the drama, most of the offspring of China’s revolutionary founders, the so-called “second red generation,” whose ranks include Xi Jinping and Bo Xilai, had largely escaped serious punishment: “In the murky corridors of Communist power, an impressive number of party gentry progeny, or the offspring of the Mao-era nomenklatura, have been implicated in corrupt practices … But word has it that, like the well-connected elites of other climes, they’ve enjoyed a ‘soft landing’: being discretely relocated, shunted into delicate retirement or quietly ‘redeployed.'” (92)Bo Xilai’s confinement is thought to be not too harsh, and not include orange suits.

Guanxi rules. Xi Jinping’s “war on corruption” is swatting competing tigers like Zhou Yangkang’s clique but has conspicuously failed to swat blatantly corrupt tigers right under his nose, starting with his own sister, brother-in-law, niece and their private sector partners, all of whom have made fortunes trading influence for lucrative state-private deals. Instead, Xi is just pushing them to cash out of their hundreds of millions of dollars in politically vulnerable investments. (93) Novelist Murong Xuecun writes in The New York Times that “the anticorruption push is more of a Stalinist purge than a genuine attempt to clean up the government.” Xi, he says, has mainly targeted specific party factions while those groups that support and pledge loyalty to Xi appear untouched. He notes that in Xi’s former fiefs in Fujian and Zhejian provinces, “as best I can tell not one official above the deputy provincial level has been arrested on suspicion of corruption. Recently the question was raised on the internet: Why have no ‘big tigers’ been found in Fujian and Zhejiang? The message was almost immediately deleted.” (94)

Without the rule of law, an independent judiciary, courts and police to prosecute and punish corrupt cadres, Xi Jinping’s only option is to try to terrorize the cadres by sending down “discipline inspection teams” to punish local transgressors and jail some blatant offenders. The Chinese call it “killing the chickens to scare the monkeys.” But after the terror passes and the teams return to Beijing, it’s back to business as usual. So after wrapping up the second round of two-month inspections in 10 provinces launched in July 2014, Wang Qishan, head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) warned officials, “Don’t go back on your old ways when our backs are turned … we will come back and catch you off guard.” (95)

But really, what can the poor CCDI do? The Chinese Communist Party is a cesspool of corruption from top to bottom. The CCDI can’t arrest the entire party. Xi needs these officials to run his economy and administration, but most are well enough connected to avoid his terrorists. Xi can’t trust the police to systematically enforce anticorruption measures because the police themselves are notoriously corrupt. Even his corruption investigators can’t be trusted (1,575 corruption investigators were themselves busted in 2014). By October, Wang was complaining that the cadres were not taking him seriously: “We have stepped up the anti-graft campaign but some party cadres are still undeterred. Some have become even more corrupt.” Wang “vowed to ramp up inspections of the lower tiers of government.” (96) Good luck on that, Mr. Wang.

Pursued with too much vigor, Xi’s anticorruption campaign against senior officials risks not only unsettling elite stability, but also destroying what’s left of the party’s credibility. As a retired princeling military officer said about the most recent campaign against graft and profiteering in the army: “You can’t do it too much, otherwise the party comes out too black, and the leaders won’t like it.” (97) Of course, self-limiting anticorruption campaigns only guarantee that corruption will continue to grow. Moreover, the anti-graft drive is also hurting economic growth as cadres sit on their hands, fearing to do any work that might bring complication, and companies pull back from spending on luxury goods, feasting, champagne and cars – the spending by the 1% that drives so much growth in China, as in the West.

What’s worse is that with the spectacle of China’s political leadership by “communist” princelings-turned-billionaires, corruption rots the whole society from the top down. Whereas in the 1980s, millions of China’s youth were idealistic passionate protesters for democracy, today many of China’s millennial generation have lost all hope for change, been seduced by capitalism and consumerism, become cynical and indifferent toward politics, human rights and the environment, and are insouciant toward CCP lies and repression. Others are just giving up and emigrating.

III. Braking the Drive to Collapse

It goes without saying that the Chinese have every right to modernize, industrialize and improve their material standard of living. But the problem is that capitalism can’t sustainably provide this for the Chinese, the Americans or anyone anymore. As many Chinese say today, “Who cares if we have the world’s highest GDP if we can’t live here?” The Chinese don’t need a higher standard of living based on endless consumerism. They need a better mode of life: clean, unpolluted air, water and soil; safe and nutritious food; comprehensive public health care; safe, quality housing; a public transportation system centered on urban bicycles and public transit instead of cars and ring roads; and more.

We all need to live better by consuming less and consuming rationally, fairly and sustainably. Given the planet’s desperate shape today, the only way humanity is going to survive this century is if developed countries and developing countries contract and converge their resource consumption and pollution around a sustainable global average that will permit the world’s peoples to live in tolerable conditions while reserving resources for future generations and other life forms. (98)

As China Goes, So Goes the World

Climate scientists tell us that, given all the failed promises to date, the backpedaling and soaring carbon dioxide emissions, we now face a “climate emergency.” On present trends we’re on course to a 4 to 6-degree Celsius warming before the end of this century: If we don’t radically suppress fossil fuel burning over the next few decades to keep the warming below the 2-degree Celsius threshold, planetary heating will accelerate beyond any human power to stop it and global ecological collapse will be unavoidable. To have a chance of staying below 2 degrees, the industrialized nations and China must cut carbon emissions by 40 to 70 percent globally by 2050 as compared to 2010, which would require cuts on the order of 6 to 10 percent per year. (99) China would have to cut its industrial emissions by 30 to 90 percent as compared to 2010, the variance depending upon expected growth rates and other assumptions. (100)

The only way China could suppress its greenhouse gas emissions by anything like that amount would be to impose a drastic across-the-board economic contraction, including radical retrenchments and shutdowns of most of the industries that have been built up in the last three decades of market mania. I’m sure this sounds extreme, if not completely crazy. But I don’t see what other conclusion we can draw from the science. On the positive side, as I surveyed above, since so much of China’s resource waste and pollution is just completely unnecessary and harmful, what sounds like extreme austerity could prove just the opposite: liberating, a move to that “better mode of life.” Such an emergency plan would have to include at least the following elements:

  • Shut down all but critically essential coal-fired power plants needed as a temporary measure to keep the lights and heat on and essential public services in operation until renewable replacements can be brought on line. Abandon the coal gasification projects and phase out oil- and gas-powered fuel plants as quickly as possible. Force a rapid transition of energy generation to renewable wind, water and solar energy sources but with the goal of producing much less electricity overall, closer to what China produced in the early 1980s before the market-driven industrialization boom. The US and other developed countries should be obliged to provide extensive technical and material assistance to facilitate this transition.
  • Shut down most of the auto industry. This industry is just a total waste of resources and is the second-biggest contributor to global warming. Most public transportation will have to shift back to bicycles, buses, trains and subways – basically a modernized and expanded version of what the Chinese had in the early 1980s before the auto craze. But the air will be cleaner, transportation will be faster, people will be healthier and immense resources will be conserved.
  • Shut down most of the coastal export industries. Most of China’s coastal export industries are geared to producing unsustainable, disposable products, as noted above. There is just no way to have a sustainable economy in China or anywhere if we don’t abolish the throwaway repetitive-consumption industries in China and around the world.
  • Retrench or close down aviation, shipping, and other redundant and unsustainable transportation industries. Abandon the “aviation superpower” boondoggle. Abandon further expansion of the high-speed train network. China has already built more planes, trains and subways than it needs by any rational accounting of needs. Same with the shipbuilding industry, most of which is geared to container and bulk carrier shipping. This industry needs to be drastically reduced as China’s imports and exports decline with industrial contraction.
  • Shut down most of the construction industry. Even with China’s huge population, the country is massively overbuilt and littered with useless, superfluous buildings, housing, highways, bridges, airports and so on. Some of this can be repurposed. Some should be demolished and the lands returned to farmlands, wetlands, parks or other beneficial use.
  • Abandon the urbanization drive and actively promote re-ruralization.Urban life has its advantages but urban residents consume several times the energy and natural resources and generate several times as much pollution as rural farm families. Besides, most of the tens of millions of Chinese who were relocated to the cities in the last three decades did not go voluntarily; they were forced off their farms by land-grabbing, profiteering local officials. Those ex-farmers who wish to return to the land should be permitted to do so. There is no law of nature that says farm families must be impoverished. In today’s world, family farmers with adequate land and decent technology, who can market their own produce so they don’t get ripped off by middlemen, and who are not under the thumb of banks, landlords or state-landlords, can do very well. (101) China’s farmers are poor because the state has been squeezing them to subsidize industrialization. The best way to raise rural living standards is to give them security in their farms and pay them fair prices for their produce.
  • Abandon the imperial plunder and Han colonization of the West.Xinjiang, Tibet and Mongolia are not ethnically Chinese. If the Chinese government abandons its market-based development strategy it would have no “need” to plunder the natural resources of the West; those peoples can be left in peace to develop at their own pace and in accordance with their ecological limits. And after wrecking so much of their environment, the Chinese owe them some help.
  • Launch an emergency national plan for environmental remediation and restoration of public health. Chinese environmental and health experts have called for a comprehensive integrated plan to address the nation’s environmental and public health issues. (102) Experts say it could take generations to restore China’s farmlands, rivers and lakes to tolerable biological health though, as noted above, in places this may be impossible. A significant share of the costs of this remediation should also be borne by the Western nations whose companies callously contributed to this pollution by offshoring their dirtiest industries to China.
  • Launch a national public works jobs program. If China is going to have to shut down so much of its industrial economy to brake the drive to ecological collapse, then it is going to have to find or create new jobs for all those displaced workers. In Guangdong Province alone, there are something like 40 million manufacturing workers, most of them dedicated to producing the sorts of needless products described above. Forty million unemployed workers would be a big problem. And that’s just Guangdong. But unbreathable air, undrinkable water, unsafe food, polluted farmland, epidemic cancer, rising temperatures and rising seas along coastal China are bigger problems. So there’s just no way around this very inconvenient truth. Making bad stuff has to stop; stopping it will unemploy vast numbers of workers, and other, non-destructive, low-carbon jobs have to be found or created for them. Fortunately, in China, there is no shortage of other socially and environmentally useful work to do: environmental remediation, reforestation, transitioning to organic farming, transitioning to renewable energy, rebuilding and expanding public social services, rebuilding the social safety net, especially for China’s aging population, and much else.

Pan Yue was certainly prescient: The Chinese miracle has come to an end because the environment can no longer keep pace. The question is, can the Chinese find a way to grab hold of the brakes and wrench this locomotive of destruction to a halt before it hurls the country off the cliff?

Revolution or Collapse?

One thing is certain: This locomotive is not going to be stopped so long as the Communist Party has its grip on the controls. The Chinese Communist Party is locked in a death spiral. It can’t rein in corruption because the party is built on corruption, thrives on corruption and can’t police itself. It can’t rein in ravenous resource consumption and suicidal pollution because, given its dependence on the market to generate new jobs, it has to prioritize growth over the environment like capitalist governments everywhere.

It can’t even discipline its own subordinate officials to enforce and obey the government’s environmental, food and drug safety, building codes and similar laws because in this system subordinate officials aren’t necessarily subordinate and can often mobilize their family and guanxi-based backers to defend their interests and thwart Beijing. So long as this basic structural class/property arrangement remains in effect, no top-down “war on pollution” or “war on corruption” is going to change this system or brake China’s trajectory to ecological collapse. Given the foregoing, I just don’t see how China’s spiral to collapse can be reversed short of social revolution.

China’s Communist Party seems all-powerful and unassailable. But it’s not. It’s frightened, desperate and disintegrating. It faces unprecedented threats: near daily industrial strikes; militant and often violent protests over land grabs, chemical plants, incinerators, power plants and the like; “terrorist” attacks from Xinjiang; and even worse, subversive thought that just can’t be stopped by the Great Firewall. Chai Jing’s Under the Dome had 300 million downloads before the government took it down off the web after a week and a half. Who knows what spark will light the next social explosion?

Resistance is growing as pollution and public health worsen, as it becomes harder to sustain that 8 percent growth rate to stave off unrest, as Xi Jinping’s war on corruption only serves to publicize the unregenerate character of the entire Communist Party and underscore its incapacity to solve any of China’s huge problems. Since Xi took over in 2012, he’s been determined to save China’s Communist Party from the fate of its Soviet cousin. Xi ridiculed Mikhail Gorbachev’s “weakness” and cast himself as the tough-guy Godfather, cracking down on the press, the internet and social media, religious groups, democrats, nongovernmental organizations, Western joint-venture partners and “Western ideas.” But this repression just reveals his weakness, not his strength.

The more he harasses, fines and drives Western joint-venture partners out of China, the less access he will have to their technology and the less competitive his SOEs will become. The more tightly he polices culture and censors the internet, the faster China’s intellectuals, scientists, professionals and college graduates will pack up and move to Australia. Nothing demonstrates this weakness and lack of self-confidence more than the Party’s very public disintegration: The government bitterly complains that large numbers of “ready-to-flee, naked officials” (so-called because they’ve sent their families and money to Los Angeles or Vancouver) are scheming to follow them. Surveys show that half of China’s rich (most of whom are Communist Party members) have either left the country or are planning to do so as soon as they can. (103)

China has to be the first nation in history in which significant numbers of its own triumphant ruling class are abandoning their own success story en masse. Today, Xi Jinping faces subversion and resistance everywhere he looks, yet he can’t even count on his comrades. To add to his headaches, Godfather Xi now faces an in-your-face democracy movement in Hong Kong that refuses to die. From workers’ strikes to environmental protests to Occupy Central for Love and Peace, these struggles and movements are fragmented, inchoate and unorganized, so far, but they all share a common demand: bottom-up democracy. Therein lies China’s best hope.


1. Ariana Enjung Cha, “Solar energy firms leave waste behind in China,” The Washington Post, 9 March 2008. All quotations are from this article.

2. There’s no better illustration of this government-industry collusion and pollution’s catastrophic impact on the health of China’s people than journalist Chai Jing’s sensational new documentary on China’s smog Under the Dome – Investigating China’s Smog (Wumai diaocha: qiongding zhixia) which went online in late February and is being rightly hailed as China’s Silent Spring

3. “The Chinese miracle will end soon,” Der Spiegel 7 March 2005:,1515,345694.html.

4. Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levi, By All Means Necessary, Oxford 2014, chapters 3 and 4.

5. Craig Simons, The Devouring Dragon, New York, 2013, p. 9 and chapters 7 and 8.

6. Joseph Kahn and Mark Landler, “China grabs west’s smoke-spewing factories,” The New York Times, 21 December 2007. William J. Kelly and Chip Jacobs, The People’s Republic of Chemicals (Los Angeles: Vireo 2014).

7. Alexandra Harney, The China Price, New York, 2008, pp. 8-9.

8.Overdressed, New York, 2013, pp. 3, 124-125. Energy consumption: FAO, cited in “Fabric and your carbon footprint, O Ecotextiles, 10 March 2013, at

9. Niu Yue, “China No 1 dumper of plastic into ocean,” China Daily, February 19, 2015.

10.State Council Decision on Accelerating the Development of Strategic Emerging Industries, October 2010 at
State Council 12th Five-Year Plan (FYP) on Development of Strategic Emerging Industries, July 2012 at
MOF and NDRC Interim Measures for the Administration of Special Funds for Strategic Emerging Industries, December 2012 at

11. Tom Lasseter, “Empty highways,” McClatchy News, August 24, 2006, 11:33PM at

12. Professor Zhao Jian of Beijing Jiaotong University says, “It is unwise to continue building high-speed rail lines while the current high-speed network has a hard time getting enough passengers and is operating at a loss … The country has built more than 10,000 kilometers of high-speed rail lines and most lines are losing money because of inadequate demand.” Some lines run at only 30 percent of capacity he said, and even the busiest, such as the train from Beijing to Shanghai, “will run a loss for a long time … The rush to build high-speed rail networks indicates that the old investment-driven growth model has hardly changed.” Sun Wenjing, “Government throwing money away on bullet trains, expert says,” Caixin, 10 July 2014 at

13. Kevin Lim, “‘Meaningful probability’ of a China hard landing: Roubini,” Reuters, 13 June 2011.

14. Wang is quoted in Tania Branigan, “Riding Beijing’s subway end to end: 88km of queues and crushes on 20p ticket,” The Guardian, 10 September, 2014 at

15. James Fallows, China Airborne, New York, 2012, pp. 28-29. David Barboza, “Airports in China hew to an unswerving flight path,” The New York Times, 3 April 2013. Bloomberg News, “China plan seeks to bolster airports, locally-produced airplanes,” 21 January 2013 at

16. IPCC, Aviation and the Global Atmosphere: A Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge UK 1999, at George Monbiot, Heat, Cambridge UK 2007, p. 174.

17. Monbiot, Heat, p. 182 and sources cited therein.

18. In the decade from 2000 China’s cities expanded by over 80 percent. A national land survey found that 130,000 square kilometers of farmland, equal to half the area of Germany, was paved over in the urbanization frenzy between 1996 and 2009 – and it hasn’t slowed since. Mandy Zuo, “Stop concreting over prime farmland, China’s big cities told,” South China Morning Post, 9 November, 2014. Cui Zheng, “Scientists issue warning over development of coastal wetlands,” Caixin, 25 November 2014.

19. See Jasper Becker, City of Heavenly Tranquility, Oxford 2008, chapters 17 and 18.

20. See Darmon Richter, “Welcome to Ordos: the world’s largest ‘ghost city’ [China],” The Bohemian Blog, 13 February 2014 at:

21. “Housing oversupply causing major crisis for Chinese economy, NTD.TV, 16 May 2014 at Eg. George Steinmetz, “Let a hundred McMansions bloom,” The New York Times Magazine, 21 September 2014. Neil Gough, “A muddy tract now, but by 2020, China’s answer to Wall Street,” The New York Times, 3 April, 2014.

22. Lillian Liu, “A question of time, FinanceAsia, 8 September 2010 at Vincent Fernando, CFA, “There are now enough vacant properties in China to house over half of America,” Business Insider, 8 September 2010 at Robin Banerji and Patrick Jackson, “China’s ghost towns and phantom malls,” BBC News Online, 13 August 2012 at Yifei Chen, “Chasing ghosts: where is China’s next wave of empty ‘new towns’?” South China Morning Post, February 13, 2015.

23. “China’s real estate bubble,” CBS 60 Minutes, 11 August 2013 at Gus Lubin, “Satellite pictures of the empty Chinese cities where home prices are crashing,” Business Insider, 10 December 2011, 1:48PM at David Barboza, “Chinese city has many buildings but few people,” The New York Times, 9 October 2010.

24. Zarathustra, “China’s crumbing infrastructure model,” Macrobusiness, 28 July 2012 at 9:49AM at Street Examiner reporter/blogger Russ Winter posted several photos of collapsed bridges in his “Yes, China is truly different” Winter Economic and Market Watch, 28 August 2012 at

25. Lu Chen, op. cit. After the collapse of an apartment in Fenhua, Zhejian Province in April 2014, officials warned of a “coming wave of such accidents as the ‘fast food’ buildings built in the 1980s and 1990s enter their 30s and 20s.” Building safety experts warned people not to purchase apartments in certain localities known to be particularly risky. Most “won’t last 50 years, or in some cases about 25 years,” and they present constant safety hazards. Zheng Fengtian, “Weak buildings threaten life,” China Daily, 11-14 April 2014.

26. Frank Langfitt, “Chinese blame failing bridges on corruption,” National Public Radio, 29 August 2012 at

27. US E.I.A., China, updated 4 February 2014 at

28. Lily Kuo, “China’s nightmare scenario: by 2025 air quality could be much much worse,” posted 12 March 2013 on Quartz at Wang Yue, “China unlikely to reduce coal use in the next decade,”, 10 February 2014 at US EIA, China, 4 February 2014, op cit.

29. Zeke Hausfather, “Global carbon dioxide emissions: increases dwarf US reductions,” Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, 2 July 2013 at

30. Chris Buckley, “China’s plan to limit coal use could spur consumption for years,” The New York Times, 25 July 2014. As Xi Jinping and Barack Obama concluded their “historic” accord in November 2014 to cut both country’s carbon dioxide emissions and Xi promised to reduce China’s reliance on coal for power generation and boost renewables, the news that China’s coal consumption actually fell by 2.5 percent in 2014, the first decline in a century, gave cause for optimism. Combined with the fact that China continues to lead the world in annual additions of wind and solar power, many hoped that China’s coal consumption was finally peaking. But as Andrew Revkin points out, while China’s coal production and imports declined in 2014, half of China’s coal is used outside the power sector, in heavy industry, which use has fallen as the overall economy has slowed in recent years. Coal consumption in the power sector continues its relentless climb: In 2014, China’s newly added coal power capacity exceeded new solar energy by 17 times, new wind energy by four times, even new hydro power by more than three times. In just this one year, China added more new coal-fired power plants than Britain’s entire fleet. These new plants will be pumping out greenhouse gases for many decades to come and in fact, most of China’s coal-fired power plants are less than 15 years old so could they could still be running half a century from now. In short, for all the promises, coal is still king in China. Moreover, the economic slowdown is also likely to be short-lived as the government is furiously pumping money into the economy to revive growth. Andrew Revkin, “A look behind the headlines on China’s coal trends,” Dot Earth, The New York Times, 18 February 2015: 6:00 PM at

31. William J. Kelly, “China’s plan to clean up air in cities will doom the climate, scientists say,” InsideClimate News, 13 February 2014 at

32.Reuters, “China’s coal expansion may spark water crisis, warns Greenpeace,” The Guardian, 15 August 2012. See also the accompanying documentary photos by Lu Guang: “China’s mega coal power bases exacerbate water crisis – in pictures,” The Guardian, August 21, 2012 at

33. See Sophie Beach, “China’s fracking boom and the fate of the planet” in China Digital Times 19 September 2014 at

34. Investigators have found that only a third of China’s wastewater treatment plants are operating. Cui Zheng, “Seas of sewage,” CaixinOnline, 12 October 2012 at

35. Ma Jun, China’s Water Crisis, Norwalk 2004, p. vii.

36. Sun Xiaohua, “Pollution takes heavy toll on Yangtze,” China Daily, 16 April 2007.  Shai, Oster, “It may be too late for China to save the Yangtze goddess,” The Wall Street Journal, 6 December 2006.

37. Xu Nan, “Poisoned groundwater sparks media storm in China,” China Dialogue, February 2, 2013 at

38. Cecilia Torajada and Asit K. Biswas, “The problem of water management,” China Daily, March 5, 2013. Gong Jing and Liu Hongqiao, “Half of China’s urban drinking water fails to meet standards,” China Dialogue, June 6, 2013 at

39. Ten years previously, a pollution tide had killed fish and sickened thousands of people. By 2001, the government claimed to have shut down polluters and declared the cleanup a success. But the Huai is now a symbol of the failure of environmental regulation in China. After spending more than $8 billion over a decade to clean up the Huai basin, the State Environmental Protection Administration concluded in 2004 that “some areas were more polluted than before.” Jim Yardley, “Rivers run black, and Chinese die of cancer,” The New York Times, 12 September 2004. An Baijie, “Polluted river flows with carcinogens,” China Daily, 8 August 2013 (on pollution of the Huaihe in Anhui Province by manganese, nitrates and other carcinogens from local factories).

40. Dr. Linda Greer (NRDC), “Top clothing brands linked to water pollution scandal in China,” China Dialogue, 9 October 2012 at (Armani, Calvin Klein, Marks and Spencer, Zara and others.)

41. Xue Haitao and Liku Hongqiao, “Sip of death plagues cancerous river villages,” CaixinOnline, 9 October 2013 at Yu Dawei et al., “The poisoning of the Nanpan river basin,” CaixinOnline, 1 September 2011 at  Sophie Beach “Shangba, China’s village of death,” posted 3 December 2007 on Mary Ann Toy, “Waiting for death in fetid cancer villages,” Sidney Morning Herald, 26 May 2007. Jim Yardley, “Rivers run black, and Chinese die of cancer,” The New York Times 12 September 2004. Staff, “South China river polluted by thallium, cadmium,” China Daily, 6 July 2013. Elizabeth Economy, The River Runs Black.

42. Michael Wines, “Smelter in China poisons more than 1,300 children” The New York Times, 21 August 2009. Staff, “Anhui battery factory poisons 200 children,” Caixin slide show, 6 January 2011 at

43. Luna Lin, “China’s water pollution will be more difficult to fix than its dirty air,” China Dialogue, 17 February 2014 at Zhang Chun, “China ‘lacks experience’ to clean up its polluted soil,” China Dialogue, 14 April 2014 at

44. Matt Currell, “Losing lifeblood in north China,” China Dialogue, September 17, 2010 at

45. Economy, “The great leap backwards,” Foreign Affairs, September-October 2007.

46.Reuters in Beijing, “China says more than 3m hectares of land too polluted to farm,” South China Morning Post, 30 December 2013.

47. Ministry of Environmental Protection, Huanjing baohu bu he guotu ziyuan bu fabu quanguo turang wuran zhuangkuang diaocha gongbao (Environmental Protection Ministry and Land and Natural Resources Ministry release countrywide soil contamination condition survey bulletin), 17 April 2014 at

48. See Sam Geal and Elizabeth Hilton, “Culture of secrecy behind China’s pollution crisis,” and Angel Hsu and Andrew Moffat, ” China’s soil pollution crisis still buried in mystery,” both in Pollution and Health in China: Confronting the Human Crisis, special issue of China Dialogue, 9 September 2014 at

49.Xinhua, “More than 40 percent of China’s arable land degraded,” China Daily, 5 November 2014.

50. Liu Hongqiao, “The polluted legacy of China’s largest rice-growing province,” China Dialogue, 30 May 2014 at Zheng Yesheng and Qian Yihong, Shendu Youhuan  –  Dangdai Zhongguo de Kechixu Fazahan Wenti (Grave Concerns: Problems of Sustainable Development for China) (Beijing: China Publishing House 1998), pp. 8-10.

51. John Dearing, “China’s polluted soil and water will drive up world food prices,” China Dialogue, 3 March 2015 at

52. For example, antebellum southern planters produced cotton, tobacco, sugar and indigo entirely for market, indeed for the world market. But they did so with slave labor. This hybrid capitalist-slave mode of production was obviously radically different than production for a market based on free labor in the North and it had broad implications for productivity, economic development, and more. It gave their economy an entirely different character, dynamic and trajectory, and it had profound economic, social, political and psychological consequences, many of which we still deal with today.

53. James McGregor, No Ancient Wisdom, No Followers: the Challenges of Chinese Authoritarian Capitalism (Westport: Prospecta Press: 2012), p. 4-5, 16-19 (quote from p. 57) and the sources cited therein, including the head of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC).

54.No Ancient Wisdom, p. 2

55. Andrew Szamosszegi and Cole Kyle, “An Analysis of State-owned Enterprises and State Capitalism in China,” October 26, 2011. US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), pp. 21-22 at state control of the banking sector, see Carl E. Walter and Fraser J.T. Howie, Red Capitalism: The Fragile Foundations of China’s Extraordinary Rise (Singapore: Wiley & Sons, 2012), pp. 31-33 and passim. Also: Henry Sanderson and Michael Forsythe, China’s Superbank (Singapore: Wiley & Sons, 2013). Barry Naughton, The Chinese Economy: Transitions and Growth (Cambridge: MIT 2007), pp. 190, 299-304, 325.

56. Thus with respect to the banking sector, Szamosszegi and Cole write that: “The state banking sector dominates the landscape in China and tends to favor SOEs at the expense of private sector firms. Second, SOEs are in general an important instrument of government policy. The government uses SOEs to facilitate structural change in the Chinese economy, to acquire technology from foreign firms, and to secure raw material sources from beyond China’s borders. For example, in 2009, the government turned to its SOEs and state‐owned banks to provide stimulus to the domestic economy. Third, the CCP and SASAC maintain important influence over the executives of SOEs. These executives face two sets of incentives. On the one hand, the entities they control are supposed to be profitable, and SOE executives are now rewarded based on financial performance. On the other hand, the appointments of top executives to SOE management and their future career paths upon leaving the SOE are determined by the Central Organization Department of the CCP. Thus, SOE executives have an incentive to follow the government’s policy guidance. Recent examples, as well as financial disclosure documents, indicate that if maximizing shareholder value conflicts with state goals, SOEs and their wholly owned subsidiaries are likely to pursue the goals of the state.” “An Analysis of State-owned Enterprises” op.cit. p. 3.

57. McGregor, No Ancient Wisdom, p. 59.

58. Walter and Howie, Red Capitalism, p. 24, 187.

59. Ben Blanchard, “Chinese billionaire mining tycoon Liu Han is executed over his links to a ‘mafia-style’ gang,” Sydney Morning Herald, 9 February 2015. Most accounts say that his real crime was his link to the Zhou Yongkang clique.

60. Becker, City of Heavenly Tranquility, pp. 287-289.

61. Sydney University’s Kerry Brown says the number of “high-level cadres” (gaoji ganbu) who run the ministries, the state conglomerates and the administration, all concentrated in Beijing, total no more than 2,562, which means, he says, that China is effectively “run by group of people that is smaller than most villages in Europe.” The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China, New York 2014, pp. 20-21.

62. Richard McGregor, The Party, New York 2010. Carl E. Walter and Fraser J.T. Howie, Red Capitalism, Singapore 2012, pp. 22-25 and passim.

63. Eg. Shi Jiangtao, “Struggle for supremacy by party factions now on display,” South China Morning Post, 13 October 2012. Matthew Robertson, “China’s ‘hatchet man’ set to be purged in party struggle,” Epoch Times, 30 May-3 June 2014 (reporting a rumored threat to Xi Jinping’s life by the Bo Xilai faction). Teddy Ng, “Rising star Li Yuanchao forges ties with all political factions in China, South China Morning Post,1 October 2012.

64. Quoted in Bloomberg News, “Xi Jinping millionaire relations reveal fortunes of elite,” 29 June 2012.

65. Quoted in David Barboza, “The Corruptibles,” The New York Times, 3 September 2009. See also again, Robertson, “China’s ‘Hatchet Man’ set to be purged … ” in op cit.

66. Outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao, incoming Premier Xi Jinping, and other wealthy princelings were profiled in Bloomberg News and The New York Times, in 2012 and 2013 – which got both papers shut down in China and their reporters denied visa renewals in 2013. See “Heirs of Mao’s comrades rise as new capitalist nobility” and links to related stories in Bloomberg News, 26 December 2012 at Also again Richard McGregor, The Party and Kerry Brown, The New Emperors.

67. David Barboza, “Billions in hidden riches for family of Chinese leader,” The New York Times, 25 October, 2012.

68.Zhongguode xianjing (China’s Pitfalls) (Hong Kong: Mingjing chubanshe, 1997)

69. “Heirs of Mao’s comrades rise as new capitalist nobility,” op cit. p. 11.

70. Ex-Premier Zhu Rongji, quoted in Richard McGregor, The Party, p. 45.

71. Quoted in Walter and Howie, Red Capitalism, p. 23. In October 2014, one high-level cadre in the energy ministry caught up in Xi Jinping’s anticorruption sweep, had stashed away 200 million yuan (HK$252 million) in banknotes in one of his apartments. The pile of banknotes weighed more than 2.3 tons.

72. Quoted in Richard McGregor, The Party, pp. 140-41.

73. “Heirs of Mao’s comrades rise as new capitalist nobility,” Bloomberg News, 26 December 2012 p. 3 at Further citations below are from articles in this collection.

74. Yang Dali and Dai Qing were quoted in Bloomberg News, “Heirs” op cit. pp. 5,6 and 10.

75.Bloomberg News, “Heirs,” pp. 1,5.

76. Chinese fly cash to North America, by the suitcase,” The Wall Street Journal, 2 January 2013. Shen Ming, “Chinese military officers secretly moving money offshore,” Epoch Times, 28 June 2012. Benjamin Robertson, “US1.25 trillion moved out of mainland China illegally in 10 years, says report,” South China Morning Press, 16 December 2014.

77. James Ball and Guardian US Interactive Team, “China’s princelings storing riches in Caribbean offshore haven,” The Guardian, 21 January 2014, reporting on the findings of a two-year reporting effort by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Bloomberg News, “Heirs” p. 6.

78. “China murder suspect’s sisters ran $126 million empire,” Bloomberg News, 13 April 2012.

79. On SOE restructuring and growth of the planned economy, see Peter Nolan, Transforming China: Globalization, Transition and Development, London 2004, chapter 5.

80. James T. Areddy and Laurie Burkitt, “Shake-up at China firm shows reach of graft crackdown,” The Wall Street Journal, 23 April 2014.

81. So for example, with respect to China’s investment in mines in Zambia, Professor Ching Kwan Lee quotes a Chinese mining executive who says “We don’t need to maximize profit, but we need to make some profit. The state won’t support us if we make losses year after year.” Lee adds, “between profit optimization and profit maximization lies the space for achieving other types of return – political influence and access to raw materials.”  “The spectre of global China,” New Left Review 2/89, September-October 2014, p. 36.

82. Thus James McGregor writes: “Despite their chronically imprudent lending habits, SOE banks are kept afloat – and reap huge profits to boot – through government-set interest rates. With a ceiling on the interest rates for deposits and a floor on lending rates, China’s banks have enjoyed a comfortable spread of about three percentage points, which guarantees profits.” No Ancient Wisdom, p. 65.

83. Long Youngtu, China’s chief negotiator at the WTO, quoted in James McGregor, No Ancient Wisdom, p. 5 (my italics).

84. Liu Jianqiang, “China’s environment ministry an “utter disappointment,” China Dialogue, March 7, 2013 at  Tang Hao, “China’s food scares show the system is bust,” China Dialogue, 31 August 2012, at

85. See Brian Tilt, The Struggle for Sustainability in Rural China, New York 2010, chapter 6. Han Wei, “Officials failing to stop textile factories dumping waste in Qiantang River,” China Dialogue, 1 August 2013 at

86. Liu Qin, “China’s environment ministry launches anti-graft reforms,” China Dialogue, 11 March, 2015.

87. John McGarrity, “One year on after “war” declared on pollution, Beijing air scarcely improves,” China Dialogue, 2 February 2015. Xu Nan, “China’s noxious air ‘as deadly as smoking: study,” China Dialogue, 4 February 2015 at

88. Lu Hongqiao, “China set to miss safe rural drinking water targets,” China Dialogue, March 5, 2015 at Huang Hao, “Village water supplies in China hit by scarcity and contamination,” China Dialogue, March 5, 2014 at Abigail Barnes, “China’s bottled water: the next health crisis? China Dialogue, July 22, 2014 at

89. Judith Shapiro writes that “There are competing and conflicting emphases on growth, government legitimacy, clean development, and stability, creating a confusing policy-making landscape in which actors sometimes work at cross purposes or with uncertain lines of responsibility … Economic realities and concerns about unemployment and social unrest often push the government away from environmentally friendly action. The Ministry of Environmental Protection is hardly in a position to close the enormous state-run iron and steel plants in the great north-eastern rust belt, where unemployment is exceedingly high and shutdowns would mean even more job losses.” Shapiro, China’s Environmental Challenges, Cambridge UK 2012, pp. 69-70.

90.China Airborne, p. 99.

91. China’s Communist Party currently counts around more than 85 million members. Last year, the government reported that more than 71,000 cadres were “investigated for violating Party regulations.” Of these only 23,000 “received Party or administrative penalities,” mostly censures, and comparatively few were actually sent to prison or are executed. Pretty good odds. “Disciplinary watchdogs seek to fight factionalism within the Party,” People’s Daily, 12 January 2015 at

92. Barmé is quoted in Andrew Jacobs, “In China’s antigraft campaign, small victories and bigger doubts,” The New York Times, 16 January 2015.

93. Michael Forsythe, “As China’s leader fights graft, his relatives shed assets,” The New York Times, 17 June 2014.

94. “China’s selective crackdown,” 17 January 2015.

95. Alice Yan, “Don’t go back on your old ways when our backs are turned, CCDI warns cadres,” South China Morning Post, 5 November 2014.

96. Andrea Chen, “Some cadres shrugging off anticorruption campaign, graft-buster warns,” South China Morning Post, 25 October 2014.

97. Jane Perlez, “Corruption in military poses a test for China,” The New York Times, 14 November 2012.

98. On this see my “Capitalism and the destruction of life on earth: six theses on saving the humans” Real-world Economics Review, July 2013 at and my “Climate crisis, the deindustrialization imperative, and the jobs vs. environment dilemma” in Truthout, 17 November, 2014 at

99. IPCC, Climate Change 2014: IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report (November 2014) at James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren, New York 2009.

100. Ecofys, WWF Report 2015, It’s Time to peak: why China’s corporate sector needs to set ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets,” (WWF, February 2015) p. 11 at

101. Eg. Chrystia Freeland, “The triumph of the family farm,” The Atlantic, 13 June 2012. Also: “Rebuilding America’s Economy with Family Farm-centered food systems,” n.a., Farm Aid, 2013 at Alan Bjerga, “Organic lets family farms prosper in industrial-agriculture era,” Bloomberg News, 28 June 2012 at

102. Eg. He Guangwei, “China faces long battle to clean up its polluted soil,” He Guangwei, “The victims of China’s soil pollution crisis, Chu Han, “The human cost of living in the ‘mercury capital’ of China [Guizhou province],” Angel Hu and Andrew Moffet, “China’s soil pollution crisis still buried in mystery,” all in Pollution and Health in China: Confronting the Human Crisis, special issue of China Dialogue, September 9, 2014 (in Chinese with some English summaries) at

103. “Almost half of wealthy Chinese want to leave, study shows,” The Wall Street Journal, 5 September 2014. Benjamin Carlson, “As war on corruption mounts, China’s rich flee to America, Global Post, 9 February 2014. John Kennedy, “China has at least 1.18 million ready-to-flee ‘naked officials,’ anticorruption rant reveals,” South China Morning Post, 27 February 27, 2013 at

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission

Fall in monsoon rains driven by rise in air pollution, study shows (Science Daily)

Date: October 1, 2014

Source: University of Edinburgh

Summary: Emissions produced by human activity have caused annual monsoon rainfall to decline over the past 50 years, a study suggests. In the second half of the 20th century, the levels of rain recorded during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer monsoon fell by as much as 10 per cent, researchers say. Changes to global rainfall patterns can have serious consequences for human health and agriculture.

Emissions produced by human activity have caused annual monsoon rainfall to decline over the past 50 years, a study suggests.

In the second half of the 20th century, the levels of rain recorded during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer monsoon fell by as much as 10 per cent, researchers say. Changes to global rainfall patterns can have serious consequences for human health and agriculture.

Scientists found that emissions of tiny air particles from human-made sources — known as anthropogenic aerosols — were the cause. High levels of aerosols in the atmosphere cause heat from the sun to be reflected back into space, lowering temperatures on Earth’s surface and reducing rainfall.

Levels of aerosol emissions have soared since the 1950s, with the most common sources being power stations and cars.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh say their work provides clear evidence of human-induced rainfall change. Alterations to summer monsoon rainfall affect the lives of billions of people, mostly those living in India, South East Asia and parts of Africa.

The team calculated the average summer monsoon rainfall in the Northern Hemisphere between 1951 and 2005. They used computer-based climate models to quantify the impact of increasing aerosol emissions and greenhouse gases over the same period. They also took account of natural factors such as volcanic eruptions and climate variability to gauge the impact of human activity on the amount of monsoon rainfall.

Researchers say levels of human-made aerosols are expected to decline during the 21st century as countries begin adopting cleaner methods of power generation.

The study is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The work was funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council, European Research Council and National Centre for Atmospheric Science.

Lead author Dr Debbie Polson, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, said: “This study shows for the first time that the drying of the monsoon over the past 50 years cannot be explained by natural climate variability and that human activity has played a significant role in altering the seasonal monsoon rainfall on which billions of people depend.”

Journal Reference:

  1. D. Polson, M. Bollasina, G. C. Hegerl, L. J. Wilcox. Decreased monsoon precipitation in the Northern Hemisphere due to anthropogenic aerosols.Geophysical Research Letters, 2014; 41 (16): 6023 DOI: 10.1002/2014GL060811

China, the Climate and the Fate of the Planet (Rolling Stone)

If the world’s biggest polluter doesn’t radically reduce the amount of coal it burns, nothing anyone does to stabilize the climate will matter. Inside the slow, frustrating — and maybe even hopeful — struggle to find a new way forward

 By | September 15, 2014

As the sun rises in mid-july over andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., Secretary of State John Kerry climbs quickly – he’s positively bouncing – up the carpeted stairs of his blue-and-white government­issue 757. Kerry is heading to Beijing to talk with Chinese leaders about, among other things, one of President Obama’s top priorities in the waning days of his second term: the urgent need to reduce carbon pollution and limit the damage from climate change. But the rest of the world isn’t cutting Kerry any slack right now – there’s trouble with the elections in Afghanistan, rising conflict in the Middle East and upcoming negotiations with Iran on nuclear weapons. As he ducks into the plane, Kerry is already talking intensely on his cellphone, deeply wired into the global chaos. An aide shoulders his bags as well as a large black case that contains his acoustic guitar, which he takes with him everywhere and often plays late at night when he’s alone in his hotel room.

For nearly a decade, the U.S. and China, the two most powerful nations on the planet, have met every year to talk about how to run the world together. When the talks began in 2006, they focused on issues like currency-exchange rates, trade barriers and China’s never-ending disputes with Taiwan. In 2009, shortly after Obama’s inauguration, the U.S. pushed to add climate change to the mix, hoping that a better understanding between the U.S. and China would lead to a better deal at the Copenhagen climate summit that year. (It didn’t help – mistrust between the countries was a large part of the reason why the talks imploded.)

This year’s U.S. delegation includes many of the administration’s most influential climate hawks – Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, top climate negotiator Todd Stern and John Podesta, counselor to Obama, who has become the administration’s de facto point man for climate policy. This is the diplomatic equivalent of a full-court press. In the past couple of years, Obama has made some important moves, including investing billions in clean energy, jacking up vehicle-efficiency standards and proposing rules to limit pollution from U.S. coal plants. But climate change is a global issue. Unless the West can persuade other countries to take climate action seriously, nothing any single nation does is going to matter much when it comes to solving the problem.

Except, that is, for China. The blunt truth is that what China decides to do in the next decade will likely determine whether or not mankind can halt – or at least ameliorate – global warming. The view among a number of prominent climate scientists is that if China’s emissions peak around 2025, we may – just barely – have a shot at stabilizing the climate before all hell breaks loose. But the Chinese have resisted international pressure to curb their emissions. For years, they have used the argument that they are poor, the West is rich, and that the high levels of carbon in the atmosphere were caused by America’s and Europe’s 200-year-long fossil­fuel binge. Climate change is your problem, they argued – you deal with it. But that logic doesn’t hold anymore. China is set to become the largest economy in the world this year, and in 2006, it passed the U.S. as the planet’s largest carbon polluter. China now dumps 10 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. That number is expected to grow to 15 billion tons by 2030, dwarfing the pollution of the rest of the world. If that happens, then the chances that the world will cut carbon pollution quickly enough to avert dangerous climate change is, according to Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the U.K., “virtually zero.”

John Kerry knows this. He also knows that when the nations of the world gather in Paris next December to try to hammer out a global climate agreement, it may be the last best chance to address this problem before the Years of Living Dangerously begin. Like other climate negotiations held under the banner of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris meeting is likely to be warped by 25-year-old grudges and a profound sense of distrust. “But right now, Paris is the only game we have,” one member of the State Department’s climate team told me. “If it fails, there is no Plan B.”

In Beijing, one of Kerry’s goals will be to find out all he can about China’s strategy for Paris – what kind of commitment the Chinese might make, how sincere they are, what tactics they will use. But for Kerry, this is anything but a straightforward conversation, because it’s twisted up in the shadow play of U.S.-China relations, which are marked by suspicion, paranoia and saber rattling on both sides as the U.S. adjusts to China’s rising power in the world. “What we are living through now is the end of 500 years of Western predominance,” historian Niall Ferguson has written. The issue is not whether China will challenge America’s dominance, but when and how.

Secretary of State Kerry met with China's Preisent Xi

Secretary of State Kerry met with China’s Preisent Xi in Beijin in July. (Photo: © Jim Bourg/Reuters/Corbis)

Shortly before takeoff, Kerry wanders down the aisle to chat. He talks idly about his July 4th celebration and the recent storm damages to his house on Nantucket. But when asked about his expectations for the Beijing summit, he looks grave: “Frankly, we’re not sure where this is all going.” He remembers what happened in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, when the U.S. was mocked for signing an agreement that the Senate would never ratify, and in Copenhagen in 2009, when Obama arrived at a conference that was supposed to save the world but ended up being gridlocked by squabbles over money and emissions targets. Kerry is determined not to let that happen again.

After 25 years of failed climate negotiations, it’s easy to be cynical about the upcoming talks in Paris. But there are at least three factors that make a meaningful agreement next year possible.

The first is that climate change is no longer a hypothetical problem – it’s happening in real time all around us. Droughts, floods, more destructive storms, weird weather of all sorts – just look out your window. In the latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s top scientists called the fact that the Earth is warming “unequivocal” and stated that humans are the cause of it. Without dramatic action, the planet could warm up as much as 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 F) by the end of the century, which would be catastrophic. As Kerry said of a report last September, “The response must be all hands on deck. It’s not about one country making a demand of another. It’s the science itself demanding action from all of us.”

The second factor is that until now, the biggest obstacle to an international agreement to reduce carbon pollution has been the United States. But that’s starting to change. Thanks to Obama’s recent crackdown on pollution, as well as the boom in cheap natural gas, which has displaced dirty coal, carbon emissions in the U.S. are on the decline. “What the president has done is very important,” says Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements. “It allows the U.S. to look at other countries and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing?'”

The final reason for hope, paradoxically, is China’s relentless demand for energy. China is in the midst of a profound economic and social transformation, trying to reinvent itself from an economy based on selling cheap goods overseas to an economy based on selling quality consumer goods at home, while keeping growth rates high and cutting dependence on fossil fuels. Energy demand is expected to double by 2030, and at that pace, there is not enough oil, coal and gas in the world to keep their economy humming. So China’s ongoing energy security depends on the nation developing alternative energy sources in a big way. “We need more of everything,” says Peggy Liu, a sustainability leader who works across China. “Wind, solar, a modernized grid. We need to leapfrog over the past and into a clean-energy future.”

China’s leaders are also waking up to the fact that recent decades of hypergrowth, most of it fired by coal, have exacted a steep price. Air pollution in China’s big cities is among the worst in the world; one recent report found that poor air quality contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010. As Hank Paulson, former Secretary of the Treasury and longtime China observer, has put it, “What is another point of GDP worth, if dirty air is killing people?” Earlier this year, a riot broke out in Zhongtai, a town in eastern China, when protests against a new waste incinerator turned violent, leaving police vehicles torched and at least 39 people injured; in southern China, protests erupted over the construction of a coal-fired power plant. Similar clashes are increasingly frequent in China as pollution-related illnesses rise.

And it’s not just the air that’s a problem in China. More than 20 percent of the country’s farmland is polluted. Sixty percent of its groundwater supply is unfit for human consumption. Rivers are industrial sewers. Last year, 16,000 swollen and rotting dead pigs were found dumped in the Huangpu River near Shanghai.

What looks to be the impacts of climate change are starting to register too. Droughts have become longer and more frequent, forcing China to import ever-increasing amounts of staples like wheat and soy. By one count, 28,000 rivers in China have vanished. China’s southern provinces have the opposite problem: devastating floods as a result of intense rainfall. In addition, much of the coastline, including cities like Shanghai, are highly vulnerable to sea-level rise.

Chinese leaders know this trajectory is unsustainable – economically and politically. Earlier this year, Premier Li Keqiang “declared war” on pollution. Party leaders in China now routinely talk about the importance of “rebalancing the economy” and creating an “ecological civilization.” China Daily, the Communist Party house organ, regularly runs stories about air pollution and toxic waste. While I was in Beijing, I asked U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus why the Chinese were now willing to talk so openly about environmental issues. “The fragility of their government,” he said bluntly. “They will have a social revolt on their hands if they don’t come up with a way of dealing with this.”

Pollution from coal plants

Pollution from coal plants has helped make China the larges carbon-emitter on the planet. (Photo: © Imaginechina/Corbis)

So a big push for clean energy makes a lot of sense. In fact, you could easily argue that China has already done far more than the U.S. to transform its energy supply: Including hydropower, renewables now make up 20 percent of the energy mix (compared to 13 percent in the U.S.), a share targeted to double by 2030. China is the largest producer of wind and solar power on the planet. In 2013, nearly 60 percent of new-power generation was renewable. They also have 28 new nuclear plants under construction, more than any other country. Policywise, Chinese leaders have also been innovative. In the U.S., neither a carbon tax nor a cap-and-trade system to put a price on carbon pollution is under serious consideration; in contrast, China’s carbon-trading program, which includes more than 2,000 pollution sources, is the second-largest trading system in the world (after the EU’s). “If China is successful in using market forces to cap carbon and transform its economy, that may be the best shot we have to limit climate change,” says Dan Dudek, vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The problem for China, in a word, is coal: About 70 percent of the country’s electrical power comes from burning dirty rocks. The Chinese consumed nearly 4 billion tons in 2012, almost as much as the rest of the world combined. Like the oil industry in the U.S., the coal industry has enormous sway in China, making it all the more difficult to kick the habit. But as the rising power of the 21st century, China is under enormous political pressure to behave responsibly, lest it be seen as a pariah like Russia. “The choices that Chinese leaders make in the next decade will be absolutely pivotal to solving the climate crisis,” says former Vice President Al Gore. And for China’s economic and social stability, the consequences couldn’t be higher. “Politically, it’s very difficult to be fingered as the one most responsible for a looming catastrophe,” Gore continues. Or, as Harvard’s Stavins says, “If it’s your century, you don’t obstruct – you lead.”

In the decade or so after 9/11, when U.S. foreign policy revolved around hunting down and killing Islamic terrorists, we didn’t make China a priority. Then in 2011, the Obama administration announced an “Asia pivot” in U.S. foreign policy to counter China’s rising influence. Among other things, the U.S. increased its military presence and surveillance missions in the region, stoking suspicion in China that one of the goals of U.S. foreign policy is to “contain” China – both economically and militarily (if it were, the U.S. was certainly not going to admit it).

China’s response only seemed to play into our fears. China had been investing in new long-range missiles, upgrading its navy, and began using its new muscle­ to claim disputed territory in the South China Sea. China has been playing more subtle games, too: blocking access to Google and The New York Times, and having hackers raid computers at a number of U.S. corporations, stealing trade secrets. Foreign-policy journals openly speculate about the possibility of war with China, a suggestion that U.S. officials dismiss as absurd. “If there is a war between the U.S. and China,” argues Cheng Li, director of the China program at the Brookings Institution, “it will not be over economics or security, it will be because of misjudgment and misunderstanding.”

Of course, even the most rabid warmongers realize that a war between the U.S. and China would be disastrous. That’s one reason why leaders on both sides are looking for common ground – and two of the biggest shared interests are climate and energy. “In a relationship fraught with tension, these are places where we can do business,” says Obama’s adviser Podesta.

On the flight to Beijing, there is a lot of talk about what that common ground between the U.S. and China might look like. Granted, climate catastrophe is bad for everyone. But what leverage does the U.S. really have over China? On a practical level, the Chinese would like access to American technology. (“The deal here is that the U.S. will let you buy lots of energy equipment at exorbitant prices,” jokes one journalist on the flight.) But the Chinese also understand that, given the GOP-held Congress, Obama doesn’t have the power to make any big future commitments to cut carbon pollution – and so why should they?

On a more human level, there’s also a lot of nervousness about China’s notorious difficulty as a negotiating partner. “China has a very top-down culture – you have to speak to people right at the top,” one of Kerry’s top advisers tells me. “And they are very motivated on climate, due to air-pollution issues. But it’s hard to get China to do hard things, in part because, unlike other Asian countries, doing things for the greater good is not a big motivation for them.”

The mismatch between the urgency of taking action and the self-destructive diddling of diplomacy is frightening to witness. A few weeks before heading to China with Kerry, I attended a UNFCCC climate conference in Bonn, Germany. The two-week-long meeting, one of several designed to begin mapping out an agreement for Paris next year, was held in the gray, bureaucratic-feeling Maritim Hotel near the banks of the Rhine and attended by nearly 2,000 delegates from more than 180 countries. But neither John Kerry nor Todd Stern was anywhere to be found; the U.S. delegation was headed by Trigg Talley, an affable white-haired man who is one of Stern’s deputies. If Bonn was a preview of how things will go next year in Paris, then you can kiss human civilization goodbye. Because nothing will get done. And if it appears that something might get done, you can be sure that somebody – most likely the Saudis, who are infamous for their ability to throw a monkey wrench into negotiations at the last minute – will do everything they can to derail it.

The sheer tedium of the discussions is difficult to capture, but let me try: During the plenary session on the final day, which was held in a conference room the size of a football field and was supposed to be where important breakthroughs were announced, I listened for hours to delegates from Singapore discuss the kind of formatting that should be used on the proposal and to delegates from Bolivia argue that bullet points should be used, not paragraph breaks. I never heard the words “carbon” or “greenhouse gas” in the entire session (although “adaptation” got tossed around a lot). The most memorable words were spoken by a delegate from South Africa: “We are sheep in need of herding.”

In Bonn, the stench of nearly 25 years of broken promises and failed agreements was palpable. The U.S. was viewed with particular skepticism and disdain, not just because the U.S. signed but then failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, but because until this administration, American presidents and congressional leaders never did anything intentional to substantively curb carbon pollution, despite the obvious impacts it would have on poorer nations. “You talk a lot, but you are not sincere,” one Turkish delegate sniffed to me. Trust in U.S. negotiators had been further undermined when documents made public by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. had been spying on negotiators from other countries before and during Copenhagen, trying to gain intelligence on their positions. The revelations were particularly damning given the good-faith nature of climate negotiations. “After almost 30 years of this kind of thing,” one longtime participant in these talks puts it, “what measure of trust can possibly exist? How do you strike a deal on issues that are central to your country’s survival with someone you think is out to screw you?”

Issues of trust aside, several things are immediately apparent to me in Bonn about the content and design of the agreement that is likely to emerge in Paris next year. One is that it is going to disappoint and anger a lot of people, particularly those who think the job of a climate treaty is to force big polluters to change their ways. The Paris agreement will largely be a “bottom up” treaty, in which each country will put forward a “contribution” for what each is willing to do to reduce carbon pollution. Those contributions will then be reviewed in the future – exactly how and by whom isn’t clear – to make sure each nation is keeping its promise. There will be no legally binding caps on emissions, no mandated “targets” that countries need to reach. In fact, it will not be a treaty at all (a treaty would need to be ratified by the U.S. Senate, which everyone knows will never happen). It will likely be an agreement “with legal force,” which means, basically, that some parts of the agreement might be legally binding in some countries.

However toothless this approach might seem, there is logic behind it. Since Kyoto, international climate efforts have largely failed because they were too prescriptive. Few nations were willing to bow to the demands of an international carbon police. And beyond that, there was no way to enforce carbon limits.

But even if the talks succeed in creating a sustainable basis for international cooperation, whatever emerges from Paris next year is extremely unlikely to put the world on a path that would limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F), which was enshrined in the Copenhagen Accord as the threshold for dangerous climate change. For that to happen, says the Tyndall Centre’s Kevin Anderson, “global emissions from energy need to reach a peak by around 2020, and then rapidly reduce to zero by 2050 at the latest.” “I’m not giving up hope,” Kerry told me. “Physically, it’s possible. But politically, it will be very difficult.” Podesta is even more blunt. “If we wait until we have a binding international agreement that actually puts us on track for 2 C,” he says, “we’ll hit 2 C before we get an agreement. But we have to get started if we hope to get to the destination.”

The second revelation is that the Paris agreement is likely to be more about money than about carbon. That is not inappropriate: Climate change is, at its base, an environmental-justice issue, in which the rich nations of the world are inflicting damage on the poor ones. One question that has always haunted climate agreements is, how should the victims be compensated? In past U.N. agreements, developed countries have promised aid to poorer nations. But in translating these general commitments into hard numbers, says Elliot Diringer, a climate-policy expert at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, “the cash flows really have never been enough.”

In Paris, they will try again. The delivery vehicle of choice is called the Green Climate Fund, which was one of the few concrete accomplishments to come out of Copenhagen. The idea is simple: Rich countries pay into the fund, the fund’s 24-member board examines proposals from developing countries for clean-energy and climate-adaptation projects, and then it awards funds to those it finds worthy.

The Green Climate Fund was born in the closing days of the Copenhagen negotiations, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to lure China and other developing nations into a deal by promising that, in exchange for agreeing to a binding cap on carbon pollution as well as outside monitoring and verification of pollution rates, rich nations like the U.S. would pledge a combined $100 billion a year to help poor nations. Many negotiators thought it was a clever (or not so clever) ploy by the U.S. to make China take the fall for the collapse of the Copenhagen deal, since it was clear that China considers emissions data a state secret and would never allow outsiders to pore through the books. But regardless of the intentions, the deal fell apart. The $100 billion promise lingered, however, and was codified in later agreements. (Although $100 billion sounds like a lot, it’s a small part of the $1 trillion a year that will be necessary to transform the energy system.)

Right now, developed nations have a long way to go to live up to Clinton’s promise. The Green Climate Fund has taken four years to get up and running, and still nobody knows if it will primarily make loans or grants. So far, only Germany has come through with a meaningful pledge, offering $1 billion over the next nine years. Stern says the U.S. is putting “a lot of blood, sweat and tears” into getting the fund set up right, and that the $100 billion a year will come from a variety of sources, including private investment. But if the point of the fund is to demonstrate the commitment of rich nations to help the poor, it will need them to make real financial commitments. “Big new public funds are not viable,” says David Victor, a climate-policy expert at the University of California, San Diego. “This could be a train wreck of false expectations.”

In Bonn, the biggest question on many negotiator’s minds was, “Will China step up?” Despite the fact that China is the biggest carbon emitter on the planet, with the most dynamic economy in the world, the Chinese remain wedded to a 25-year-old idea that China is still a developing country, in the same category as, say, Uganda, and therefore not responsible for taking action. At least, not until the U.S. and the EU – which, with their cumulative emissions, have essentially caused the problem of global warming – take the first step. Among negotiators, China’s stance is widely viewed as a negotiating tactic to lower expectations for action and to allow it to play moral defender for other developing nations, some of whom fear that if China makes a big move, it will increase the pressure on them to do the same.

I got a preview of the kind of arguments U.S. negotiators will face when I bumped into Zou Ji, the deputy director general for the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation and a key member of the Chinese negotiating team, in the lobby of the Maritim Hotel. I asked him if the recent action by Obama to limit pollution from power plants and increase fuel-efficiency standards had changed the dynamics in the negotiations. “It is a good thing,” Ji told me. “But now, America says to us, ‘Your turn to step up.’ Well, we welcome what you have done, but we want to see more action from the U.S. first. It is very clear that Congress is a big constraint for you; Obama can only do what he can do.” Ji argues, accurately, that the U.S. is still the far richer country, and while China’s carbon emissions are enormous, if you break it down to per-capita emissions, the average American is responsible for dumping almost three times as much CO2 into the atmosphere every year as the average Chinese.

I point out to him that this is true, but that cumulative emissions in China will soon dwarf those in the United States.

“China needs to do its part, but right now the U.S. still has huge potential to do more,” he says forcefully. “I have lived in the U.S., where everyone has a clothes dryer and an air conditioner and a big refrigerator and a big house and a big car. In the EU and Japan, they also live well, but people there only consume half the energy Americans do. You do have the capacity to live at the same standard and consume far less – if you choose.”

When Kerry’s plane lands in Beijing, we immediately jump into a line of SUVs and are whisked away to the Great Wall just north of the city for what one State Department staffer calls “a little cultural sightseeing.” When I visited the wall a few years ago, the air pollution was so bad, I could hardly see 15 feet in front of me; today, it’s clear enough to see the Xishan Mountains, which are 12 miles away at the western edge of the city. Kerry strolls along the wall with Chinese dignitaries, then we motorcade to the Marriott hotel in central Beijing, where the U.S. government has taken over two floors. Security is high: The entrance to the hotel is blocked, and armed agents are everywhere. The biggest concern seems to be Chinese spies; on an earlier trip to China, five members of Todd Stern’s team received spoof e-mails that contained a bot that could have given a hacker control of their computers, and shortly after I check into my hotel, I am told that I can assume my room is bugged and my e-mail is read. Across the street from the hotel is an Apple Store, Gucci, Hermès and, strangely, a coal-fired power plant with clouds and a blue sky painted on the sides, as if to disguise the dirty black rocks burning within.

The next morning, Chinese President Xi Jinping opens the talks at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, an elegant retreat in western Beijing. His address to 500 or so American and Chinese dignitaries isn’t exactly a rousing call to action on climate change. Instead, he talks about the importance of keeping the Chinese economy humming, declaring that China needs a peaceful and stable environment “more than ever.” Xi is a tough-looking guy with a Tony Soprano vibe, and his speech leaves no doubt that he sees China as the rising power. “It is natural that China and the U.S. may have different views, and even frictions, on certain issues,” he says. Then he adds, “Confrontation between China and the United States would definitely spell disaster for the two countries and for the wider world.” Xi only mentions climate change once, in a passing reference to it as a significant challenge that both nations face.

Protestors take to the streets in China

Protestors take to the streets to fight construction of a chemical factory in May 2013. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Xi, who came to power in 2013, is “a very strong leader for China,” says Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution. Li contrasts him with other recent Chinese leaders, most of whom tended to be pale figures who dutifully rose through the ranks of the Communist Party. Xi, who is 61, rules with authority and efficiency. He grew up the son of a deputy prime minister and revolutionary who was known as an architect of China’s special economic zones, which were important drivers in the liberalization of China. As president, Xi has cracked down on corruption and is a fierce defender of Chinese interests in disputed territories like the South China Sea. He has also toughened up China’s internal security forces (China spends more on domestic security than it does on national defense). But U.S. officials who have had close contact with Xi are impressed by his directness. One White House staffer pointed to a recent agreement to reduce hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas, that Xi worked out with Obama last year. “Xi rolled the Chinese bureaucracy to get that done,” the staffer says. Kerry also sees him as an effective leader. “I had long conversations with Xi while I was chair of the Foreign Relations Committee,” he tells me. “The kind of action we’ve seen in China recently doesn’t happen without his personal commitment.”

When Kerry takes the podium after Xi steps down, he is conciliatory. He reassures Xi and other Chinese leaders in the room that the U.S. does not seek to “contain” China, and that it welcomes the emergence of “a peaceful, prosperous China that . . . chooses to play a responsible role in world affairs.” He, too, talks a lot about economic growth and how “the true measure of our success will not be just whether our countries grow, but how our countries grow.” Kerry continues, “Step by step, we are shifting our focus . . . to the inescapable reality of a clean-energy future.”

When Kerry travels to countries where the U.S. might be perceived to have the upper hand, he can be very blunt about the potential ravages of climate change. A few months ago, in a speech in Jakarta, Indonesia, he called it the “world’s most fearsome” weapon of mass destruction. But Kerry doesn’t say a word here about melting ice caps, rising seas or weapons of mass destruction. Instead, he talks about how clean energy is “the biggest market the world has ever seen.” He talks investment flows, technology sharing and pollution-free prosperity. “Our goal,” Podesta tells me, “is to create a virtuous circle in the Pacific, where they match our ambition, and then we match theirs.”

For the U.S., pushing for action is imperative: If China makes an aggressive move on carbon, it kills a favorite political talking point from climate deniers in Congress. “I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve sat in where the subject of ‘What is China doing?’ comes up,” says Podesta. “For us, it’s important that we take that objection off the table.”

For the Chinese, beyond the obvious motivation to clean up the air, the question is what they want from the U.S. in return. As Kerry put it to me later, “The Chinese have a lot of stuff they want from us. We have natural gas. We have coal. We have clean-energy technology.” How this bargaining works out is the heart of the negotiations and gets into complex areas like protection of intellectual property rights. In the past, the Chinese simply wanted to buy our technology, copy it and manufacture it more cheaply than anyone else. “But that dynamic has changed,” says one Department of Energy official. “Now the deals are much more about joint ventures and shared investment.”

Later in the day, top members of the U.S. and China delegations meet in a conference room on the second floor for the Joint Session on Climate Change and Clean Energy. It is a stiffly formal scene, with Kerry, Podesta, Stern, U.S. Energy Secretary Moniz and science adviser John Holdren on one side of a long mahogany table, and Chinese leaders, including Vice Premier Wang Yang and lead climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua, on the other side. In this more intimate group, the Chinese are much blunter and more forthright about the risks of climate change. But it isn’t clear if this is because they feel more relaxed or because they are more willing to say what the U.S. wants to hear. State Councilor Yang, who opens the discussion, calls climate change “a common and grave challenge to mankind.” He talks about actions the Chinese government has taken to promote clean energy and efficiency, and he underscores China’s support of the UNFCCC climate negotiations. “We have also maintained close dialogue in consultation on [the U.S.’s and China’s] respective climate-change policies,” he says.

Kerry nods politely and then reads from prepared remarks: “Every one of us in this room is well aware that the climate crisis is one that respects no border. It’s transboundary. It affects the planet.”

The Chinese leaders listen carefully, just as the American team listened carefully to Yang’s remarks, attuned to nuances and gestures that gain trust or lose it, that show respect or haughtiness. And yet, I get the strong sense at this meeting, and at every other one I’ve attended, that 15 levels of chess are being played, that the motives and impulses of each side remain unknowable to the other, and that both sides are making calculations that will shape their careers, their economies and the future of the planet. And always the fear – expressed in the glint of an eye, a moment of hesitation – that each is being played. The Chinese worry that the U.S. won’t keep their word or has a secret plan to thwart their economic growth; the Americans worry that the Chinese are using shady data, and that they are only in it for the money.

Sometimes, the enormous gap between how the Chinese run their country and how the Americans run theirs reveals itself. One of those moments occurs on the second day of the talks in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, which is China’s parliamentary chamber. Kerry and Yang appear at a press conference to bestow six “EcoPartnership” awards to American and Chinese organizations that are collaborating on clean-energy and climate solutions. In the context of the talks, it is a small-bore event, with a handful of dignitaries and some Chinese press.

But maybe because of this, Kerry’s remarks at the event are looser and less diplomatic than anything I’ve heard him say earlier. They are also more dangerous politically, because he talks about the one thing the Chinese leadership is most afraid of: the power of social activism. He describes how, in 1970, after 20 million Americans attended Earth Day rallies, public outrage led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the passage of the Clean Air Act and, later, the Clean Water Act. “So I have seen the power of grassroots action, of local efforts becoming magnified and ultimately creating action at a larger, federal level,” Kerry says, his voice rising. “And I see that same kind of drive, that same kernel of innovation, and of demand for a difference, right here [in China], today.”

Kerry’s larger point is undoubtedly true – there is a rising consciousness of environmental issues in China, a sense that civilized societies don’t let their rivers catch fire. But as Kerry knows very well, there will be no organized demonstrations of millions of people marching on the streets in China, demanding change. If they tried, they would likely be tear-gassed or thrown in jail. Activism, such as it is in China, is either well-behaved and sanctioned by the state, or it is deemed reckless and dangerous and quickly shut down.

After his remarks at the Great Hall of the People, Kerry gets polite applause and then sits down to listen to a boilerplate speech from Yang. If anyone noticed that the secretary of state of the United States had just suggested that a populist movement in the People’s Republic of China could challenge the status quo, it wasn’t apparent.

One person who understands the dangers of social activism as well as anyone is Shuo Li, 27, a climate-policy officer for Greenpeace East Asia. Shortly after Kerry’s talk, I visited Li at Greenpeace’s office in Beijing. A year earlier, Greenpeace had published an investigation into the development of a coal-to-liquids plant in Inner Mongolia. Transforming coal into liquid fuels like diesel (or, in a similar process, natural gas) is expensive and, more importantly, an environmental disaster. Compared with typical refining processes, coal liquefaction produces 14 times the amount of carbon dioxide.

What’s interesting about Greenpeace’s investigation is that it targeted the owner of the plant, Shenhua Group, which is China’s biggest coal producer and a political powerhouse. (“Shenhua is the monster,” Li says.) In the U.S., enviros go after big companies all the time. But in China, this kind of action is unprecedented. As was its effectiveness. Li says the company called in Greenpeace, and Shenhua agreed to quit pumping out groundwater for use in the plant.

I ask Li if this is a sign that Chinese leaders are becoming more tolerant of environmental activism?

“Maybe a little,” Li says. He explains that unlike, say, publicly celebrating the Dalai Lama or arguing for the ethical treatment of the Uighur minority in China, it’s OK to raise questions about environmental problems. “But you have to do it the right way. You can go after local officials or individual power plants.” But, as he points out, there is no clear line between what is acceptable and what is not. “That is something everyone has to discover for themselves,” he says. He adds with a sly smile: “For the government, it is more effective that way.”

But Li knows he’s treading dangerous ground. In 2012, a 65-year-old former forestry official was threatened with five years in prison for publishing and distributing books that questioned the overdevelopment of Hainan Island in southern China. (He received a three-year suspended sentence and a fine.) Two years earlier, one of Beijing’s most respected science reporters, Fang Xuanchang, who earned a reputation for calling bullshit on many government-funded research projects, was brutally beaten on his way home from work. His assailants were never found. The message, as one journalist wrote in Foreign Policy, was clear: “Don’t go there, or you could be next.”

I asked about the rising number of protests around the country against industrial plants found to be dumping chemicals­ into rivers, or protesters throwing bricks at police to halt the construction of a new power plant. “Individual NIMBY actions are acceptable,” Li says. “But when you try to mobilize people on a larger scale, that is when you get in trouble.”

“Trouble, how?”

“You don’t even want to think about it,” Li answers, fear flashing in his eyes.

The rise of China, which was driven by the biggest and fastest industrial revolution the world has ever seen, was fueled almost entirely by coal. And its continued success – not to mention, in many ways, the fate of human civilization – depends on how quickly it can wean itself off this cheap, dirty, abundant fossil fuel. “The big question,” Moniz told me in Beijing, “is how fast they can bend down the curve of coal.”

“Bending down the curve of coal” is geek-speak for reducing dependency on coal. Because coal – by far the most carbon­intensive fossil fuel – will most likely be replaced by cleaner energy sources; in that case, the moment China’s coal consumption plateaus will also be the moment their greenhouse-gas pollution plateaus. And that could be the moment the world begins a transition toward a stable climate.

But the question is: When will that moment occur? In China, this question will not be answered by the invisible hand of the market but, ultimately, by the strong hand of President Xi and other party leaders. Xi and his advisers will make a complex economic and political calculation about how far they want to push clean energy – and whether they want to encourage a shift away from coal by, say, expanding the existing carbon-trading market, passing a straightforward tax on carbon, or simply issuing a dictum that caps the amount of coal the nation can consume. A few weeks before my conversation with Moniz, a respected Chinese academic had speculated that China would cap coal consumption by 2030. “That would be a big step in the right direction,” Gore told me. But as Gore well knows, unless that cap is followed by a radical and almost unimaginable global shift toward zero-carbon energy, it’s not a big enough step to avert climate chaos in the coming decades.

China has already taken a number of measures to move away from coal. It is reportedly closing down 50,000 small coal-fired furnaces and has essentially stopped building new coal plants in big eastern cities like Beijing and Shanghai. In 2020, burning coal will be banned in Beijing. But given the enormity of China’s coal addiction, these are just baby steps compared to what is needed.

And that’s one reason why the Chinese are very interested in natural gas. Natural gas has about half the carbon of coal, and burning it creates much less air pollution. China has the biggest shale-gas reserves in the world and would dearly like to unleash an American-style fracking boom (which is its own kind of environmental nightmare, of course). But the technology used to extract the gas from shale, which was invented in the U.S., is complex and not easy to replicate. In addition, shale gas in China is more deeply buried than in the U.S., and the soil is less porous, making the gas more difficult to extract. And thanks to methane leaks during fracking operations (methane, the principal component of natural gas, is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas), the climate benefits of natural gas are questionable.

Imagining a fracked-out China is not pretty, but it might beat the alternative – making natural gas out of coal. The process is similar to the coal-to-liquids plant in Inner Mongolia that Greenpeace singled out, and like that process, it is both water- and carbon-intensive. China already has two coal-to-gas plants in operation, with as many as 48 more on the drawing board. Most of them are slated to be built in western China, far from population centers, where Chinese leaders are eager to spur development and provide jobs. But the cost to the atmosphere will be enormous. If all of these plants get built, they will collectively emit more than a billion tons of CO2 each year – more than the entire nation of Germany emitted last year.

Moniz calls coal-to-gas plants in western China “a major issue” for Chinese and U.S. negotiators. “Burning natural gas may help them solve the problem of air pollution,” says Moniz. “But if they get it by manufacturing it from coal, they will be creating another, much larger problem.” And it’s one that impacts everyone on the planet.

The talks ended on a hot, humid afternoon in the Zhongnanhai compound in central Beijing, which houses offices for the Politburo’s most senior members. The compound, which is heavily guarded and closed to the public, is a reminder of China’s Imperial era, with a collection of traditional pavilions scattered around three lovely lakes. Kerry met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in the Purple Light Pavilion, a brightly painted pagoda-style building with small porcelain animals on the corners of the roof. Li has none of the bluster – or power – of President Xi, and after exchanging greetings and thank-yous, Kerry seemed eager to hit the road. They spoke in private for a half-hour, then Kerry climbed back into his SUV, and we motorcaded back to the Marriott for a final press conference.

Within minutes, the State Department was e-mailing a list of accomplishments to reporters, including joint U.S.-China demonstration projects on smart grids, technology to capture carbon from coal plants, and new initiatives on forestry and industrial boilers. It was all both important and unimportant, small steps in a long, long march. Later, Kerry would tell me he was impressed by what he’d seen from the Chinese on climate during the trip – “There was no backsliding,” he says. Others on the U.S. team described their sense that key Chinese leaders they’d met were “extraordinarily forward-leaning.”

But huge questions still loom about how far the U.S. and China and every other big polluter on the planet will go to cut emissions. For negotiators who are pushing for a tough agreement with meaningful reductions and clear financial accounting, the biggest fear is not that the U.S. and China won’t agree on key issues, but that they will agree on too much: “We are afraid that the U.S. and China will strike a bargain that makes them both comfortable, but does little or nothing to reduce the risk of climate change,” says Mohamed Adow, senior adviser for Christian Aid, a U.K.-based relief agency that works in many developing nations. “Then the rest of the world will have to decide if they want to go along, or fight for a stronger agreement.”

A few hours later, Kerry and his team jet off to Afghanistan. The world is a big, complicated place, and everyone – even the most committed climate warriors like Kerry – has a lot of other things to think about beyond how much carbon we are dumping into the atmosphere. And that, in a way, is always the problem: There is always something more urgent, more immediately catastrophic to seize the attention of policymakers – and in the coming years, many of the crises that will distract us from dealing with the realities of climate change will largely have been caused by climate change. Through all these short-term emergencies, the Earth will keep warming, the droughts will get worse, food will grow scarce, ice will vanish, the seas will rise, and starting around 2030, climate change will emerge from the background and eventually become the only thing we talk about. It will be the story of the century.

When we get to the Marriott, I walk across the sleek marble lobby with Podesta, who looks uncharacteristically somber. Just before we step into Kerry’s press conference – where he will again underscore the importance of taking action on climate change – I ask Podesta if two days of talks with the Chinese have made him feel more hopeful about Paris next year.

“Yes,” he says. “But it’s going to be a hard road.”

From The Archives Issue 1218: September 25, 2014

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Atmospheric mercury review raises concerns of environmental impact (Science Daily)

Date: August 28, 2014

Source: University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Summary: The cycling of mercury through soil and water has been studied as it impacts atmospheric loadings, researchers report. Recent studies that show increasing levels of mercury in the ocean’s upper levels, along with news reports of Arkansas lakes as a hotspot for mercury in fish, have heightened awareness of the potential harm mercury poses. 

The professor and chair of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Department of Chemistry has recently completed an in-depth review of atmospheric mercury in Energy and Emissions Control Technologies, an open access peer-review journal published by Dove Press.

Dr. Jeffrey S. Gaffney and his co-author Nancy A. Marley stressed in their article the many forms that atmospheric mercury takes and how its levels are in balance with mercury levels found in our water, soil, and the biosphere.

Recent studies that show increasing levels of mercury in the ocean’s upper levels, along with news reports of Arkansas lakes as a hotspot for mercury in fish, have heightened awareness of the potential harm mercury poses.

The article, titled “In-depth review of atmospheric mercury: sources, transformations, and potential sink,” has seen extensive online traffic since it was first published Aug. 6.

Gaffney said the high volume of page visits was likely tied to the recent news concerning the rising levels of mercury in the oceans. Mercury is a toxic, heavy metal found naturally throughout the global environment.

Increased levels of mercury in the water could be caused by atmospheric deposition primarily in precipitation, something not usually considered when measuring mercury levels, according to the authors.

This timely review outlines the chemistry of mercury in gas, aqueous, and solid phases, including inorganic, organic, and complexed mercury species. The research particularly brings attention to the wet reaction of gaseous mercury with hydrogen peroxide that can occur in clouds and on wet aerosol surfaces.

The sources and fate of mercury in the atmosphere, including the cycling of mercury through soil and water as it impacts atmospheric loadings, are also examined in the review, as well as recommendations for future studies.


Journal Reference:

  1. Jeffrey Gaffney, Nancy Marley. In-depth review of atmospheric mercury: sources, transformations, and potential sinks. Energy and Emission Control Technologies, 2014; 1 DOI: 10.2147/EECT.S37038

“Rollin’ Coal” Is Pollution Porn for Dudes With Pickup Trucks (Vocativ)

Diesel drivers in rural America have been modifying their trucks to spew out black soot, then posting pics to the Internet. They hate you and your Prius


Posted: 06/16/14 08:51 EDT

In small towns across America, manly men are customizing their jacked-up diesel trucks to intentionally emit giant plumes of toxic smoke every time they rev their engines. They call it “rollin’ coal,” and it’s something they do for fun.

An entire subculture has emerged on the Internet surrounding this soot-spewing pastime—where self-declared rednecks gather on Facebook pages (16,000 collective followers) Tumblers and Instagram (156,714 posts) to share photos and videos of their Dodge Rams and GM Silverados purposefully poisoning the sky. As one of their memes reads: “Roll, roll, rollin’ coal, let the hybrid see. A big black cloud. Exhaust that’s loud. Watch the city boy flee.”


Of course, there are things about diesel lovers and their trucks that the rest of us weren’t meant to understand. Like how the guttural noise of a grumbling engine sounds like music when the muffler is removed. Or how the higher the lift and the bigger the tires—the better the man. As Robbie, a 25-year-old mechanic at a diesel garage in South Carolina, puts it, “Your truck is not just something to get you from point A to point B. It’s who you are.” In other words, mushrooming clouds of diesel exhaust are just another way to show off your manhood.

Robbie has been rollin’ coal since he got his first truck 12 years ago, but he admits the allure is “kind of hard to put words on.” “It’s just fun,” he says. “Just driving and blowing smoke and having a good time.”

Rollin Coal 05

The pollution pageantry has its origins in Truck Pulls, a rural motorsport where diesel pickups challenge one another to see who can pull a weighted sled the farthest. In order to have an edge, drivers started modifying their trucks to dump excessive fuel into the motor, which gave them more horsepower, torque, speed and a better chance of winning. It also made their trucks emit black smoke, an affectation that apparently won the hearts of country boys everywhere. Today kids will spend anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 modifying their pickups for this sole purpose; adding smoke stacks and smoke switches (which trick the engine into thinking it needs more gas), or even revamping the entire fuel system.

Rollin Coal 02
A Dodge doing its part.
Rollin Coal 03

Aside from being macho, the rollin’ coal culture is also a renegade one. Kids make a point of blowing smoke back at pedestrians, in addition to cop cars and rice burners (Japanese-made sedans), which can make it dangerously difficult to see out of the windshield. Diesel soot can also be a great road rage weapon should some wimpy looking Honda Civic ever piss you off. “If someone makes you mad, you can just roll coal, and it makes you feel better sometimes,” says Ryan, a high school senior who works at the diesel garage with Robbie. “The other day I did it to this kid who was driving a Mustang with his windows down, and it was awesome.”

The ultimate highway enemy, however, are “nature nuffies,” or people who drive hybrid cars, because apparently, pro-earth sentiment is an offense to the diesel-trucking lifestyle. “The feeling around here is that everyone who drives a small car is a liberal,” says Ryan. “I rolled coal on a Prius once just because they were tailing me.”

Rollin Coal 04

According to the Clean Air Taskforce, diesel exhaust is one of the country’s greatest sources of toxic pollutants and leads to 21,000 premature deaths each year, but even that won’t deter the coal rollers. “I’m not a scientist, but it couldn’t be too horrible,” Robbie says. “There are a lot of factories that are doing way worse than my truck.”

It should be said that not all diesel drivers roll coal. Older enthusiasts call it a waste of fuel and think it gives their kind a bad name, but like a tobacco habit, the younger set are willing to overlook the risks. “It’s bad for the environment. That’s definitely true,” says Ryan. “And some of the kids that have diesel trucks can look like tools. And you can cause a wreck, but everything else about it is pretty good.”

Eric Eyges contributed Deep Web reporting to this article.

Welcome to West Port Arthur, Texas, Ground Zero in the Fight for Climate Justice (The Nation)

If you live in a toxic environment like this, surrounded by refineries, you’re probably not thinking about some future apocalypse. You’re living in one.

Wen Stephenson

June 3, 2014   |    This article appeared in the June 23-30, 2014 edition of The Nation.

West Port Arthur

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

Hilton Kelley stood smiling in the clear April sunshine outside Kelley’s Kitchen in the Gulf Coast city of Port Arthur, Texas, and extended a hand. Kelley, 53, is a big-framed man, with generous, gentle eyes and white stubble. The sign on the small corner restaurant readsDelicious Home-Cooked Food, but Kelley’s Kitchen is no longer serving. Kelley opened the place up in his beloved hometown in 2010 and managed to keep it running for about two and a half years. “It was going fairly well,” he told me. “But, you know, the town really doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic on this side of Port Arthur anymore.”

Kelley’s Kitchen is the only structure left standing on its section of Austin Avenue, just two blocks from the main downtown thoroughfare. In every direction are more vacant lots and dilapidated buildings—windows blown out, many of them empty for years, even decades. In the bright sun, the streets at midday on a Friday were ghostly quiet.

“This area was once a thriving community,” Kelley said. “It was traffic up and down Austin Avenue here.”

He invited me inside, out of the glare, and we sat at one of the tables in the well-kept place, which he now rents out for private parties and special occasions—there’s even a small dance floor complete with shiny disco ball. But that’s not all that goes on at Kelley’s Kitchen. The space doubles as the office of the Community In-Power & Development Association, or CIDA—the small, tough, grassroots community advocacy and environmental justice organization that Kelley founded in 2000, soon after returning to Port Arthur from California, where he was working in the movie industry as an actor and stunt man. In 2011, he received the prestigious Goldman Prize for his environmental justice activism. Kelley has testified before the Texas Legislature and the US Senate, addressed UNESCO in Paris, and met President Obama at the White House.

Just a few blocks from where we sat is the historic African-American community of West Port Arthur, where Kelley was born and raised in the Carver Terrace housing project, on the fence line of two massive oil refineries—one owned by Valero (formerly Gulf Oil) and the other by Motiva (formerly Texaco). In fact, the recently completed expansion of the Motiva refinery, which Kelley’s group fought hard against, makes it the largest in the nation, having more than doubled its capacity to 600,000 barrels of crude per day. Nearby are five more petrochemical plants and the Veolia incinerator facility. Port Arthur is on the receiving end of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline, the southern leg of which—cutting through East Texas communities—went operational in January. But the industry brings few jobs to West Port Arthur, where unemployment is over 15 percent. Workers commute to the plants, and economic development has moved north since the 1980s, along with white flight, to the newer Mid-County area along Highway 69 toward Nederland, where you’ll find a sudden explosion of malls, big-box stores, hotels and theme restaurants with busy parking lots.

And yet the economic abandonment of the downtown area and West Port Arthur, in the very shadow of the world’s richest industry, isn’t even the whole story—there’s also the pollution, some of the most toxic in the country. “One in five West Port Arthur households has someone in it with a respiratory illness,” Kelley said. “One in five.” The county’s cancer mortality rate, according to a recent study, is 25 percent higher than the state average. Toxic “events”—whether from gas flares or accidents—are common, Kelley told me: emissions often darkening the sky, fumes wafting into the neighborhood. The community is downwind of several of the refineries nearby. “If one isn’t flaring or smoking, another one is,” Kelley said. “At least twice a month, we’re going to get some flaring and smoke from one of them.” As much as he can, he documents the events. “Sometimes it’ll be really pungent, to the point where it stings the nose and eyes.”

But apart from these incidents, he added, there’s the constant day-to-day toxic menace in the air. “It’s not always what you see—it’s what you don’t see. A lot of these gases are very dangerous. Sometimes newcomers will smell it and we can’t, because we’re desensitized to it.”

* * *

Kelley had offered to show me around Port Arthur and give me the fence-line tour on the west side, the community where he grew up. I knew about his accomplishments with CIDA—among other things, how they’d successfully pressured both Motiva and Valero, the former to install state-of-the-art equipment to reduce toxic emissions and pay for a community development center, and the latter to fund a new health clinic. And I understood that CIDA is more than an environmental justice group: its mission is to educate, empower and revitalize the community, working especially with young people. I knew that Kelley has made a real difference since returning home.

But before we left Kelley’s Kitchen, I needed to ask him about another threat—one that, given Port Arthur’s economic and racial marginalization, its proximity to dangerous petrochemical infrastructure, and its location on the gulf, could ultimately be the most devastating of all.

Yes, he answered, “we are seeing some of the impacts of climate change around here, as a matter of fact.” The rising sea level has washed out parts of Highway 87 between Port Arthur and Galveston. “They’ve abandoned the road,” Kelley said. And the ferocity of hurricanes, from Katrina and Rita to Ike, has shaken even Port Arthur natives like him. They were spared the worst of Katrina, “but Rita came very soon after that, and that’s when we got hit hard,” Kelley said. “I mean, a lot of the houses are gone. You can still see the FEMA tarps on some of the roofs today. A lot of homes that were once inhabited are now abandoned, because the federal dollars didn’t come in soon enough and the houses just dry-rotted.” The residents of Port Arthur haven’t faced the kind of epic flooding that was seen in New Orleans, but with Hurricane Ike they came close. “Ike brought in a huge surge, and it reached right to the top of our hundred-year levee but didn’t breach it.” Even so, the roof of Kelley’s old office was torn off: “The rain just poured in and destroyed everything.”

I’d heard about Port Arthur, but nothing prepared me for the physical reality of the place—a decaying, all-but-forgotten urban landscape inhabited by a struggling and precariously resilient community. As you drive west and north out of downtown, the refineries stretch for miles, at times towering over you like something out of dystopian science fiction. But this is not some futuristic scenario—it’s here and now. And those same smokestacks that are poisoning the inhabitants of Port Arthur are part of a global fossil fuel infrastructure that has trapped us in its political-economic grip, threatening civilization and the future of life on Earth—threatening not only the children of Port Arthur but everyone’s children, everywhere, including my own.

And yet, here’s the thing: if you live in West Port Arthur and toxic emissions have ruined your health, or your child can’t go to school because she can’t breathe, or you can’t find a job and feed your kids and see no way out of the projects—or all of the above—then you’re probably not thinking about some future apocalypse. You’re living in one. You inhabit an apocalyptic present. And what’s true of Port Arthur is true of frontline communities across the Gulf Coast and across the continent—and the world.

* * *

The struggle for climate justice is a struggle at the crossroads of historic and present injustices and a looming catastrophe that will prove to be, if allowed to unfold unchecked, the mother of all injustices. Because the disaster that is unfolding now will not only compound the suffering of those already oppressed—indeed, is already compounding it—but may very well foreclose any future hope of social stability and social justice.

So why does the term “climate justice” barely register in the American conversation about climate change? Lurking in that question is a tension at the heart of the struggle: a tension between the mainstream climate movement (largely white, well-funded and Washington-focused) and those—most often people of color—who have been fighting for social and environmental justice for decades.

Nobody has worked longer and harder at this intersection of climate and environmental justice than Robert Bullard, the celebrated sociologist and activist who is often called the father of the environmental justice movement. In 1994, he founded the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, the first of its kind, and since 2011 he’s been the dean of the Barbara Jordan–Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston. It was Bullard who introduced me to Hilton Kelley, and I knew he could offer historical insight into the relationship between the environmental justice and climate movements.

“Climate change looms as the global environmental justice issue of the twenty-first century,” Bullard writes in 2012’s The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African American Communities, co-authored with longtime collaborator Beverly Wright, founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in New Orleans. “It poses special environmental justice challenges for communities that are already overburdened with air pollution, poverty, and environmentally related illnesses.” Climate change, as Bullard and Wright show, exacerbates existing inequities. “The most vulnerable populations will suffer the earliest and most damaging setbacks,” they write, “even though they have contributed the least to the problem of global warming.” (As if to prove the point, their project was delayed for more than two years by Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed the Deep South Center’s computer files and devastated Wright’s New Orleans East community. Her chapters documenting the unequal treatment of the city’s African-Americans in the Katrina recovery are a tour de force.)

Bullard’s landmark 1990 book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Qualityestablished the empirical and theoretical—and, for that matter, moral—basis of environmental justice. Through his early work on the siting of urban landfills in Houston’s African-American neighborhoods, beginning in 1978, as well as the siting around the country of toxic waste and incineration facilities, petrochemical plants and refineries, polluting power plants and more, Bullard has systematically exposed the structural and at times blatant racism—which he calls “environmental racism”—underlying the disproportionate burden of pollution on communities of color, especially African-African communities in the South. His work has done much to set the agenda of the environmental-justice movement.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Executive Order 12898, signed by Bill Clinton in February 1994, which explicitly established environmental justice in minority and low-income populations as a principle of federal policy. This year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act—a fitting coincidence, as Bullard likes to point out, because the “EJ” executive order reinforced the historic 1964 law. However, in a report released in February called “Environmental Justice Milestones and Accomplishments: 1964 to 2014,” Bullard and his colleagues at TSU write, in what must qualify as understatement: “The EJ Executive Order after twenty years and three U.S. presidents has never been fully implemented.”

I sat down with Bob Bullard (as he’s universally known) in April in his office at TSU, where we had two lively and substantive conversations. I’d interviewed him once before, by phone last August, and in the meantime he’d been much in demand. In September, he received the Sierra Club’s John Muir Award, its highest honor; in March, he delivered the opening keynote address at the National Association of Environmental Law Societies conference at Harvard Law School, assessing environmental justice after twenty years (former EPA chief Lisa Jackson was the other keynoter). He received two standing ovations from the jam-packed Harvard audience.

* * *

Bullard, who grew up in small-town Alabama, speaks with an orator’s cadences and a comedian’s timing. At 67, he has a fighter’s glint in his eye and an irresistibly mischievous grin above a Du Boisian goatee (he calls W.E.B. Du Bois his intellectual hero). In Houston, I asked him about the relationship between environmental justice, traditionally understood, and climate justice—and why they sometimes appear to be in tension, at least in the United States.

Bullard likes to start with a history lesson. In 1991, he helped convene the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC, where seventeen “Principles of Environmental Justice” were adopted. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, those principles were circulated in several languages. But it wasn’t until 2000, in The Hague, that Bullard joined other leaders and groups from around the world for the first “climate justice summit,” meeting in parallel with the sixth United Nations climate conference, or COP 6. “It was a very transformative time,” Bullard recalled. “When environmental justice groups and groups working on climate, on human rights and social justice and civil rights, came together in The Hague in 2000, ‘climate justice’ was not a term that was universally used.” At that summit, “we said that climate justice has to be the centerpiece in dealing with climate change. If you look at the communities that are impacted first, worst and longest—whether in Asia, Africa, Latin America or here in the US—when you talk about the majority of people around the world, climate justice is not a footnote. It is the centerpiece.” And this is not a minority view, he added: “It’s the majority view.”

And yet, Bullard said, here in the United States, “equity and justice get a footnote”—in terms of framing the conversation, it’s been a struggle to make sure that justice is given parity with the science. “That’s the rub,” Bullard told me. “And that’s why the climate movement has not been able to get traction like you’d think it would, given the facts that are there. The people on the ground who could actually form the face of climate change, be the poster child of global warming—they’re almost relegated to the fringes. And that is a mistake.” In the United States as well as globally, Bullard said, “we know the faces, we know what they look like. We know the frontline communities, the frontline nations. But to what extent do we have leadership that’s reflective of communities that are hardest hit? Very little has changed over the last twenty years when it comes to who’s out there.”

I observed that climate justice ought to be the most unifying concept on the planet, if only for the simple reason that people tend to care about their children and grandchildren. I had asked Bullard earlier about the idea of intergenerational justice—the fact that, along with those in the poorest and most vulnerable communities around the world, today’s young people and future generations will bear the vastly disproportionate, potentially devastating impacts of climate change. Isn’t climate justice really environmental justice writ large—in fact, on a global scale—yet with this added generational dimension?

“Exactly,” Bullard said. “And for me, that’s the glue and the organizing catalyst that can bring people together across racial and class lines.”

In that case, I wondered aloud, if the central mission and purpose of the climate movement is to prevent runaway, civilization-destroying global warming—in other words, to create the necessary political and economic conditions for a last-ditch, all-out effort to keep enough fossil fuels in the ground—then isn’t that work already about racial, economic, social and, yes, generational justice? Because the consequences, if we don’t do everything possible to keep fossil fuels in the ground—

“Then we’re not going to have any justice,” Bullard interjected.

“In terms of the moral imperative,” he added, “looking at the severe impacts—the impact on food security, on cross-border conflicts, war, climate refugees—when you look at the human rights piece, in terms of threats to humanity, if we drew it out and looked at it, I think more people would be appalled at these little baby steps that we’re taking. This is an emergency, and it calls for emergency action—not baby steps, but emergency action.”

Nevertheless, Bullard also explained why that all-consuming focus on greenhouse gas emissions is insufficient by itself.

“You have to understand that in order to have a movement, people have to identify with—andown—the movement,” he said. “Just saying climate change is a big problem is not enough to get people to say, ‘We’re gonna work to try to keep coal and oil in the ground.’ There has to be something to trigger people to say, ‘This is my own movement.’”

Bullard believes that the climate justice framework can “bring more people to the table.” Take the example of coal plants: “The environmental justice analysis is that it’s not just the greenhouse gases we’re talking about; in terms of health, it’s also these nasty co-pollutants that are doing damage right now. Not the future—right now.”

So to bring those people to the table, he continued, “you have to say: How do you build a movement around that and reach people where they are?”

* * *

Last year, Bullard and his colleagues at TSU and other historically black colleges and universities—including Beverly Wright at Dillard and the Deep South Center in New Orleans—launched an initiative they call the Climate Education Community University Partnership (CECUP). “We’re linking our schools with these vulnerable communities,” Bullard told me, “trying to get to a population that has historically been left out. We’re going to try to get our people involved.”

When you look at the most vulnerable communities, the “adaptation hot spots,” he added, these are the same communities the schools were founded to serve, and often the very places in which they are located. “We’re not going to wait for somebody to ride in on a white horse and say, ‘We’re going to save these communities!’” Bullard said. “We have to take leadership.”

The initiative invests in a new generation of young scholars and leaders who can draw the connections between greenhouse gas emissions, climate adaptation, and the classic environmental justice issues of pollution, health, and racial and class disparities. “Our folks on the ground can make the connections between these dirty diesel buses, that dirty coal plant, and their kids having to go to the emergency room because of an asthma attack, with no health insurance,” Bullard said. “We see it as human rights issues, environmental issues, health issues, issues of differential power.”

Clearly, anyone like me—with my 40,000-foot view of the climate crisis—would do well to try seeing the concept of climate justice from the ground up, at street level, and through a racial-equity lens. Sitting down with five of Bullard’s graduate students at TSU—joined by two of his colleagues, sociologist and associate dean Glenn Johnson and environmental toxicologist Denae King—I was treated to a generous portion of that ground-up perspective.

For Steven Washington, a 29-year-old native of Houston’s Third Ward and a second-year master’s student in urban planning and public policy, “climate change means asthma; it means health disparities.” Working in Pleasantville, a fence-line community along the Port of Houston, he’s concerned about the city’s notorious air quality, graded F by the American Lung Association, and what it means for a population—especially the elderly—ill equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change. For Jenise Young, a 33-year-old doctoral student in urban planning and environmental policy whose 9-year-old son suffers from severe asthma, climate change is also about “food deserts” like the one surrounding the TSU campus—a social inequity that climate change, as it increases food insecurity, only deepens. (The wealthier University of Houston campus next door inhabits something of an oasis in that desert.) Jamila Gomez, 26, a second-year master’s student in urban planning and environmental policy, points to transportation inequities—the fact that students can’t get to internships in the city, that the elderly can’t get to grocery stores and doctors’ offices, that the bus service takes too long and Third Ward bus stops lack shade on Houston’s sweltering summer days.

I asked the students if they see the growing US climate justice movement—especially students and young people who want to foreground these issues—as a hopeful sign.

“My major concern is that this is a lifelong commitment,” Young replied. “That’s my issue with a lot of the climate justice movement—that it’s the hot topic right now. Prior to that, it was Occupy Wall Street. Prior to that, it was the Obama campaign. But what happens when this is not a fad for you anymore? Because this is not a fad.”

Glenn Johnson, the co-editor of several books, including Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States, chimed in: “It’s a life-and-death situation. There are others who come into the movement, they have a choice—they can go back to their respective communities. But for us, there’s no backing out of talking about the [Houston] ship channel. We are the front line; it’s 24/7. When we wake up, we smell that shit.”

“It’s not one problem,” said Denae King. “It’s multiple problems—poverty, food security, greenhouse emissions, all of these things happening at once. In the mind of a person living in a fence-line community, you have to address all of the problems.” Climate change is urgent, she added, “but still, I have to pay my bills today. I have to provide healthy food today.”

All of which is undeniably true. And it is equally true that the scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the window in which to take serious action on climate change is closing fast. Unless we act now to begin radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience, our children and future generations face catastrophe. What you hear from climate justice advocates working on the front lines is that, precisely because of this emergency, the way to build a powerful movement is to approach climate change as an intersectional issue.

After I left Houston, I spoke with Jacqueline Patterson, director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the NAACP. One of the first things she did upon arriving in 2009, Patterson told me, was to write a memo looking at climate justice and the NAACP’s traditional agenda. “It went area by area—health, education, civic engagement, criminal justice, economic development—and showed how environmental and climate justice directly intersect in myriad ways.”

Patterson’s work rests on the understanding that if we’re going to address climate change seriously, then we’re in for a rapid energy transition—one that’s by no means guaranteed to be smooth or economically just. In December, her initiative released its “Just Energy Policies” report, looking state by state at the measures—from local-hire provisions to ones for minority- and women-owned businesses—that can help bring about a just transition to clean energy. At a press conference in Milwaukee the day before, Patterson said, she stood next to NAACP leaders, “and we were talking about starting a training and job-placement program for formerly incarcerated youth and youth at risk around solar installation and energy-efficiency retrofitting.” An energy-efficiency bill was recently introduced in the Missouri Legislature, she noted. “Before, we might not have seen the NAACP getting behind that legislation, because the energy conversation wasn’t seen as part of our civil rights agenda. Now, they’re in with both feet.”

Bob Bullard talks about growing up in the small, deeply segregated town of Elba, Alabama, where he graduated from high school in 1964, the year of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act. He went to Alabama A&M, the historically black university in Huntsville, graduated in 1968, then served in the Marines from 1968 to 1970 (but was mercifully spared Vietnam). Bullard was formed by the civil rights struggle. “I was a sophomore in 1965,” he said. “That was the year of Selma and the bridge. As students, you’re very conscious.” He revered Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and many others. “You identified with a struggle, and you saw it as your struggle.”

Bullard has written about King’s final campaign, when he went to Memphis in 1968 to march in solidarity with the striking sanitation workers. “I tell my students, ‘If you don’t think garbage is an environmental justice issue, you let the garbage workers go on strike.’”

If environmental justice emerged out of the civil rights struggle, then you could almost say that Bullard’s work, and the movement to which he’s dedicated his life, began there in Memphis—picking up where King’s work was cut short.

* * *

Hilton Kelley drove me up Houston Avenue, through what he calls Old Port Arthur, parallel to the railroad tracks that separate the African-American west side from downtown. “This was the booming area during the heyday of Port Arthur,” he said. As we drove alongside the tracks, Kelley pointed to at least three small grocery stores that had long since gone out of business.

We crossed the tracks and drove past a housing project built in the 1970s. Kelley showed me St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, where the Rev. Elijah “EJ” James allowed him to hold some of his first organizing meetings. But he’s been asked not to distribute fliers outside some of the churches. Kelly affected an old man’s voice: “‘We can appreciate what you’re doing, son. But don’t pass that out around here.’” He added, “Some of them work at the plants.”

We stopped to see his old high school, now a middle school. I noticed the flag was flying at half-staff and wondered why. We both thought for a moment.

“Oh, it must be for MLK,” Kelley said.

Of course. I had completely forgotten—it was April 4.

“I remember when Martin Luther King was shot,” he said. “You could hear the neighbors crying. So I ran down the street to tell my mother, who was down at the laundromat, and she was already in tears. She’d already heard about it. I was 7 years old. It was a sad day.”

We drove down 14th Street, past the small houses—some in good repair with well-kept front yards, many others in poor condition, some at the point of collapse. A few blocks farther, where the road ends, was Carver Terrace, the housing project where Kelley grew up, a stone’s throw from the Valero refinery. Carver Terrace is empty now, slated for demolition, its residents given housing vouchers with the option to relocate to a new project in another part of town—one at least not directly in harm’s way. The last family had moved out about three weeks earlier, Kelley told me.

We got out and stood among the rows of long, plain-brick, two-story buildings. “If you’d come here six months ago,” Kelley said, “you would’ve seen kids running across the street and playing ball right here.”

I asked him how it felt to see it like this now.

“Oh, man, it’s like The Twilight Zone,” he said. “I’m getting used to it, but I ride by here every day.”

Not fifty yards from Carver Terrace, and even closer to a playground with new play structures, exposed pipes emerged from the berm along the Valero fence. Signs read:Warning: Light Hydrocarbon Pipeline.

Kelley told me that he never thought he’d be doing this work for as long as he has. “But here I am,” he said, “fourteen years down the road, still chopping away at it. New issues keep cropping up. But trust me, I’m no ways tired. What I’ve discovered is that we are a necessary entity in this community. I’m here to stay.”

It was a beautiful day, and Kelley drove with the windows down. A middle-aged woman on the street called out to him. “How’s it going?” Kelley said, genuine warmth in his voice.

“Pretty good,” she called back. “How you doin’?”

“I’m hangin’ on in there, enjoyin’ this day.”

“This is a great community to grow up in,” Kelley told me. “I ran and played up and down these streets. I love the smell in the air right now, the plants growing, the springtime. We’ve got a pretty good day today—don’t have any high emissions levels. I’m lovin’ it. You can smell the flowers.”

* * *

The next morning, I went back on my own and drove around downtown and the west side of Port Arthur. It was overcast now, the gray light altering the mood of the day before, and I was overcome by a need to see the ocean, across Sabine Lake and the coastal marshes on the Louisiana side. So I drove out of Port Arthur on Highway 82, passing still more petrochemical plants along the way, and stopped after half an hour at a row of beach houses built on sturdy pilings. The wind on my face was fresh and welcome, but on the horizon, up and down the coast, I could see the oil platforms. No escape.

Heading back into Port Arthur, crossing the wide channel at the mouth of Sabine Lake, I drove over the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge. As I crested its steep ascent, the Valero and Motiva refineries were spread out in front of me. The dystopian petrochemical landscape stretched into the distance, and I caught my breath at the sight of it as I descended.

What are we fighting for? What are any of us who care about climate justice fighting for? What does “climate justice” mean in the face of the dehumanizing, world-devouring carbon-industrial machine, of which we ourselves are a part? What does it mean in the face of the latest science—which keeps telling us, in its bloodless language, just how late the hour really is?

In 1967, Martin Luther King published his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? In those pages, and in his speeches during those last years, he struggled to reinvigorate and reunite the civil rights movement, which was coming apart at the seams over Black Power and nonviolence, over separatism and integration, over how fast and how hard to push for economic justice and against the war in Vietnam. And while he’s often cast these days as a moderate, it’s important to remember just how radical King was.

Critics—including some of his allies—thought that he should stick to race and civil rights and not address what they considered the “separate issues” of labor, poverty and, most of all, war. But King understood that all of these issues were interconnected—that, at a profound level, they intersected. He saw that the “unholy trinity” of racism, poverty and war—with the threat of nuclear annihilation always in the air—were, at root, one and the same. They are all forms of violence, he argued; they all grow from “man’s inhumanity to man” and must be confronted by an unconditional and universal love.

It seems that movements can reach a critical point at which unity—the need to come together around common principles and a common struggle, and a common understanding of what that struggle is about—becomes all-important. The question now is whether climate justice can be defined broadly enough to encompass everyone—not only our own communities, our own children, but everyone, everywhere, including generations not yet born—in order to keep even the possibility of justice alive on Earth.

Because the only chance we have now is to fight for each other. We have to fight for the person sitting next to us and the person living next door to us, for the person across town and across the tracks from us, and for the person across the continent and across the ocean from us. Because we’re fighting for our humanity. Not simply for our own survival, but for the survival of some legitimate hope for what King called the “beloved community.” Even as we struggle just to survive.

Our fight is against chaos and for community. And it cannot wait. “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today,” King wrote in the final paragraph of his last book. “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.”

It may be too late to prevent catastrophe for countless people. Yet even in the face of all we now know, will it ever be too late to hold on to our humanity?

People of color live in neighborhoods with more air pollution than whites, groundbreaking U.S. study shows (Science Daily)

Date: April 15, 2014

Source: University of Minnesota

Summary: A first-of-its-kind study has found that on average in the U.S., people of color are exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide outdoor air pollution compared to white people. The health impacts from the difference in levels between whites and nonwhites found in the study are substantial. For example, researchers estimate that if nonwhites breathed the lower NO2 levels experienced by whites, it would prevent 7,000 deaths from heart disease alone among nonwhites each year.

This shows the difference in population-weighted mean NO2 concentrations (ppb) between lower-income nonwhites and higher-income whites for U.S. cities (448 urban areas). Credit: University of Minnesota

A first-of-its-kind study by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that on average in the U.S., people of color are exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) outdoor air pollution compared to white people.

Nitrogen dioxide comes from sources like vehicle exhaust and power plants. Breathing NO2 is linked to asthma symptoms and heart disease. The Environmental Protection Agency has listed it as one of the seven key air pollutants it monitors. The researchers studied NO2 levels in urban areas across the country and compared specific areas within the cities based on populations defined in the U.S. Census as “nonwhite” or “white.”

The health impacts from the difference in levels between whites and nonwhites found in the study are substantial. For example, researchers estimate that if nonwhites breathed the lower NO2 levels experienced by whites, it would prevent 7,000 deaths from heart disease alone among nonwhites each year.

The study entitled “National patterns in environmental injustice and inequality: Outdoor NO2 air pollution in the United States” was published in the April 15 issue of PLOS ONE, a leading peer-reviewed scientific journal.

“We were quite shocked to find such a large disparity between whites and nonwhites related to air pollution,” said Julian Marshall, a civil engineering associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering and co-author of the study. “Our study provides a great baseline to track over time on important issues of environmental injustice and inequality in our country.”

Other U.S. studies have documented disparities in exposures to environmental risks, including air pollution, but this research goes beyond previous studies of specific cities, communities or regions within the nation. This new study is the first to use satellite observations, measurements by the Environmental Protection Agency, and maps of land uses to explore disparities in exposure to air pollution for the U.S. nationwide, including both rural and urban areas, with comparisons by city, county, state and region.

The new research builds on a recently published University of Minnesota study that used satellite data and land use information to look at nitrogen dioxide pollution throughout the continental United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), including all 448 urban areas defined by the U.S. Census. In the present study, the researchers overlaid the pollution information with U.S. Census data about where people live. The results provide groundbreaking evidence of environmental disparities nationwide.

The researchers found that in most areas, lower-income nonwhites are more exposed than higher-income whites, and on average, race matters more than income in explaining differences in NO2 exposure. They also found that New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois had the largest exposure gaps between whites and nonwhites, irrespective of income. The urban areas with the largest exposure gaps between whites and nonwhites were New York/Newark, Philadelphia and Bridgeport/Stamford, Conn.

The 15 states with the largest exposure gaps between whites and nonwhites were (from highest disparity to lower):

  • New York
  • Pennsylvania
  • Illinois
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • Rhode Island
  • Massachusetts
  • California
  • Wisconsin
  • Connecticut
  • Missouri
  • Ohio
  • Kentucky
  • Indiana
  • Minnesota

Note: The list above reflects disparities by race alone, irrespective of income. The map below reflects disparities by race-income.

The 15 urban areas* with the largest exposure gaps between whites and nonwhites were (from highest disparity to lower):

  • New York–Newark; NY–NJ–CT
  • Philadelphia; PA–NJ–DE–MD
  • Bridgeport–Stamford; CT–NY
  • Boston; MA–NH–RI
  • Providence; RI–MA
  • Detroit; MI
  • Los Angeles–Long Beach–Santa Ana; CA
  • New Haven; CT
  • Worcester; MA–CT
  • Springfield; MA–CT
  • Rochester; NY
  • Chicago; IL–IN
  • Birmingham; AL
  • Hartford; CT
  • Milwaukee; WI

* As defined by the U.S. Census

Note: The list above reflects disparities by race alone, irrespective of income. The map below reflects disparities by race-income group.

Visit the University of Minnesota Marshall Research Group website for the full listing of states and urban areas studied.

“Our findings are of broad interest to researchers, policy makers and city planners,” said Lara Clark, co-author of the study and civil engineering Ph.D. student in the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering. “The next step in the research would be to look at why this disparity occurs and what we can do to solve it.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Lara P. Clark, Dylan B. Millet, Julian D. Marshall. National Patterns in Environmental Injustice and Inequality: Outdoor NO2 Air Pollution in the United StatesPLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (4): e94431 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0094431

OMS: Poluição do ar mata cerca de 7 milhões de pessoas por ano (Rádio ONU)

27/3/2014 – 11h25

por Leda Letra, da Rádio ONU

traffic cars pollution 300x257 OMS: Poluição do ar mata cerca de 7 milhões de pessoas por ano

Dados apresentados esta terça-feira, 25, confirmam que má qualidade do ar é líder ambiental em riscos para a saúde; doenças do coração, derrames e obstrução crônica do pulmão são as principais consequências da poluição.

A Organização Mundial da Saúde calcula que uma a cada oito mortes no mundo é causada pela exposição ao ar poluído. A nova estatística da agência da ONU foi apresentada esta terça-feira em Genebra.

Em 2012, cerca de 7 milhões de pessoas morreram devido à poluição do ar, duas vezes mais do que as estimativas anteriores. Segundo a OMS, esta é a principal causa ambiental de riscos à saúde.


A pesquisa revela uma forte ligação entre a poluição do ar e doenças respiratórias, do coração, derrames e câncer. A nova estimativa é baseada em um melhor conhecimento sobre a exposição humana ao ar e tecnologias mais avançadas para medir esses dados, incluindo o uso de satélites.

De acordo com a OMS, os cientistas conseguiram fazer uma análise detalhada dos riscos à saúde a partir de uma distribuição demográfica mais ampla, incluindo áreas rurais e urbanas.


A agência calcula que a poluição do ar em ambientes fechados foi relacionada a mais de 4,3 milhões de mortes. Os casos estavam ligados ao uso de fogões de biomassa, carvão e madeira para cozinhar.

No caso da poluição em áreas abertas, o levantamento da OMS fala em 3,7 milhões de mortes em áreas rurais e urbanas.

Como a maioria das pessoas está exposta ao ar poluído em locais internos e abertos, as taxas de mortalidade não podem ser somadas e por isso, a OMS chegou à média de 7 milhões de mortes em 2012.

Coração e Pulmão

Os países do sudeste asiático e do Pacífico tiveram os maiores números de mortes relacionadas à poluição do ar, com quase 6 milhões de casos.

Em todo o mundo, 40% das pessoas que morreram pela poluição do ar em ambientes abertos sofreram doenças do coração; outros 40% tiveram derrame. Entre as outras causas de mortes, estão doença pulmonar obstrutiva crônica, câncer de pulmão e infecção respiratória aguda em crianças.


Já os pacientes que morreram como consequência da poluição do ar em ambientes fechados tiveram principalmente derrame (34%), doenças do coração (26%), e do pulmão (22%).

Segundo a diretora do Departamento de Saúde Pública da OMS, Maria Neira, os riscos do ar poluído são bem maiores do que o previsto, em especial nos casos de doenças do coração e derrames. Para Neira, a evidência mostra a necessidade de ação combinada para a limpeza do ar que respiramos.

A OMS lembra que a poluição excessiva do ar geralmente está ligada a políticas insustentáveis nos setores de transportes, energia, gestão de resíduos e indústrias.

* Publicado originalmente no site Rádio ONU e retirado do site CarbonoBrasil.

Dá para beber essa água? (Agência Pública)

21/3/2014 – 12h23

por Anne Vigna, para a Agência Pública

Agrotóxicos, metais pesados e substâncias que imitam hormônios podem estar na água que chega à torneira da sua casa ou na mineral, vendida em garrafões, restaurantes e supermercados. Saiba por que nenhuma das duas é totalmente segura

Pesquisar sobre a água não é fácil. Não existem leis ou regras que definam um critério uniforme para a divulgação de dados. Esperei mais de 15 dias, por exemplo, para receber as análises de qualidade para o município de São Paulo, segundo as normas da Portaria 2.914/2011, do Ministério da Saúde. Os mesmos resultados para o Rio de Janeiroestão disponíveis para consulta de qualquer pessoa no site da Companhia Estadual de Águas e Esgotos (Cedae), responsável pelo tratamento de água na cidade. Não se sabe por que uma das concessionárias fornece a informação publicamente, enquanto a outra não diz nada sobre o assunto.

Depois de muita espera e de uma dezena de e-mails trocados, recebi quase todas as análises da capital paulista feitas pela Companhia de Saneamento Básico do Estado de São Paulo (Sabesp), encarregada da água e do saneamento na metrópole. No primeiro envio, porém, faltavam vários dos parâmetros considerados pela portaria do Ministério da Saúde. Por quê? Não há como saber. Depois de insistir mais, recebi todos os dados (aquiaquiaqui e aqui).

Como primeiro resultado dessa investigação sobre a qualidade da água, posso dizer que, em São Paulo e no Rio de Janeiro, dá para beber a água da torneira sem correr o risco de ser vítima de uma contaminação microbiológica. Ninguém vai passar mal, nem ter diarreia. É preciso, no entanto, verificar se a caixa d’água do imóvel está limpa. Tanto em um prédio como em uma casa, ela precisa ser lavada a cada seis meses. Nos condomínios, o síndico é o responsável por cuidar da execução do serviço. Nas residências, o proprietário tem que fazer o trabalho ou contratar uma empresa para isso. Se a limpeza estiver em dia, tudo bem.

A água usada para abastecimento público passa por um processo de tratamento e desinfecção mecânico e químico, que elimina toda a poluição microbiológica (coliformes totais – grupos de bactérias associadas à decomposição da matéria orgânica – e Escherichia coli). “A água da torneira é controlada várias vezes por dia, para se ter certeza de que está sempre dentro dos padrões de qualidade”, afirma Jorge Briard, diretor de produção de água da Cedae, no Rio. Mas o fato de se poder beber a água da torneira não quer dizer que o líquido não esteja poluído – e que não possa causar problemas de saúde no longo prazo.

Regras “adaptadas à realidade brasileira”

Na água do abastecimento público existem vários tipos de poluentes tóxicos. Estudos científicos associam o consumo de muitos deles ao aumento da incidência de câncer na população, enquanto outros têm efeitos ainda pouco conhecidos na saúde. Estão presentes na água que bebemos substâncias químicas como antimônio, arsênio, bário, cádmio, chumbo, cianeto, mercúrio, nitratos, triclorobenzeno, diclorometano; agrotóxicos como atrazina, DDT, trifluralina, endrin e simazina; e desinfetantes como cloro, alumínio ou amônia.

A portaria do Ministério da Saúde controla os níveis de 15 produtos químicos inorgânicos (metais pesados), de 15 produtos químicos orgânicos (solventes), de sete produtos químicos que provêm da desinfecção domiciliar e de 27 tipos de agrotóxicos presentes na água. Na primeira norma de potabilidade da água do Brasil, a Portaria 56/1977, havia apenas 12 tipos de agrotóxicos, 10 produtos químicos inorgânicos (metais pesados) e nenhum produto químico orgânico (solventes), nem produtos químicos secundários da desinfecção domiciliar.

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Tanques usados nas quatro fases do processo de tratamento de água da Estação do Guaraú, em São Paulo: coagulação, floculação, decantação e filtração. Foto: Anne Vigna

A mudança reflete a crescente poluição da indústria, que utiliza metais pesados e solventes; do setor agrícola, que usa agrotóxicos e fertilizantes; e de todos nós, que limpamos a casa com cada vez mais produtos químicos. A assessoria de comunicação do Ministério da Saúde afirma que as substâncias que hoje estão na Portaria 2.914/2011 foram escolhidas a partir “dos avanços do conhecimento técnico-científico, das experiências internacionais e das recomendações da Organização Mundial da Saúde (OMS, 2004), adaptadas à realidade brasileira”.

O último trecho da resposta do ministério, “adaptadas à realidade brasileira”, permite entender a diferença entre os agrotóxicos e contaminantes inorgânicos escolhidos pela Organização Mundial da Saúde (OMS) e os listados na portaria brasileira. A OMS inclui um número muito maior de produtos químicos . Em um dossiê especial sobre agrotóxicos publicado em 2012, a Associação Brasileira de Saúde Coletiva (Abrasco) questiona essa discrepância: “Por que monitorar menos de 10% dos ingredientes ativos oficialmente registrados no país?” O ingrediente ativo, ou princípio ativo, é uma substância que tem algum tipo de efeito em organismos vivos.

Um exemplo é a bentazona. Considerada pela OMS como um poluente da água, a substância não aparece na portaria do Ministério da Saúde. Na bula de agrotóxicos que a contêm, como o Basagran, a bentazona é descrita como “um agroquímico da classe toxicológica I – extremamente tóxico e nocivo por ingestão”. Como herbicida, é muito usada nas culturas de soja, arroz, feijão, milho e trigo. E o que isso tem a ver com a água? Os próprios fabricantes dão a entender que, se for mal utilizada, a bentazona pode causar efeitos danosos sobre o ambiente aquático. “[O produto] é perigoso para o meio ambiente por ser altamente móvel, apresentando alto potencial de deslocamento no solo e podendo atingir principalmente as águas subterrâneas. Possui ainda a característica de ser altamente persistente no meio ambiente, ou seja, de difícil degradação”, diz o texto.

Outro exemplo: um estudo de 2009 sobre a contaminação de mananciais hídricos, liderado pelo pesquisador Diecson Ruy Orsolin da Silva, da Universidade Federal de Pelotas, monitorou a ocorrência de agrotóxicos em águas superficiais de sete regiões do sul do Brasil, associadas ao cultivo de arroz na safra 2007/2008. De todos os produtos detectados – clomazona, quincloraque, penoxsulam, imazetapir, imazapique, carbofurano, 3-hidróxido-carbofurano, fipronil e tebuconazol – somente o carbofurano é controlado pela portaria. Isso mostra que muitos dos agrotóxicos utilizados, e que estão presentes nos meios aquáticos no país, não são fiscalizados pelas empresas de tratamento de água. Elas não são obrigadas pelo Ministério da Saúde a fazer o controle.

Em São Paulo e no Rio, os níveis dos produtos químicos listados na portaria estão dentro dos limites permitidos. Na verdade, os valores de São Paulo são muitos melhores do que os do Rio. Isso é uma boa notícia? Sim e não. “Os processos de transformação química quebram as moléculas tóxicas, fazendo com que desapareçam. Essa manipulação da água cria outros compostos ou resíduos desconhecidos. Ninguém procura por eles e evidentemente não estão na portaria. Hoje ninguém sabe quais são os efeitos dessas moléculas”, diz Fabrice Nicolino, jornalista francês especializado em meio ambiente. Mesmo concentrações muito baixas de algumas substâncias podem ser perigosas.

A polêmica do alumínio

Como se tiram os poluentes da água? Tudo começa com um processo chamado coagulação. Nessa fase, são adicionados sulfato de alumínio e cloreto férrico, para agregar as partículas de sujeira presentes. O uso do sulfato de alumínio é muito polêmico no mundo todo. Ainda que não tenha sido provada uma relação direta entre esse produto químico e a doença de Alzheimer, vários cientistas europeus defendem que ele é responsável pelo aumento da incidência do problema nas últimas duas décadas.

Um estudo feito durante oito anos pelo Instituto Nacional Francês de Saúde e Pesquisa Médica (Inserm), em Bordeaux, no sul da França, concluiu que uma forte concentração de alumínio na água, bebida a vida toda, pode ser um fator de risco para o desenvolvimento de Alzheimer. Realizada por um dos centros de maior prestígio da França, a pesquisa causou – e continua a causar – muito barulho, tanto na imprensa quanto no mundo científico.

Também teve forte impacto um artigo científico dos pesquisadores Chris Exley, da Universidade Keele, e Margaret Esiri, da Universidade de Oxford – ambas no Reino Unido – publicado no Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry em 2006. Quando foi realizada a autópsia de Carole Cross, que morreu, aos 59 anos, de Alzheimer, observaram-se altas concentrações de alumínio no seu cérebro. Os autores relacionaram o achado a um acidente que atingiu a cidade de Camelford, na Inglaterra, onde Carole vivia em 1988. Na época, 20 toneladas de sulfato de alumínio foram depositadas por engano nas tubulações de água potável. Os pesquisadores não relacionam diretamente a presença do metal com a doença. Sabe-se, contudo, que o alumínio está ligado a alguns tipos de demência, e que Carole não tinha antecedentes familiares com doenças semelhantes.

Princípio da precaução

Faz um bom tempo que as empresas responsáveis pelo tratamento da água conhecem os perigos do alumínio. Em Paris, a substância deixou de ser usada nesse processo há mais de 20 anos. Adota-se o cloreto férrico. A prefeitura da capital francesa resolveu fazer a mudança pelo que é conhecido como princípio da precaução: se existem antecedentes ou experiências que sugiram um risco, não se espera que a ciência comprove isso. É melhor prevenir do que lidar com o problema depois.

Quando perguntei à Sabesp e à Cedae se achavam possível parar de usar o alumínio, a resposta foi clara. “Mas por quê? O produto funciona muito bem”, disse André Luis Gois Rodrigues, responsável pela qualidade da água na Sabesp. As duas empresas admitiram conhecer a polêmica. “Nada foi comprovado. O uso do alumínio é permitido pelo Ministério da Saúde e também pela OMS. Se um dia for demonstrado que há risco, com certeza deixaremos de usar”, explicou Jorge Briard, da Cedae. Além de ser barato, o sulfato de alumínio permite obter uma cor transparente, um pouquinho azul, bem bonitinha, semelhante à de um rio limpo. Por isso, é bem prático. Ninguém vai se queixar da cor da água.

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Adicionam-se sulfato de alumínio, cloreto férrico ou outro coagulante à água. Nessa fase, a coagulação, as partículas de sujeira agregam-se. Foto: Anne Vigna

Vale lembrar que a água não é a única fonte de absorção do alumínio no corpo. Atualmente a substância encontra-se em altas concentrações na comida (nos legumes e especialmente nos aditivos alimentares, como conservantes, corantes e estabilizadores), nos cosméticos ou nos utensílios de cozinha. De acordo com a OMS, um adulto ingere cerca de 5 miligramas de alumínio por dia apenas da comida. Para a organização, os aditivos são a principal fonte de alumínio no corpo. Em comparação, a água traz um volume muito menor: em média 0,1 miligrama por litro, o que pode somar 0,3 miligrama se você bebe 3 litros por dia. Segundo a entidade, o alumínio na água representa só 4% do que um adulto absorve.

Essa relação também é válida para os agrotóxicos. É bem provável que, comendo legumes não-orgânicos, uma pessoa absorva uma quantidade muito maior desses produtos do que ao beber água. Fazer essa comparação é muito complicado, porque o jeito de contabilizar os agrotóxicos é diferente na comida e na água. Sabemos, porém, que os agrotóxicos são diretamente aplicados nas plantações, e as medições mostram que estão em proporção maior nos alimentos do que na água.

Por conta da grande utilização de medicamentos na criação de animais hoje, os cientistas reconhecem que a dose diária de absorção de antibióticos e hormônios de crescimento é mais importante pela comida do que pela água. O professor Wilson Jardim, da Unicamp, explica, no entanto, que isso não muda o fato de que, mesmo em doses pequenas, os contaminantes presentes na água possam ter um efeito negativo na saúde.

A saída é a garrafinha?

Seria então melhor para a saúde beber água engarrafada, que chega a custar 800 vezes mais do que a água da torneira? A resposta, de novo, não é simples. Em tese, a água envasada tem melhor qualidade por ser subterrânea, o que oferece uma proteção natural contra contaminação. Mas encontrar informações sobre a qualidade da água mineral também é muito complicado no Brasil. A Associação Brasileira de Indústria de Água Mineral (Abinam), que representa as envasadoras da água, negou os pedidos de entrevista para esta reportagem. A comunicação também não é muito aberta do lado das autoridades.

Na verdade, não há como ter acesso à documentação sobre a qualidade da água engarrafada. Para obter a lavraria e a renovação da concessão, uma empresa de água mineral recebe, a cada três anos, a visita dos funcionários do Laboratório de Análises Minerais (Lamin) da Companhia de Pesquisa de Recursos Minerais (CPRM), um órgão federal. Os resultados das análises são comunicados à empresa e ao Departamento Nacional de Produção Mineral (DNPM), responsável pela água mineral no país, mas não ficam disponíveis para o público. Por quê? Não recebi resposta do DNPM.

Essas análises teriam que ser feitas seguindo a resolução RDC 274/2005, da Agência Nacional de Vigilância Sanitária (Anvisa). A norma inclui agrotóxicos e é bem parecida com a portaria que regula a água da torneira. Além de os dados não estarem disponíveis publicamente, outro problema é a forma de fiscalização das fontes. O Lamin do Rio faz análises no país todo, enquanto o de São Paulo concentra-se no estado de São Paulo, onde fica a maior concentração de concessões de água mineral do país. Até o início de 2013, o Lamin do Rio não tinha os equipamentos necessários para fazer as análises dos agrotóxicos, e só no fim de 2014 o Lamin de São Paulo deverá fazer esse trabalho. Ou seja, a resolução levou oito anos para começar a ter todos os seus itens verificados.

Isso não acontece com a água da torneira, que é muito mais controlada. Primeiro, porque ela precisa chegar a toda a população. Segundo, porque a água bruta, a partir da qual se produz a água potável, vem em geral da superfície e está mais sujeita a todo tipo de contaminação. Isso requer atenção constante e análises mais frequentes. A água mineral vem de lençóis subterrâneos, onde fica confinada. É menos poluída do que a que vem dos rios e não recebe nenhum tratamento químico. Depois de um ano fazendo as análises de agrotóxicos, o Lamin do Rio disse que não encontrou esses produtos nas águas minerais de todo o país, com exceção de São Paulo (onde ainda não fazem essa análise e onde está a maior parte das fontes). Mas não tive acesso aos documentos que comprovariam isso.

Ao procurar informações adicionais, descobri que, em São Paulo, a Companhia de Tecnologia de Saneamento Ambiental (Cetesb) iniciou, em 2011, o monitoramento de lençóis subterrâneos do estado em relação à presença de contaminantes e à atividade estrogênica – ou seja, à capacidade de algumas substâncias agirem no sistema reprodutivo humano, antecipando, por exemplo, a puberdade nas meninas ou produzindo esterilidade nos homens. “Não foi detectada atividade estrogênica na maioria dos 33 pontos de amostragem, selecionados em função de sua maior vulnerabilidade. Apenas três locais apresentaram atividade estrogênica baixa. Isso significa que não há potencial de preocupação para a saúde humana se a água for consumida”, explica Gilson Alves Quinaglia, gerente do setor de análises toxicológicas da Cetesb.

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Tanques com cloro e outros produtos químicos usados para tornar a água potável. Foto: Anne Vigna

Agrotóxicos e medicamentos

As empresas de água mineral usam na publicidade o argumento de que a água subterrânea está confinada e, consequentemente, fica protegida da poluição moderna. Seria bom se fosse assim, mas existem estudos que comprovam que a poluição pode chegar a todos os lugares – até mesmo ao subsolo.

No ano passado, uma pesquisa encomendada a laboratórios independentes pelas ONGs 60 Milhões de Consumidores e Fundação Danielle Mitterrand-France Libertés, na França, encontrou tanto agrotóxicos como medicamentos na água engarrafada. “Foi uma surpresa, porque mostra que até a água mineral está poluída. Achamos um agrotóxico, a atrazina, usado no cultivo do milho, que está proibido no país há mais de dez anos. Essa substância tem a propriedade de ser muito persistente no meio ambiente. O que significa que, em dez anos, chega ao subsolo”, explica Thomas Laurenceau, da 60 Milhões de Consumidores.

Outra grande surpresa foi detectar o tamoxifeno, um hormônio usado no tratamento de câncer de mama, nas amostras analisadas. “Os níveis encontrados são muito baixos, mas a presença mostra até que ponto nosso meio ambiente está poluído”, acrescenta Emmanuel Poilane, presidente da France Libertés.

A contaminação não é causada pelas envasadoras de água, e sim pela deterioração geral do meio ambiente. “As empresas de água mineral sempre estão tentando proteger as fontes. Não depredam o meio ambiente. Não é conveniente para elas”, afirma Doralice Assirati, do DNPM. Na Europa e nos Estados Unidos, algumas delas foram obrigadas a fechar explorações, por conta da poluição detectada.

Uma das contaminações possíveis no Brasil seria pelas fossas sépticas, que, às vezes, são malfeitas. No estado de São Paulo, muitas envasadoras de água ficam em áreas urbanas, porque a proximidade do consumidor ajuda o negócio a ser mais lucrativo. Mas, na verdade, o maior problema das águas envasadas não vem do líquido, mas do contêiner de plástico. Se as garrafas e os garrafões fossem de vidro, poderíamos confiar mais na qualidade. Só que os problemas causados pelo uso do plástico já são bastante conhecidos e estudados.


O mundo dos plásticos é complicado. Aproximadamente 75% da água envasada no Brasil está em garrafões. “Eles podem ser confeccionados em todo e qualquer plástico – PVC, policarbonato (PC), polipropileno (PP) e polietileno (PE) –, desde que obedeçam aos regulamentos da Anvisa para embalagens em contato com alimentos”, afirma Carla Castilho, assessora técnica do Instituto Nacional do Plástico. Isso na teoria. Na prática, a indústria fabrica 90% dos garrafões em polipropileno e o restante, em politereftalato de etileno (PET) e policarbonato, segundo o Instituto Nacional do Plástico. O polipropileno tem custo baixo para o produtor. Isso é uma boa notícia, porque é o plástico menos propenso a ter Bisfenol A (BPA), uma substância química perigosa usada na produção.

A Anvisa autoriza o uso de BPA em materiais plásticos destinados ao contato com alimentos e estabelece, como limite seguro de migração, 0,6 miligrama por quilo de alimento e 0,6 miligrama por litro de bebida. A agência limita-se a estabelecer a quantidade de BPA que pode migrar de um produto para o alimento, não a quantidade máxima presente no produto.

Vários países europeus, como França e Dinamarca, estão proibindo o BPA nas embalagens de alimentos. Isso não tem relação com o nível de migração, e sim com os materiais onde está presente o BPA, como o policarbonato e as resinas epóxi em todas as latas de alumínio. É alta a probabilidade de que a Autoridade Europeia de Segurança Alimentar (EFSA) reduza o nível de migração de 0,5 miligrama por quilo por dia para até 0,005 miligrama por quilo por dia.

No Brasil, somente as embalagens da água mineral Indaiá, do Grupo Edson Queiroz, um dos maiores do país, são feitas de policarbonato. Técnicos da empresa enviaram análises para nos convencer de que não há nenhum problema com os recipientes em policarbonato. Os resultados do laboratório, de fato, são ótimos. Só que os problemas causados pelos plásticos não acontecem quando as embalagens são novas, mas com a manutenção, a exposição ao calor e as múltiplas lavagens dos garrafões, que podem ser usados durante três anos. “Não podemos nos responsabilizar pela manutenção. Não depende da gente”, disse Francisco Sales, gerente industrial do grupo Edson Queiroz. Não, mas também ninguém pode dizer que a degradação dos plásticos não traz problemas para o consumidor. A degradação do PET, material das garrafas descartáveis, não é algo com que se preocupar se o recipiente for usado uma vez só.

Estudos científicos mostram ainda que, com o tempo, mesmo a qualidade da água mineral se degrada. Em 2009, uma pesquisa realizada por Martin Wagner e Jörg Oehlman, da Universidade de Frankfurt, na Alemanha, detectou interferentes endócrinos – isto é, substâncias artificiais que agem no nosso corpo por serem parecidas com hormônios – em 12 das 20 amostras de água mineral analisadas. Os dois cientistas também inseriram moluscos em garrafas PET e de vidro e notaram que, nos recipientes plásticos, houve reprodução em uma velocidade maior. Isso também indica a presença desses contaminantes, que podem ter se desprendido do plástico das garrafas. As indústrias do plástico e da água contestaram os resultados.

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Caminhão com garrafões expostos ao sol no Catumbi, Rio: calor pode soltar componentes do plástico na água. Foto: Anne Vigna

Praticamente na mesma época, as pesquisadoras Barbara Pinto e Daniela Reali, da Universidade de Pisa, na Itália, detectaram uma contaminação semelhante, mas em menor nível, em amostras de água mineral italiana. Elas não souberam explicar a origem dos interferentes que apareceram em 10% das garrafas. Isso levou vários cientistas a pedir para a indústria do plástico que revelasse os segredos de fabricação, para entender o que acontece em uma água que fica um certo tempo nesses recipientes. A resposta foi o silêncio.

Devido à pouca colaboração da indústria, os problemas causados pelos ftalatos, outros produtos químicos usados no plástico, ainda são pouco conhecidos e estudados. Tanto os ftalatos quanto o BPA estão presentes em praticamente todo o plástico que há nas nossas casas. Os ftalatos são usados na fabricação de acessórios domésticos (piso, papel de parede), produtos infantis (mamadeiras, brinquedos, colchonetes para troca de fraldas, mordedores), embalagens (filme transparente, garrafas descartáveis) e até em utensílios médicos (cateteres, bolsas de sangue e soro). O BPA está nos equipamentos esportivos, em dispositivos médicos e odontológicos, produtos para obturação dentária e selantes, lentes para os olhos, todos os produtos com PVC, e policarbonatos, CDs e DVDs, eletrodomésticos, embalagens de plástico duras, jarras de água em plástico duro e latas de alumínio.

“Existem na vida janelas de exposição do BPA mais problemáticas do que outras. As crianças são mais expostas do que um adulto. Também ocorre maior migração de produtos químicos para a comida ou a água com o calor”, diz o pesquisador Wilson Jardim, da Unicamp. Ou seja, ainda falta muita informação sobre o perigo dos produtos e a toxicidade dos que já estão no meio ambiente. Hoje, temos consciência do perigo de substâncias que a geração anterior à nossa usava de maneira regular, como o DDT. Mas, como acontece agora, a indústria ou não informava ou negava o problema da contaminação.

Qual água é melhor?

É impossível saber se a água envasada é de melhor qualidade do que a água da torneira, pois há muito pouca informação sobre o uso de recipientes plásticos. A água tratada também tem poluentes em um nível pouco conhecido, mas com certeza menor do que o da comida não orgânica. A grande diferença entre as duas é que a água envasada traz ainda mais problemas para o meio ambiente, pelo fato de gerar lixo, aumentar as emissões de carbono e envolver consumo de energia na sua produção.

Como melhorar a água da torneira? (Veja o infográfico animado aqui.)

Parece que o único caminho para salvar a água potável é o da cidadania. As melhores experiências para se obter uma qualidade de água razoável ocorrem quando os cidadãos participam da gestão da água, fiscalizando as empresas de tratamento e exigindo que as autoridades aumentem o orçamento para o recurso “água”.

Hoje, o monitoramento das concessionárias no Brasil é feito pelas agências de vigilância sanitária de cada estado. Mas até as empresas reconhecem que não há fiscalização. As autoridades não parecem ter vontade de aumentar o orçamento para saneamento, mesmo sabendo, há muitos anos, que isso é mais do que necessário para melhorar tanto a água e o meio ambiente quanto a saúde das pessoas.

Ainda é possível mudar as coisas. As soluções existem, só que custam caro. No mesmo estudo sobre a contaminação das garrafas de água com agrotóxicos e medicamentos, as ONGs foram para regiões mais poluídas da França (nem toda a França é como Paris), onde os agrotóxicos chegam a níveis bem acima do permitido pela legislação, há muitos anos. A poluição obrigou as autoridades a investir em tecnologia de ponta para melhorar a qualidade da água. Conseguiram. Entre essas novas tecnologias estão nanofiltração, ultrafiltração, osmose reversa e tratamento com raios ultravioleta solares. Mas, para que os impostos sirvam a essa causa, a mobilização das pessoas é obrigatória.

No Canadá, na Europa, no México ou na Bolívia, existem numerosos exemplos de como a população retomou o poder sobre a qualidade, o preço e, inclusive, a propriedade da água. Também é necessária a vontade política das autoridades para limitar o uso de produtos químicos no meio ambiente e aumentar o apoio à agricultura orgânica. E da ajuda de todos no momento das compras – um consumo consciente, que prefira produtos menos danosos ao meio ambiente, tanto na fabricação quanto na vida útil. Isso significa não trocar de celular a cada novo modelo ou deixar de beber três pequenas garrafas plásticas de água por dia.

Infografico 1 parte 1 Dá para beber essa água?

Infografico 1 parte 2 1 Dá para beber essa água?

Infografico 1 parte 3 Dá para beber essa água?

Infografico 1 parte 4 Dá para beber essa água?

Infografico 1 parte 5 Dá para beber essa água?

Infografico 1 parte 6 Dá para beber essa água?

* Publicado originalmente no site Agência Pública.

(Agência Pública)

A Valuable Reputation (The New Yorker) – on atrazine & Syngenta


After Tyrone Hayes said that a chemical was harmful, its maker pursued him.


FEBRUARY 10, 2014

Hayes has devoted the past fifteen years to studying atrazine, a widely used herbicide made by Syngenta. The company’s notes reveal that it struggled to make sense of him, and plotted ways to discredit him.

Hayes has devoted the past fifteen years to studying atrazine, a widely used herbicide made by Syngenta. The company’s notes reveal that it struggled to make sense of him, and plotted ways to discredit him. Photograph by Dan Winters.

In 2001, seven years after joining the biology faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, Tyrone Hayes stopped talking about his research with people he didn’t trust. He instructed the students in his lab, where he was raising three thousand frogs, to hang up the phone if they heard a click, a signal that a third party might be on the line. Other scientists seemed to remember events differently, he noticed, so he started carrying an audio recorder to meetings. “The secret to a happy, successful life of paranoia,” he liked to say, “is to keep careful track of your persecutors.”

Three years earlier, Syngenta, one of the largest agribusinesses in the world, had asked Hayes to conduct experiments on the herbicide atrazine, which is applied to more than half the corn in the United States. Hayes was thirty-one, and he had already published twenty papers on the endocrinology of amphibians. David Wake, a professor in Hayes’s department, said that Hayes “may have had the greatest potential of anyone in the field.” But, when Hayes discovered that atrazine might impede the sexual development of frogs, his dealings with Syngenta became strained, and, in November, 2000, he ended his relationship with the company.

Hayes continued studying atrazine on his own, and soon he became convinced that Syngenta representatives were following him to conferences around the world. He worried that the company was orchestrating a campaign to destroy his reputation. He complained that whenever he gave public talks there was a stranger in the back of the room, taking notes. On a trip to Washington, D.C., in 2003, he stayed at a different hotel each night. He was still in touch with a few Syngenta scientists and, after noticing that they knew many details about his work and his schedule, he suspected that they were reading his e-mails. To confuse them, he asked a student to write misleading e-mails from his office computer while he was travelling. He sent backup copies of his data and notes to his parents in sealed boxes. In an e-mail to one Syngenta scientist, he wrote that he had “risked my reputation, my name . . . some say even my life, for what I thought (and now know) is right.” A few scientists had previously done experiments that anticipated Hayes’s work, but no one had observed such extreme effects. In another e-mail to Syngenta, he acknowledged that it might appear that he was suffering from a “Napoleon complex” or “delusions of grandeur.”

For years, despite his achievements, Hayes had felt like an interloper. In academic settings, it seemed to him that his colleagues were operating according to a frivolous code of manners: they spoke so formally, fashioning themselves as detached authorities, and rarely admitted what they didn’t know. He had grown up in Columbia, South Carolina, in a neighborhood where fewer than forty per cent of residents finish high school. Until sixth grade, when he was accepted into a program for the gifted, in a different neighborhood, he had never had a conversation with a white person his age. He and his friends used to tell one another how “white people do this, and white people do that,” pretending that they knew. After he switched schools and took advanced courses, the black kids made fun of him, saying, “Oh, he thinks he’s white.”

He was fascinated by the idea of metamorphosis, and spent much of his adolescence collecting tadpoles and frogs and crossbreeding different species of grasshoppers. He raised frog larvae on his parents’ front porch, and examined how lizards respond to changes in temperature (by using a blow-dryer) and light (by placing them in a doghouse). His father, a carpet layer, used to look at his experiments, shake his head, and say, “There’s a fine line between a genius and a fool.”

Hayes received a scholarship to Harvard, and, in 1985, began what he calls the worst four years of his life. Many of the other black students had gone to private schools and came from affluent families. He felt disconnected and ill-equipped—he was placed on academic probation—until he became close to a biology professor, who encouraged him to work in his lab. Five feet three and thin, Hayes distinguished himself by dressing flamboyantly, like Prince. The Harvard Crimson, in an article about a campus party, wrote that he looked as if he belonged in the “rock-’n’-ready atmosphere of New York’s Danceteria.” He thought about dropping out, but then he started dating a classmate, Katherine Kim, a Korean-American biology major from Kansas. He married her two days after he graduated.

They moved to Berkeley, where Hayes enrolled in the university’s program in integrative biology. He completed his Ph.D. in three and a half years, and was immediately hired by his department. “He was a force of nature—incredibly gifted and hardworking,” Paul Barber, a colleague who is now a professor at U.C.L.A., says. Hayes became one of only a few black tenured biology professors in the country. He won Berkeley’s highest award for teaching, and ran the most racially diverse lab in his department, attracting students who were the first in their families to go to college. Nigel Noriega, a former graduate student, said that the lab was a “comfort zone” for students who were “just suffocating at Berkeley,” because they felt alienated from academic culture.

Hayes had become accustomed to steady praise from his colleagues, but, when Syngenta cast doubt on his work, he became preoccupied by old anxieties. He believed that the company was trying to isolate him from other scientists and “play on my insecurities—the fear that I’m not good enough, that everyone thinks I’m a fraud,” he said. He told colleagues that he suspected that Syngenta held “focus groups” on how to mine his vulnerabilities. Roger Liu, who worked in Hayes’s lab for a decade, both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, said, “In the beginning, I was really worried for his safety. But then I couldn’t tell where the reality ended and the exaggeration crept in.”

Liu and several other former students said that they had remained skeptical of Hayes’s accusations until last summer, when an article appeared in Environmental Health News (in partnership with 100Reporters)* that drew on Syngenta’s internal records. Hundreds of Syngenta’s memos, notes, and e-mails have been unsealed following the settlement, in 2012, of two class-action suits brought by twenty-three Midwestern cities and towns that accused Syngenta of “concealing atrazine’s true dangerous nature” and contaminating their drinking water. Stephen Tillery, the lawyer who argued the cases, said, “Tyrone’s work gave us the scientific basis for the lawsuit.”

Hayes has devoted the past fifteen years to studying atrazine, and during that time scientists around the world have expanded on his findings, suggesting that the herbicide is associated with birth defects in humans as well as in animals. The company documents show that, while Hayes was studying atrazine, Syngenta was studying him, as he had long suspected. Syngenta’s public-relations team had drafted a list of four goals. The first was “discredit Hayes.” In a spiral-bound notebook, Syngenta’s communications manager, Sherry Ford, who referred to Hayes by his initials, wrote that the company could “prevent citing of TH data by revealing him as noncredible.” He was a frequent topic of conversation at company meetings. Syngenta looked for ways to “exploit Hayes’ faults/problems.” “If TH involved in scandal, enviros will drop him,” Ford wrote. She observed that Hayes “grew up in world (S.C.) that wouldn’t accept him,” “needs adulation,” “doesn’t sleep,” was “scarred for life.” She wrote, “What’s motivating Hayes?—basic question.”

Syngenta, which is based in Basel, sells more than fourteen billion dollars’ worth of seeds and pesticides a year and funds research at some four hundred academic institutions around the world. When Hayes agreed to do experiments for the company (which at that time was part of a larger corporation, Novartis), the students in his lab expressed concern that biotech companies were “buying up universities” and that industry funding would compromise the objectivity of their research. Hayes assured them that his fee, a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars, would make their lab more rigorous. He could employ more students, buy new equipment, and raise more frogs. Though his lab was well funded, federal support for research was growing increasingly unstable, and, like many academics and administrators, he felt that he should find new sources of revenue. “I went into it as if I were a painter, performing a service,” Hayes told me. “You commissioned it, and I come up with the results, and you do what you want with them. It’s your responsibility, not mine.”

Atrazine is the second most widely used herbicide in the U.S., where sales are estimated at about three hundred million dollars a year. Introduced in 1958, it is cheap to produce and controls a broad range of weeds. (Glyphosate, which is produced by Monsanto, is the most popular herbicide.) A study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that without atrazine the national corn yield would fall by six per cent, creating an annual loss of nearly two billion dollars. But the herbicide degrades slowly in soil and often washes into streams and lakes, where it doesn’t readily dissolve. Atrazine is one of the most common contaminants of drinking water; an estimated thirty million Americans are exposed to trace amounts of the chemical.

In 1994, the E.P.A., expressing concerns about atrazine’s health effects, announced that it would start a scientific review. Syngenta assembled a panel of scientists and professors, through a consulting firm called EcoRisk, to study the herbicide. Hayes eventually joined the group. His first experiment showed that male tadpoles exposed to atrazine developed less muscle surrounding their vocal cords, and he hypothesized that the chemical had the potential to reduce testosterone levels. “I have been losing lots of sleep over this,” he wrote one EcoRisk panel member, in the summer of 2000. “I realize the implications and of course want to make sure that everything possible has been done and controlled for.” After a conference call, he was surprised by the way the company kept critiquing what seemed to be trivial aspects of the work. Hayes wanted to repeat and validate his experiments, and complained that the company was slowing him down and that independent scientists would publish similar results before he could. He decided to resign from the panel, writing in a letter that he didn’t want to be “scooped.” “I fear that my reputation will be damaged if I continue my relationship and associated low productivity with Novartis,” he wrote. “It will appear to my colleagues that I have been part of a plan to bury important data.”

Hayes repeated the experiments using funds from Berkeley and the National Science Foundation. Afterward, he wrote to the panel, “Although I do not want to make a big deal out of it until I have all of the data analyzed and decoded—I feel I should warn you that I think something very strange is coming up in these animals.” After dissecting the frogs, he noticed that some could not be clearly identified as male or female: they had both testes and ovaries. Others had multiple testes that were deformed.

In January, 2001, Syngenta employees and members of the EcoRisk panel travelled to Berkeley to discuss Hayes’s new findings. Syngenta asked to meet with him privately, but Hayes insisted on the presence of his students, a few colleagues, and his wife. He had previously had an amiable relationship with the panel—he had enjoyed taking long runs with the scientist who supervised it—and he began the meeting, in a large room at Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, as if he were hosting an academic conference. He wore a new suit and brought in catered meals.

After lunch, Syngenta introduced a guest speaker, a statistical consultant, who listed numerous errors in Hayes’s report and concluded that the results were not statistically significant. Hayes’s wife, Katherine Kim, said that the consultant seemed to be trying to “make Tyrone look as foolish as possible.” Wake, the biology professor, said that the men on the EcoRisk panel looked increasingly uncomfortable. “They were experienced enough to know that the issues the statistical consultant was raising were routine and ridiculous,” he said. “A couple of glitches were presented as if they were the end of the world. I’ve been a scientist in academic settings for forty years, and I’ve never experienced anything like that. They were after Tyrone.”

Hayes later e-mailed three of the scientists, telling them, “I was insulted, felt railroaded and, in fact, felt that some dishonest and unethical activity was going on.” When he explained what had happened to Theo Colborn, the scientist who had popularized the theory that industrial chemicals could alter hormones, she advised him, “Don’t go home the same way twice.” Colborn was convinced that her office had been bugged, and that industry representatives followed her. She told Hayes to “keep looking over your shoulder” and to be careful whom he let in his lab. She warned him, “You have got to protect yourself.”

Hayes published his atrazine work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a year and a half after quitting the panel. He wrote that what he called “hermaphroditism” was induced in frogs by exposure to atrazine at levels thirty times below what the E.P.A. permits in water. He hypothesized that the chemical could be a factor in the decline in amphibian populations, a phenomenon observed all over the world. In an e-mail sent the day before the publication, he congratulated the students in his lab for taking the “ethical stance” by continuing the work on their own. “We (and our principles) have been tested, and I believe we have not only passed but exceeded expectations,” he wrote. “Science is a principle and a process of seeking truth. Truth cannot be purchased and, thus, truth cannot be altered by money. Professorship is not a career, but rather a life’s pursuit. The people with whom I work daily exemplify and remind me of this promise.”

He and his students continued the work, travelling to farming regions throughout the Midwest, collecting frogs in ponds and lakes, and sending three hundred pails of frozen water back to Berkeley. In papers in Nature and in Environmental Health Perspectives, Hayes reported that he had found frogs with sexual abnormalities in atrazine-contaminated sites in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming. “Now that I have realized what we are into, I cannot stop it,” he wrote to a colleague. “It is an entity of its own.” Hayes began arriving at his lab at 3:30 a.m. and staying fourteen hours. He had two young children, who sometimes assisted by color-coding containers.

According to company e-mails, Syngenta was distressed by Hayes’s work. Its public-relations team compiled a database of more than a hundred “supportive third party stakeholders,” including twenty-five professors, who could defend atrazine or act as “spokespeople on Hayes.” The P.R. team suggested that the company “purchase ‘Tyrone Hayes’ as a search word on the internet, so that any time someone searches for Tyrone’s material, the first thing they see is our material.” The proposal was later expanded to include the phrases “amphibian hayes,” “atrazine frogs,” and “frog feminization.” (Searching online for “Tyrone Hayes” now brings up an advertisement that says, “Tyrone Hayes Not Credible.”)

In June, 2002, two months after Hayes’s first atrazine publication, Syngenta announced in a press release that three studies had failed to replicate Hayes’s work. In a letter to the editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, eight scientists on the EcoRisk panel wrote that Hayes’s study had “little regard for assessment of causality,” lacked statistical details, misused the term “dose,” made vague and naïve references, and misspelled a word. They said that Hayes’s claim that his paper had “significant implications for environmental and public health” had not been “scientifically demonstrated.” Steven Milloy, a freelance science columnist who runs a nonprofit organization to which Syngenta has given tens of thousands of dollars, wrote an article for Fox News titled “Freaky-Frog Fraud,” which picked apart Hayes’s paper in Nature, saying that there wasn’t a clear relationship between the concentration of atrazine and the effect on the frog. Milloy characterized Hayes as a “junk scientist” and dismissed his “lame” conclusions as “just another of Hayes’ tricks.”

Fussy critiques of scientific experiments have become integral to what is known as the “sound science” campaign, an effort by interest groups and industries to slow the pace of regulation. David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, wrote, in his book “Doubt Is Their Product” (2008), that corporations have developed sophisticated strategies for “manufacturing and magnifying uncertainty.” In the eighties and nineties, the tobacco industry fended off regulations by drawing attention to questions about the science of secondhand smoke. Many companies have adopted this tactic. “Industry has learned that debating the science is much easier and more effective than debating the policy,” Michaels wrote. “In field after field, year after year, conclusions that might support regulation are always disputed. Animal data are deemed not relevant, human data not representative, and exposure data not reliable.”

In the summer of 2002, two scientists from the E.P.A. visited Hayes’s lab and reviewed his atrazine data. Thomas Steeger, one of the scientists, told Hayes, “Your research can potentially affect the balance of risk versus benefit for one of the most controversial pesticides in the U.S.” But an organization called the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness petitioned the E.P.A. to ignore Hayes’s findings. “Hayes has killed and continues to kill thousands of frogs in unvalidated tests that have no proven value,” the petition said. The center argued that Hayes’s studies violated the Data Quality Act, passed in 2000, which requires that regulatory decisions rely on studies that meet high standards for “quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity.” The center is run by an industry lobbyist and consultant for Syngenta, Jim Tozzi, who proposed the language of the Data Quality Act to the congresswoman who sponsored it.

The E.P.A. complied with the Data Quality Act and revised its Environmental Risk Assessment, making it clear that hormone disruption wouldn’t be a legitimate reason for restricting use of the chemical until “appropriate testing protocols have been established.” Steeger told Hayes that he was troubled by the circularity of the center’s critique. In an e-mail, he wrote, “Their position reminds me of the argument put forward by the philosopher Berkeley, who argued against empiricism by noting that reliance on scientific observation is flawed since the link between observations and conclusions is intangible and is thus immeasurable.”

Nonetheless, Steeger seemed resigned to the frustrations of regulatory science and gently punctured Hayes’s idealism. When Hayes complained that Syngenta had not reported his findings on frog hermaphroditism quickly enough, he responded that it was “unfortunate but not uncommon for registrants to ‘sit’ on data that may be considered adverse to the public’s perception of their products.” He wrote that “science can be manipulated to serve certain agendas. All you can do is practice ‘suspended disbelief.’ ” (The E.P.A. says that there is “no indication that information was improperly withheld in this case.”)

After consulting with colleagues at Berkeley, Hayes decided that, rather than watch Syngenta discredit his work, he would make a “preëmptive move.” He appeared in features in Discover and the San Francisco Chronicle, suggesting that Syngenta’s science was not objective. Both articles focussed on his personal biography, leading with his skin color, and moving on to his hair style: at the time, he wore his hair in braids. Hayes made little attempt to appear disinterested. Scientific objectivity requires what the philosopher Thomas Nagel has called a “view from nowhere,” but Hayes kept drawing attention to himself, making blustery comments like “Tyrone can only be Tyrone.” He presented Syngenta as a villain, but he didn’t quite fulfill the role of the hero. He was hyper and a little frantic—he always seemed to be in a rush or on the verge of forgetting to do something—and he approached the idea of taking down the big guys with a kind of juvenile zeal.

Environmental activists praised Hayes’s work and helped him get media attention. But they were concerned by the bluntness of his approach. A co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization, told Hayes to “stop what you are doing and take time to actually construct a plan” or “you will get your ass handed to you on a platter.” Steeger warned him that vigilantism would distract him from his research. “Can you afford the time and money to fight battles where you are clearly outnumbered and, to be candid, outclassed?” he asked. “Most people would prefer to limit their time in purgatory; I don’t know anyone who knowingly enters hell.”

Hayes had worked all his life to build his scientific reputation, and now it seemed on the verge of collapse. “I cannot in reasonable terms explain to you what this means to me,” he told Steeger. He took pains to prove that Syngenta’s experiments had not replicated his studies: they used a different population of animals, which were raised in different types of tanks, in closer quarters, at cooler temperatures, and with a different feeding schedule. On at least three occasions, he proposed to the Syngenta scientists that they trade data. “If we really want to test repeatability, let’s share animals and solutions,” he wrote.

In early 2003, Hayes was considered for a job at the Nicholas School of the Environment, at Duke. He visited the campus three times, and the university arranged for a real-estate agent to show him and his wife potential homes. When Syngenta learned that Hayes might be moving to North Carolina, where its crop-protection headquarters are situated, Gary Dickson—the company’s vice-president of global risk assessment, who a year earlier had established a fifty-thousand-dollar endowment, funded by Syngenta, at the Nicholas School—contacted a dean at Duke. According to documents unsealed in the class-action lawsuits, Dickson informed the dean of the “state of the relationship between Dr. Hayes and Syngenta.” The company “wanted to protect our reputation in our community and among our employees.”

There were several candidates for the job at Duke, and, when Hayes did not get it, he concluded that it was due to Syngenta’s influence. Richard Di Giulio, a Duke professor who had hosted Hayes’s first visit, said that he was irritated by Hayes’s suggestion: “A little gift of fifty thousand dollars would not influence a tenure hire. That’s not going to happen.” He added, “I’m not surprised that Syngenta would not have liked Hayes to be at Duke, since we’re an hour down the road from them.” He said that Hayes’s conflict with Syngenta was an extreme example of the kind of dispute that is not uncommon in environmental science. The difference, he said, was that the “scientific debate spilled into Hayes’s emotional life.”

In June, 2003, Hayes paid his own way to Washington so that he could present his work at an E.P.A. hearing on atrazine. The agency had evaluated seventeen studies. Twelve experiments had been funded by Syngenta, and all but two showed that atrazine had no effect on the sexual development of frogs. The rest of the experiments, by Hayes and researchers at two other universities, indicated the opposite. In a PowerPoint presentation at the hearing, Hayes disclosed a private e-mail sent to him by one of the scientists on the EcoRisk panel, a professor at Texas Tech, who wrote, “I agree with you that the important issue is for everyone involved to come to grips with (and stop minimizing) the fact that independent laboratories have demonstrated an effect of atrazine on gonadal differentiation in frogs. There is no denying this.”

The E.P.A. found that all seventeen atrazine studies, including Hayes’s, suffered from methodological flaws—contamination of controls, variability in measurement end points, poor animal husbandry—and asked Syngenta to fund a comprehensive experiment that would produce more definitive results. Darcy Kelley, a member of the E.P.A.’s scientific advisory panel and a biology professor at Columbia, said that, at the time, “I did not think the E.P.A. made the right decision.” The studies by Syngenta scientists had flaws that “really cast into doubt their ability to carry out their experiments. They couldn’t replicate effects that are as easy as falling off a log.” She thought that Hayes’s experiments were more respectable, but she wasn’t persuaded by Hayes’s explanation of the biological mechanism causing the deformities.

The E.P.A. approved the continued use of atrazine in October, the same month that the European Commission chose to remove it from the market. The European Union generally takes a precautionary approach to environmental risks, choosing restraint in the face of uncertainty. In the U.S., lingering scientific questions justify delays in regulatory decisions. Since the mid-seventies, the E.P.A. has issued regulations restricting the use of only five industrial chemicals out of more than eighty thousand in the environment. Industries have a greater role in the American regulatory process—they may sue regulators if there are errors in the scientific record—and cost-benefit analyses are integral to decisions: a monetary value is assigned to disease, impairments, and shortened lives and weighed against the benefits of keeping a chemical in use. Lisa Heinzerling, the senior climate-policy counsel at the E.P.A. in 2009 and the associate administrator of the office of policy in 2009 and 2010, said that cost-benefit models appear “objective and neutral, a way to free ourselves from the chaos of politics.” But the complex algorithms “quietly condone a tremendous amount of risk.” She added that the influence of the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees major regulatory decisions, has deepened in recent years. “A rule will go through years of scientific reviews and cost-benefit analyses, and then at the final stage it doesn’t pass,” she said. “It has a terrible, demoralizing effect on the culture at the E.P.A.”

In 2003, a Syngenta development committee in Basel approved a strategy to keep atrazine on the market “until at least 2010.” A PowerPoint presentation assembled by Syngenta’s global product manager explained that “we need atrazine to secure our position in the corn marketplace. Without atrazine we cannot defend and grow our business in the USA.” Sherry Ford, the communications manager, wrote in her notebook that the company “should not phase out atz until we know about” the Syngenta herbicide paraquat, which has also been controversial, because of studies showing that it might be associated with Parkinson’s disease. She noted that atrazine “focuses attention away from other products.”

Syngenta began holding weekly “atrazine meetings” after the first class-action suit was filed, in 2004. The meetings were attended by toxicologists, the company’s counsel, communications staff, and the head of regulatory affairs. To dampen negative publicity from the lawsuit, the group discussed how it could invalidate Hayes’s research. Ford documented peculiar things he had done (“kept coat on”) or phrases he had used (“Is this line clean?”). “If TH wanted to win the day, and he had the goods,” she wrote, “he would have produced them when asked.” She noted that Hayes was “getting in too deep w/ enviros,” and searched for ways to get him to “show his true colors.”

In 2005, Ford made a long list of methods for discrediting him: “have his work audited by 3rd party,” “ask journals to retract,” “set trap to entice him to sue,” “investigate funding,” “investigate wife.” The initials of different employees were written in the margins beside entries, presumably because they had been assigned to look into the task. Another set of ideas, discussed at several meetings, was to conduct “systematic rebuttals of all TH appearances.” One of the company’s communications consultants said in an e-mail that she wanted to obtain Hayes’s calendar of speaking engagements, so that Syngenta could “start reaching out to the potential audiences with the Error vs. Truth Sheet,” which would provide “irrefutable evidence of his polluted messages.” (Syngenta says that many of the documents unsealed in the lawsuits refer to ideas that were never implemented.)

To redirect attention to the financial benefits of atrazine, the company paid Don Coursey, a tenured economist at the Harris School of Public Policy, at the University of Chicago, five hundred dollars an hour to study how a ban on the herbicide would affect the economy. In 2006, Syngenta supplied Coursey with data and a “bundle of studies,” and edited his paper, which was labelled as a Harris School Working Paper. (He disclosed that Syngenta had funded it.) After submitting a draft, Coursey had been warned in an e-mail that he needed to work harder to articulate a “clear statement of your conclusions flowing from this analysis.” Coursey later announced his findings at a National Press Club event in Washington and told the audience that there was one “basic takeaway point: a ban on atrazine at the national level will have a devastating, devastating effect upon the U.S. corn economy.”

Hayes had been promoted from associate to full professor in 2003, an achievement that had sent him into a mild depression. He had spent the previous decade understanding his self-worth in reference to a series of academic milestones, and he had reached each one. Now he felt aimless. His wife said she could have seen him settling into the life of a “normal, run-of-the-mill, successful scientist.” But he wasn’t motivated by the idea of “writing papers and books that we all just trade with each other.”

He began giving more than fifty lectures a year, not just to scientific audiences but to policy institutes, history departments, women’s health clinics, food preparers, farmers, and high schools. He almost never declined an invitation, despite the distance. He told his audiences that he was defying the instructions of his Ph.D. adviser, who had told him, “Let the science speak for itself.” He had a flair for sensational stories—he chose phrases like “crime scene” and “chemically castrated”—and he seemed to revel in details about Syngenta’s conflicts of interest, presenting theories as if he were relating gossip to friends. (Syngenta wrote a letter to Hayes and his dean, pointing out inaccuracies: “As we discover additional errors in your presentations, you can expect us to be in touch with you again.”)

At his talks, Hayes noticed that one or two men in the audience were dressed more sharply than the other scientists. They asked questions that seemed to have been designed to embarrass him: Why can’t anyone replicate your research? Why won’t you share your data? One former student, Ali Stuart, said that “everywhere Tyrone went there was this guy asking questions that made a mockery of him. We called him the Axe Man.”

Hayes had once considered a few of the scientists working with Syngenta friends, and he approached them in a nerdy style of defiance. He wrote them mass e-mails, informing them of presentations he was giving and offering tips on how to discredit him. “You can’t approach your prey thinking like a predator,” he wrote. “You have to become your quarry.” He described a recent trip to South Carolina and his sense of displacement when “my old childhood friend came by to update me on who got killed, who’s on crack, who went to jail.” He wrote, “I have learned to talk like you (better than you . . . by your own admission), write like you (again better) . . . you however don’t know anyone like me . . . you have yet to spend a day in my world.” After seeing an e-mail in which a lobbyist characterized him as “black and quite articulate,” he began signing his e-mails, “Tyrone B. Hayes, Ph.D., A.B.M.,” for “articulate black man.”

Syngenta was concerned by Hayes’s e-mails and commissioned an outside contractor to do a “psychological profile” of Hayes. In her notes, Sherry Ford described him as “bipolar/manic-depressive” and “paranoid schizo & narcissistic.” Roger Liu, Hayes’s student, said that he thought Hayes wrote the e-mails to relieve his anxiety. Hayes often showed the e-mails to his students, who appreciated his rebellious sense of humor. Liu said, “Tyrone had all these groupies in the lab cheering him on. I was the one in the background saying, you know, ‘Man, don’t egg them on. Don’t poke that beast.’ ”

Syngenta intensified its public-relations campaign in 2009, as it became concerned that activists, touting “new science,” had developed a “new line of attack.” That year, a paper in Acta Paediatrica, reviewing national records for thirty million births, found that children conceived between April and July, when the concentration of atrazine (mixed with other pesticides) in water is highest, were more likely to have genital birth defects. The author of the paper, Paul Winchester, a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, received a subpoena from Syngenta, which requested that he turn over every e-mail he had written about atrazine in the past decade. The company’s media talking points described his study as “so-called science” that didn’t meet the “guffaw test.” Winchester said, “We don’t have to argue that I haven’t proved the point. Of course I haven’t proved the point! Epidemiologists don’t try to prove points—they look for problems.”

A few months after Winchester’s paper appeared, the Times published an investigation suggesting that atrazine levels frequently surpass the maximum threshold allowed in drinking water. The article referred to recent studies inEnvironmental Health Perspectives and the Journal of Pediatric Surgery that found that mothers living close to water sources containing atrazine were more likely to have babies who were underweight or had a defect in which the intestines and other organs protrude from the body.

The day the article appeared, Syngenta planned to “go through the article line by line and find all 1) inaccuracies and 2) misrepresentations. Turn that into a simple chart.” The company would have “a credible third party do the same.” Elizabeth Whelan, the president of the American Council on Science and Health, which asked Syngenta for a hundred thousand dollars that year, appeared on MSNBC and declared that the Timesarticle was not based on science. “I’m a public-health professional,” she said. “It really bothers me very much to see the New York Times front-page Sunday edition featuring an article about a bogus risk.”

Syngenta’s public-relations team wrote editorials about the benefits of atrazine and about the flimsy science of its critics, and then sent them to “third-party allies,” who agreed to “byline” the articles, which appeared in the Washington Times, the Rochester Post-Bulletin, the Des Moines Register, and the St. Cloud Times. When a few articles in the “op-ed pipeline” sounded too aggressive, a Syngenta consultant warned that “some of the language of these pieces is suggestive of their source, which suggestion should be avoided at all costs.”

After the Times article, Syngenta hired a communications consultancy, the White House Writers Group, which has represented more than sixty Fortune 500 companies. In an e-mail to Syngenta, Josh Gilder, a director of the firm and a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, wrote, “We need to start fighting our own war.” By warning that a ban on atrazine would “devastate the economies” of rural regions, the firm tried to create a “state of affairs in which the new political leadership at E.P.A. finds itself increasingly isolated.” The firm held “elite dinners with Washington influentials” and tried to “prompt members of Congress” to challenge the scientific rationale for an upcoming E.P.A. review of atrazine. In a memo describing its strategy, the White House Writers Group wrote that, “regarding science, it is important to keep in mind that the major players in Washington do not understand science.”

In 2010, Hayes told the EcoRisk panel in an e-mail, “I have just initiated what will be the most extraordinary academic event in this battle!” He had another paper coming out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which described how male tadpoles exposed to atrazine grew up to be functional females with impaired fertility. He advised the company that it would want to get its P.R. campaign up to speed. “It’s nice to know that in this economy I can keep so many people employed,” he wrote. He quoted both Tupac Shakur and the South African king Shaka Zulu: “Never leave an enemy behind or it will rise again to fly at your throat.”

Syngenta’s head of global product safety wrote a letter to the editor of theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and to the president of the National Academy of Sciences, expressing concern that a “publication with so many obvious weaknesses could achieve publication in such a reputable scientific journal.” A month later, Syngenta filed an ethics complaint with the chancellor of Berkeley, claiming that Hayes’s e-mails violated the university’s Standards of Ethical Conduct, particularly Respect for Others. Syngenta posted more than eighty of Hayes’s e-mails on its Web site and enclosed a few in its letter to the chancellor. In one, with the subject line “Are y’all ready for it,” Hayes wrote, “Ya fulla my j*z right now!” In another, he told the Syngenta scientists that he’d had a drink after a conference with their “republican buddies,” who wanted to know about a figure he had used in his paper. “As long as you followin me around, I know I’m da sh*t,” he wrote. “By the way, yo boy left his pre-written questions at the table!”

Berkeley declined to take disciplinary action against Hayes. The university’s lawyer reminded Syngenta in a letter that “all parties have an equal responsibility to act professionally.” David Wake said that he read many of the e-mails and found them “quite hilarious.” “He’s treating them like street punks, and they view themselves as captains of industry,” he said. “When he gets tapped, he goes right back at them.”

Michelle Boone, a professor of aquatic ecology at Miami University, who served on the E.P.A.’s scientific advisory panel, said, “We all follow the Tyrone Hayes drama, and some people will say, ‘He should just do the science.’ But the science doesn’t speak for itself. Industry has unlimited resources and bully power. Tyrone is the only one calling them out on what they’re doing.” However, she added, “I do think some people feel he has lost his objectivity.”

Keith Solomon, a professor emeritus at the University of Guelph, Ontario, who has received funding from Syngenta and served on the EcoRisk panel, noted that academics who refuse industry money are not immune from biases; they’re under pressure to produce papers, in order to get tenure and promotions. “If I do an experiment, look at the data every which way, and find nothing, it will not be easy to publish,” he said. “Journals want excitement. They want bad things to happen.”

Hayes, who had gained more than fifty pounds since becoming tenured, wore bright scarves draped over his suit and silver earrings from Tibet. At the end of his lectures, he broke into rhyme: “I see a ruse / intentionally constructed to confuse the news / well, I’ve taken it upon myself to defuse the clues / so that you can choose / and to demonstrate the objectivity of the methods I use.” At some of his lectures, Hayes warned that the consequences of atrazine use were disproportionately felt by people of color. “If you’re black or Hispanic, you’re more likely to live or work in areas where you’re exposed to crap,” he said. He explained that “on the one side I’m trying to play by the ivory-tower rules, and on the other side people are playing by a different set of rules.” Syngenta was speaking directly to the public, whereas scientists were publishing their research in “magazines that you can’t buy in Barnes and Noble.”

Hayes was confident that at the next E.P.A. hearing there would be enough evidence to ban atrazine, but in 2010 the agency found that the studies indicating risk to humans were too limited. Two years later, during another review, the E.P.A. determined that atrazine does not affect the sexual development of frogs. By that point, there were seventy-five published studies on the subject, but the E.P.A. excluded the majority of them from consideration, because they did not meet the requirements for quality that the agency had set in 2003. The conclusion was based largely on a set of studies funded by Syngenta and led by Werner Kloas, a professor of endocrinology at Humboldt University, in Berlin. One of the co-authors was Alan Hosmer, a Syngenta scientist whose job, according to a 2004 performance evaluation, included “atrazine defence” and “influencing EPA.”

After the hearing, two of the independent experts who had served on the E.P.A.’s scientific advisory panel, along with fifteen other scientists, wrote a paper (not yet published) complaining that the agency had repeatedly ignored the panel’s recommendations and that it placed “human health and the environment at the mercy of industry.” “The EPA works with industry to set up the methodology for such studies with the outcome often that industry is the only institution that can afford to conduct the research,” they wrote. The Kloas study was the most comprehensive of its kind: its researchers had been scrutinized by an outside auditor, and their raw data turned over to the E.P.A. But the scientists wrote that one set of studies on a single species was “not a sufficient edifice on which to build a regulary assessment.” Citing a paper by Hayes, who had done an analysis of sixteen atrazine studies, they wrote that “the single best predictor of whether or not the herbicide atrazine had a significant effect in a study was the funding source.”

In another paper, in Policy Perspective, Jason Rohr, an ecologist at the University of South Florida, who served on an E.P.A. panel, criticized the “lucrative ‘science for hire’ industry, where scientists are employed to dispute data.” He wrote that a Syngenta-funded review of the atrazine literature had arguably misrepresented more than fifty studies and made a hundred and forty-four inaccurate or misleading statements, of which “96.5% appeared to be beneficial for Syngenta.” Rohr, who has conducted several experiments involving atrazine, said that, at conferences, “I regularly get peppered with questions from Syngenta cronies trying to discount my research. They try to poke holes in the research rather than appreciate the adverse effects of the chemicals.” He said, “I have colleagues whom I’ve tried to recruit, and they’ve told me that they’re not willing to delve into this sort of research, because they don’t want the headache of having to defend their credibility.”

Deborah Cory-Slechta, a former member of the E.P.A.’s science advisory board, said that she, too, felt that Syngenta was trying to undermine her work. A professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, Cory-Slechta studies how the herbicide paraquat may contribute to diseases of the nervous system. “The folks from Syngenta used to follow me to my talks and tell me I wasn’t using ‘human-relevant doses,’ ” she said. “They would go up to my students and try to intimidate them. There was this sustained campaign to make it look like my science wasn’t legitimate.”

Syngenta denied repeated requests for interviews, but Ann Bryan, its senior manager for external communications, told me in an e-mail that some of the studies I was citing were unreliable or unsound. When I mentioned a recent paper in the American Journal of Medical Genetics, which showed associations between a mother’s exposure to atrazine and the likelihood that her son will have an abnormally small penis, undescended testes, or a deformity of the urethra—defects that have increased in the past several decades—she said that the study had been “reviewed by independent scientists, who found numerous flaws.” She recommended that I speak with the author of the review, David Schwartz, a neuroscientist, who works for Innovative Science Solutions, a consulting firm that specializes in “product defense” and strategies that “give you the power to put your best data forward.” Schwartz told me that epidemiological studies can’t eliminate confounding variables or make claims about causation. “We’ve been incredibly misled by this type of study,” he said.

In 2012, in its settlement of the class-action suits, Syngenta agreed to pay a hundred and five million dollars to reimburse more than a thousand water systems for the cost of filtering atrazine from drinking water, but the company denies all wrongdoing. Bryan told me that “atrazine does not and, in fact, cannot cause adverse health effects at any level that people would ever be exposed to in the real-world environment.” She wrote that she was “troubled by a suggestion that we have ever tried to discredit anyone. Our focus has always been on communicating the science and setting the record straight.” She noted that “virtually every well-known brand, or even well-known issue, has a communications program behind it. Atrazine’s no different.”

Last August, Hayes put his experiments on hold. He said that his fees for animal care had risen eightfold in a decade, and that he couldn’t afford to maintain his research program. He accused the university of charging him more than other researchers in his department; in response, the director of the office of laboratory-animal care sent detailed charts illustrating that he is charged according to standard campus-wide rates, which have increased for most researchers in recent years. In an online Forbes op-ed, Jon Entine, a journalist who is listed in Syngenta’s records as a supportive “third party,” accused Hayes of being attached to conspiracy theories, and of leading the “international regulatory community on a wild goose chase,” which “borders on criminal.”

By late November, Hayes’s lab had resumed work. He was using private grants to support his students rather than to pay outstanding fees, and the lab was accumulating debt. Two days before Thanksgiving, Hayes and his students discussed their holiday plans. He was wearing an oversized orange sweatshirt, gym shorts, and running shoes, and a former student, Diana Salazar Guerrero, was eating fries that another student had left on the table. Hayes encouraged her to come to his Thanksgiving dinner and to move into the bedroom of his son, who is now a student at Oberlin. Guerrero had just put down half the deposit on a new apartment, but Hayes was disturbed by her description of her new roommate. “Are you sure you can trust him?” he asked.

Hayes had just returned from Mar del Plata, Argentina. He had flown fifteen hours and driven two hundred and fifty miles to give a thirty-minute lecture on atrazine. Guerrero said, “Sometimes I’m just, like, ‘Why don’t you let it go, Tyrone? It’s been fifteen years! How do you have the energy for this?’ ” With more scientists documenting the risks of atrazine, she assumed he’d be inclined to move on. “Originally, it was just this crazy guy at Berkeley, and you can throw the Berserkley thing at anyone,” she said. “But now the tide is turning.”

In a recent paper in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Hayes and twenty-one other scientists applied the criteria of Sir Austin Bradford Hill, who, in 1965, outlined the conditions necessary for a causal relationship, to atrazine studies across different vertebrate classes. They argued that independent lines of evidence consistently showed that atrazine disrupts male reproductive development. Hayes’s lab was working on two more studies that explore how atrazine affects the sexual behavior of frogs. When I asked him what he would do if the E.P.A., which is conducting another review of the safety of atrazine this year, were to ban the herbicide, he joked, “I’d probably get depressed again.”

Not long ago, Hayes saw a description of himself on Wikipedia that he found disrespectful, and he wasn’t sure whether it was an attack by Syngenta or whether there were simply members of the public who thought poorly of him. He felt deflated when he remembered the arguments he’d had with Syngenta-funded pundits. “It’s one thing if you go after me because you have a philosophical disagreement with my science or if you think I’m raising alarm where there shouldn’t be any,” he said. “But they didn’t even have their own opinions. Someone was paying them to take a position.” He wondered if there was something inherently insane about the act of whistle-blowing; maybe only crazy people persisted. He was ready for a fight, but he seemed to be searching for his opponent.

One of his first graduate students, Nigel Noriega, who runs an organization devoted to conserving tropical forests, told me that he was still recovering from the experience of his atrazine research, a decade before. He had come to see science as a rigid culture, “its own club, an élite society,” Noriega said. “And Tyrone didn’t conform to the social aspects of being a scientist.” Noriega worried that the public had little understanding of the context that gives rise to scientific findings. “It is not helpful to anyone to assume that scientists are authoritative,” he said. “A good scientist spends his whole career questioning his own facts. One of the most dangerous things you can do is believe.” ♦

*An earlier version of this article did not properly credit the organization that produced and co-published the report with Environmental Health News; it was 100Reporters.

Brasil consome 14 agrotóxicos proibidos no mundo (Portal IG)

JC e-mail 4901, de 24 de fevereiro de 2014

Especialista indica que pelo menos 30% de 20 alimentos analisados não poderiam estar na mesa do brasileiro

Os indicadores que apontam o pujante agronegócio como a galinha dos ovos de ouro da economia não incluem um dado relevante para a saúde: o Brasil é maior importador de agrotóxicos do planeta. Consome pelo menos 14 tipos de venenos proibidos no mundo, dos quais quatro, pelos riscos à saúde humana, foram banidos no ano passado, embora pesquisadores suspeitem que ainda estejam em uso na agricultura.

Em 2013 foram consumidos um bilhão de litros de agrotóxicos no País – uma cota per capita de 5 litros por habitante e movimento de cerca de R$ 8 bilhões no ascendente mercado dos venenos.

Assita Agrotóxicos afetam a saúde de 12 milhões na Argentina

Dos agrotóxicos banidos, pelo menos um, o Endosulfan, prejudicial aos sistemas reprodutivo e endócrino, aparece em 44% das 62 amostras de leite materno analisadas por um grupo de pesquisadores da Universidade Federal do Mato Grosso (UFMT) no município de Lucas do Rio Verde, cidade que vive o paradoxo de ícone do agronegócio e campeã nacional das contaminações por agrotóxicos. Lá se despeja anualmente, em média, 136 litros de venenos por habitante.

Na pesquisa coordenada pelo médico professor da UFMT Wanderlei Pignati, os agrotóxicos aparecem em todas as 62 amostras do leite materno de mães que pariram entre 2007 e 2010, onde se destacam, além do Endosulfan, outros dois venenos ainda não banidos, o Deltametrina, com 37%, e o DDE, versão modificada do potente DDT, com 100% dos casos. Em Lucas do Rio Verde, aparecem ainda pelo menos outros três produtos banidos, o Paraquat, que provocou um surto de intoxicação aguda em crianças e idosos na cidade, em 2007, o Metamidofóis, e o Glifosato, este, presente em 70 das 79 amostras de sangue e urina de professores da área rural junto com outro veneno ainda não proibido, o Piretroides.

Veja também: Agrotóxico contamina leite materno

Na lista dos proibidos em outros países estão ainda em uso no Brasil estão o Tricolfon, Cihexatina, Abamectina, Acefato, Carbofuran, Forato, Fosmete, Lactofen, Parationa Metílica e Thiram.

Chuva de lixo tóxico
“São lixos tóxicos na União Europeia e nos Estados Unidos. O Brasil lamentavelmente os aceita”, diz a toxicologista Márcia Sarpa de Campos Mello, da Unidade Técnica de Exposição Ocupacional e Ambiental do Instituto Nacional do Câncer (Inca), vinculado ao Ministério da Saúde. Conforme aponta a pesquisa feita em Lucas do Rio Verde, os agrotóxicos cancerígenos aparecem no corpo humano pela ingestão de água, pelo ar, pelo manuseio dos produtos e até pelos alimentos contaminados.

Mais:Estudante morre após tomar agrotóxico vendido como emagrecedor

Venenos como o Glifosato são despejados por pulverização aérea ou com o uso de trator, contaminam solo, lençóis freáticos, hortas, áreas urbanas e depois sobem para atmosfera. Com as precipitações pluviométricas, retornam em forma de “chuva de agrotóxico”, fenômeno que ocorre em todas as regiões agrícolas mato-grossenses estudadas. Os efeitos no organismo humano são confirmados por pesquisas também em outros municípios e regiões do país.

O Programa de Análise de Resíduos de Agrotóxicos em Alimentos (Para), da Agência Nacional de Vigilância Sanitária (Anvisa), segundo a pesquisadora do Inca, mostrou níveis fortes de contaminação em produtos como o arroz, alface, mamão, pepino, uva e pimentão, este, o vilão, em 90% das amostras coletadas. Mas estão também em praticamente toda a cadeia alimentar, como soja, leite e carne, que ainda não foram incluídas nas análises.

O professor Pignati diz que os resultados preliminares apontam que pelo menos 30% dos 20 alimentos até agora analisados não poderiam sequer estar na mesa do brasileiro. Experiências de laboratórios feitas em animais demonstram que os agrotóxicos proibidos na União Europeia e Estados Unidos são associados ao câncer e a outras doenças de fundo neurológico, hepático, respiratórios, renais e má formação genética.

Câncer em alta
A pesquisadora do Inca lembra que os agrotóxicos podem não ser o vilão, mas fazem parte do conjunto de fatores que implicam no aumento de câncer no Brasil cuja estimativa, que era de 518 mil novos casos no período 2012/2013, foi elevada para 576 mil casos em 2014 e 2015. Entre os tipos de câncer, os mais suscetíveis aos efeitos de agrotóxicos no sistema hormonal são os de mama e de próstata. No mesmo período, segundo Márcia, o Inca avaliou que o câncer de mama aumentou de 52.680 casos para 57.129.

Na mesma pesquisa sobre o leite materno, a equipe de Pignati chegou a um dado alarmante, discrepante de qualquer padrão: num espaço de dez anos, os casos de câncer por 10 mil habitantes, em Lucas do Rio Verde, saltaram de três para 40. Os problemas de malformação por mil nascidos saltaram de cinco para 20. Os dados, naturalmente, reforçam as suspeitas sobre o papel dos agrotóxicos.

Pingati afirma que os grandes produtores desdenham da proibição dos venenos aqui usados largamente, com uma irresponsável ironia: “Eles dizem que não exportam seus produtos para a União Europeia ou Estados Unidos, e sim para mercados africanos e asiáticos.”

Apesar dos resultados alarmantes das pesquisas em Lucas do Rio Verde, o governo mato-grossense deu um passo atrás na prevenção, flexibilizando por decreto, no ano passado, a legislação que limitava a pulverização por trator a 300 metros de rios, nascentes, córregos e residências. “O novo decreto é um retrocesso. O limite agora é de 90 metros”, lamenta o professor.

“Não há um único brasileiro que não esteja consumindo agrotóxico. Viramos mercado de escoamento do veneno recusado pelo resto do mundo”, diz o médico Guilherme Franco Netto, assessor de saúde ambiental da Fundação Osvaldo Cruz (Fiocruz). Na sexta-feira, diante da probabilidade de agravamento do cenário com o afrouxamento legal, a Fiocruz emitiu um documento chamado de “carta aberta”, em que convoca outras instituições de pesquisa e os movimentos sociais do campo ligados à agricultura familiar para uma ofensiva contra o poder (econômico e político) do agronegócio e seu forte lobby em toda a estrutura do governo federal.

Reação da Ciência
A primeira trincheira dessa batalha mira justamente o Palácio do Planalto e um decreto assinado, no final do ano passado, pela presidente Dilma Rousseff. Regulamentado por portaria, a medida é inspirada numa lei específica e dá exclusividade ao Ministério da Agricultura _ histórico reduto da influente bancada ruralista no Congresso _ para declarar estado de emergência fitossanitária ou zoossanitária diante do surgimento de doenças ou pragas que possam afetar a agropecuária e sua economia.

Essa decisão, até então era tripartite, com a participação do Ministério da Saúde, através da Anvisa, e do Ministério do Meio Ambiente, pelo Ibama. O decreto foi publicado em 28 de outubro. Três dias depois, o Ministério da Agricultura editou portaria declarando estado de emergência diante do surgimento de uma lagarta nas plantações, a Helicoverpaarmigera, permitindo, então, para o combate, a importação de Benzoato de Emamectina, agrotóxico que a multinacional Syngenta havia tentado, sem sucesso, registrar em 2007, mas que foi proibido pela Anvisa por conter substâncias tóxicas ao sistema neurológico.

Na carta, assinada por todo o conselho deliberativo, a Fiocruz denuncia “a tendência de supressão da função reguladora do Estado”, a pressão dos conglomerados que produzem os agroquímicos, alerta para os inequívocos “riscos, perigos e danos provocados à saúde pelas exposições agudas e crônicas aos agrotóxicos” e diz que com prerrogativa exclusiva à Agricultura, a população está desprotegida.

A entidade denunciou também os constantes ataques diretos dos representantes do agronegócio às instituições e seus pesquisadores, mas afirma que com continuará zelando pela prevenção e proteção da saúde da população. A entidade pede a “revogação imediata” da lei e do decreto presidencial e, depois de colocar-se à disposição do governo para discutir um marco regulatório para os agrotóxicos, fez um alerta dramático:

“A Fiocruz convoca a sociedade brasileira a tomar conhecimento sobre essas inaceitáveis mudanças na lei dos agrotóxicos e suas repercussões para a saúde e a vida.”

Para colocar um contraponto às alegações da bancada ruralista no Congresso, que foca seu lobby sob o argumento de que não há nexo comprovado de contaminação humana pelo uso de veneno nos alimentos e no ambiente, a Fiocruz anunciou, em entrevista ao iG, a criação de um grupo de trabalho que, ao longo dos próximos dois anos e meio, deverá desenvolver a mais profunda pesquisa já realizada no país sobre os efeitos dos agrotóxicos – e de suas inseparáveis parceiras, as sementes transgênicas – na saúde pública.

O cenário que se desenha no coração do poder, em Brasília, deve ampliar o abismo entre os ministérios da Agricultura, da Fazenda e do Planejamento, de um lado, e da Saúde, do Meio Ambiente e do Desenvolvimento Agrário, de outro. Reflexo da heterogênea coalizão de governo, esta será também uma guerra ideológica em torno do modelo agropecuário. “Não se trata de esquerdismo desvairado e nem de implicância com o agronegócio. Defendemos sua importância para o país, mas não podemos apenas assistir à expansão aguda do consumo de agrotóxicos e seus riscos com a exponencial curva ascendente nos últimos seis anos”, diz Guilherme Franco Netto. A queda de braços é, na verdade, para reduzir danos do modelo agrícola de exportação e aumentar o plantio sem agrotóxicos.

Caso de Polícia
“A ciência coloca os parâmetros que já foram seguidos em outros países. O problema é que a regulação dos agrotóxicos está subordinada a um conjunto de interesses políticos e econômicos. A saúde e o ambiente perderam suas prerrogativas”, afirma o pesquisador Luiz Cláudio Meirelles, da Fiocruz. Até novembro de 2012, durante 11 anos, ele foi o organizador gerente de toxicologia da Anvisa, setor responsável por analisar e validar os agrotóxicos que podem ser usados no mercado.

Meirelles foi exonerado uma semana depois de denunciar complexas falcatruas, com fraude, falsificação e suspeitas de corrupção em processos para liberação de seis agrotóxicos. Num deles, um funcionário do mesmo setor, afastado por ele no mesmo instante em que o caso foi comunicado ao Ministério Público Federal, chegou a falsificar sua assinatura.

“Meirelles tinha a função de banir os agrotóxicos nocivos à saúde e acabou sendo banido do setor de toxicologia”, diz sua colega do Inca, Márcia Sarpa de Campos Mello. A denúncia resultou em dois inquéritos, um na Polícia Federal, que apura suposto favorecimento a empresas e suspeitas de corrupção, e outro cível, no MPF. Nesse, uma das linhas a serem esclarecidas são as razões que levaram o órgão a afastar Meirelles.

As investigações estão longe de terminar, mas forçaram já a Anvisa – pressionada pelas suspeitas -, a executar a maior devassa já feita em seu setor de toxicologia, passando um pente fino em 796 processos de liberação avaliados desde 2008. A PF e o MPF, por sua vez, estão debruçados no órgão regulador que funciona como o coração do agronegócio e do mercado de venenos.

(Vasconcelo Quadros/Portal IG)

Smog in Beijing Is So Awful You Have to Catch the Sunrise on a Big Screen (Time)

In the airpocalypse, fake sunrises are a thing

By , Jan. 17, 2014

ChinaFotoPress / Getty Images. This LED screen displays the rising sun in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which is shrouded in heavy smog on Jan. 16, 2014.

Updated on Jan. 17, 2014 at 5:32 a.m EST.

Air pollution in the Chinese capital reached new, choking heights on Thursday. Those who still felt the urge to catch a glimpse of sunlight were able to gather around the city’s gigantic LED screens, where this glorious sunrise was broadcast as part of a patriotic video loop.

This post has been revised to reflect that the sunrise was not broadcast specifically for that day.

Read more: Beijing’s Televised Sunrise |


Ice Cap Shows Ancient Mines Polluted the Globe (New York Times)


Published: December 09, 1997

SAMPLES extracted from Greenland’s two-mile-deep ice cap have yielded evidence that ancient Carthaginian and Roman silver miners working in southern Spain fouled the global atmosphere with lead for some 900 years.

The Greenland ice cap accumulates snow year after year, and substances from the atmosphere are entrapped in the permanent ice. From 1990 to 1992, a drill operated by the European Greenland Ice-Core Project recovered a cylindrical ice sample 9,938 feet long, pieces of which were distributed to participating laboratories. The ages of successive layers of the ice cap have been accurately determined, so the chemical makeup of the atmosphere at any given time in the past 9,000 years can be estimated by analyzing the corresponding part of the core sample.

Using exquisitely sensitive techniques to measure four different isotopes of lead in the Greenland ice, scientists in Australia and France determined that most of the man-made lead pollution of the atmosphere in ancient times had come from the Spanish provinces of Huelva, Seville, Almeria and Murcia. Isotopic analysis clearly pointed to the rich silver-mining and smelting district of Rio Tinto near the modern city of Nerva as the main polluter.

The results of this study were reported in the current issue of Environmental Science & Technology by Dr. Kevin J. R. Rosman of Curtin University in Perth, Australia, and his colleagues there and at the Laboratory of Glaciology and Geophysics of the Environment in Grenoble, France.

One of the problems in their analyses, the authors wrote, was the very low concentrations of lead remaining in ice dating from ancient times — only about one-hundredth the lead level found in Greenland ice deposited in the last 30 years. But the investigators used mass-spectrometric techniques that permitted them to sort out isotopic lead composition at lead levels of only about one part per trillion.

Dr. Rosman focused on the ratio of two stable isotopes, or forms, of lead: lead-206 and lead-207. His group found that the ratio of lead-206 to lead-207 in 8,000-year-old ice was 1.201. That was taken as the natural ratio that existed before people began smelting ores. But between 600 B.C. and A.D. 300, the scientists found, the ratio of lead-206 to lead-207 fell to 1.183. They called that ”unequivocal evidence of early large-scale atmospheric pollution by this toxic metal.”

All ore bodies containing lead have their own isotopic signatures, and the Rio Tinto lead ratio is 1.164. Calculations by the Australian-French collaboration based on their ice-core analysis showed that during the period 366 B.C. to at least A.D. 36, a period when the Roman Empire was at its peak, 70 percent of the global atmospheric lead pollution came from the Roman-operated Rio Tinto mines in what is now southwestern Spain.

The Rio Tinto mining region is known to archeologists as one of the richest sources of silver in the ancient world. Some 6.6 million tons of slag were left by Roman smelting operations there.

The global demand for silver increased dramatically after coinage was introduced in Greece around 650 B.C. But silver was only one of the treasures extracted from its ore. The sulfide ore smelted by the Romans also yielded an enormous harvest of lead.

Because it is easily shaped, melted and molded, lead was widely used by the Romans for plumbing, stapling masonry together, casting statues and manufacturing many kinds of utensils. All these uses presumably contributed to the chronic poisoning of Rome’s peoples.

Adding to the toxic hazard, Romans used lead vessels to boil and concentrate fruit juices and preserves. Fruits contain acetic acid, which reacts with metallic lead to form lead acetate, a compound once known as ”sugar of lead.” Lead acetate adds a pleasant sweet taste to food but causes lead poisoning — an ailment that is often fatal and, even in mild cases, causes debilitation and loss of cognitive ability.

Judging from the Greenland ice core, the smelting of lead-bearing ore declined sharply after the fall of the Roman Empire but gradually increased during the Renaissance. By 1523, the last year for which Dr. Rosman’s group conducted its Greenland ice analysis, atmospheric lead pollution had reached nearly the same level recorded for the year 79 B.C., at the peak of Roman mining pollution.

O Brasil na contramão (IPS)

Inter Press Service – Reportagens

11/10/2013 – 09h20

por Fabíola Ortiz, da IPS

transito1 O Brasil na contramão

Tráfego na avenida 23 de Maio, em São Paulo. Foto: Photostock/IPS

Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, 11/10/2013 – Nos últimos cinco anos, em plena crise econômica internacional, o Brasil passou a integrar o grupo dos grandes poluidores mundiais, cuja fonte principal de gases-estufa é a queima de combustíveis fósseis. Esse país está assumindo um perfil de contaminação climática próprio do primeiro mundo, segundo o cientista José Marengo, um dos autores do Quinto Informe de Avaliação do Grupo Intergovernamental de Especialistas sobre a Mudança Climática (IPCC), cujo primeiro volume sem editar foi divulgado no dia 30 de setembro.

E isto se deve, em parte, a uma simples razão de fenômeno industrial e de consumo. As isenções de impostos para estimular a venda de automóveis e motocicletas tiveram um efeito positivo no crescimento econômico. Contudo, ao mesmo tempo, criaram um aumento vertiginoso do parque automotivo. A quantidade de automóveis duplicou em uma década, passando de 24,5 milhões em 2001 para 50,2 milhões em 2012, segundo o informe Evolução da Frota de Automóveis e Motos no Brasil – Relatório 2013, divulgado ontem.

As motocicletas tiveram um aumento ainda mais espetacular no mesmo período, passando de 4,5 milhões para 19,9 milhões. O Brasil “terminou 2012 com uma frota total de 76.137.125 veículos automotores. Em 2001, havia aproximadamente 31,8 milhões de unidades. Houve, portanto, aumento de 138,6%”, afirma o documento publicado pelo Observatório das Metrópoles. “Vale recordar que o crescimento populacional do país entre os últimos censos (2000 e 2010) foi de 11,8%”, acrescenta.

“É preocupante, porque sempre criticamos os países desenvolvidos por isso”, observou Marengo, que dirige o Centro de Ciência do Sistema Terrestre do Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais. Esse aspecto contrasta com a redução do intenso desmatamento no país, amplamente divulgado pelas autoridades brasileiras.

Em 27 de setembro, quando o IPCC divulgou o Resumo para Responsáveis por Políticas, o secretário de Pesquisa e Desenvolvimento do Ministério de Ciência e Tecnologia, Carlos Nobre, dizia à IPS que este país conseguiu reduzir em 38,4% suas emissões de gases-estufa entre 2005 e 2010, devido à redução no desmatamento da Amazônia.

O Brasil se comprometeu em 2009 a reduzir suas emissões de gases-estufa entre 36,1% e 38,9%, segundo dois cenários de crescimento do produto interno bruto. O governo garante que já avançou 62% rumo a essa meta, graças à acentuada redução do desmatamento. Até 2009, o desmatamento era a causa de 60% da contaminação climática do Brasil, enquanto o uso de combustíveis fósseis estava em segundo lugar. Agora emergem novos problemas.

“Se tivéssemos um sistema de transportes de massa confiável e confortável, as pessoas deixaram seus carros em casa. Mas, viajar em certas horas do dia no metrô de São Paulo ou do Rio de Janeiro (duas das maiores cidades do país) é uma humilhação”, disse Marengo à IPS. “Isso precisa mudar, e a única forma é fomentar um transporte público decente”.

Para o diretor de políticas públicas do Greenpeace Brasil, Sergio Leitão, essa mudança de perfil também coincide com a prioridade que se dá a novos empreendimentos, como a prospecção e exploração das jazidas de petróleo do pré-sal, a mais de sete mil metros de profundidade na plataforma submarina. “Estamos começando a exploração do pré-sal e nossas grandes cidades estão abarrotadas de carros”, pontuou Leitão. Enquanto o mundo caminha para novos modelos energéticos, o Brasil segue na contramão, segundo o ativista, tornando impossível que este país seja “amigo do planeta”, afirmou.

O informe do IPCC diz que as mudanças observadas desde 1950 não têm precedentes e demonstram que a ação do homem é uma causa inequívoca do aquecimento global registrado desde meados do século 20. O informe assinala que a humanidade deve fazer todos os esforços para manter o clima do planeta nas coordenadas do cenário mais otimista, com o aquecimento global não superando os dois graus neste século.

Para conseguir isso, segundo Leitão, as “medidas fundamentais, urgentes e inevitáveis” são mudar o modelo de produção e reduzir drasticamente o consumo de petróleo, gás e carvão. “Nos preocupa o fato de no Brasil o pré-sal ser visto como a grande oportunidade econômica do futuro”, afirmou. Na área energética, os grandes volumes de investimentos são destinados a viabilizar a exploração do petróleo no pré-sal, com até US$ 340 milhões até 2020, ressaltou.

Por outro lado, Leitão disse que “seria preciso adotar um rumo diferente, de pesquisas em energias renováveis e limpas. O Brasil se destaca em abundância de sol e vento. É necessário dinamizar essas vertentes e criar substitutos tecnológicos para os combustíveis fósseis”.

Marengo destacou que, se o mundo inteiro deixasse de emitir gases-estufa hoje, seriam necessários 20 anos para frear as transformações climáticas já desatadas. “O IPCC fala de aproximadamente duas décadas, pois foram centenas de anos acumulando dióxido de carbono (CO2). Os processos de fotossíntese nas florestas podem ajudar a absorver CO2, mas isso não é imediato e exige décadas de inércia”, destacou.

As medidas de mitigação – para reduzir a quantidade de gases lançados na atmosfera – são caras e seus efeitos são de longo prazo, mas são as únicas que permitirão minimizar os impactos futuros, acrescentou Marengo, para quem os impactos mais severos começarão a ser sentidos depois de 2040.

Adaptar-se a essas alterações é possível, mas a mensagem que o IPCC pretende dar à próxima cúpula mundial do clima, que se reunirá em novembro em Varsóvia, é que devem tomar medidas para evitar os cenários mais pessimistas, com elevações da temperatura média acima dos dois graus.

Marengo lamentou que a agenda ambiental tenha passado para segundo plano desde que começou a crise econômica e financeira mundial em 2008. “É impossível um país com uma situação econômica ruim aderir a um tratado ambiental, pois este terá um custo social elevado”, enfatizou.


Pesquisadores alertam sobre necessidade urgente de proteger os oceanos (Fapesp)

Artigo de brasileiro e uruguaio será publicado como editorial no periódico Marine Pollution Bulletin(Wikipedia)


Por José Tadeu Arantes

Agência FAPESP – Estima-se que 41% dos mares e oceanos do planeta se encontrem fortemente impactados pela ação humana, segundo estudos. Trata-se de um problema grave que não tem recebido a merecida atenção. Um exemplo está no ritmo de implementação da diretriz relativa à proteção marinha definida pela Convenção sobre Diversidade Biológica (CDB), da Organização das Nações Unidas (ONU).

Aprovada por 193 países mais a União Europeia durante a 10ª Conferência das Partes da CDB, realizada em Nagoya, Japão, em outubro de 2010, essa diretriz estabeleceu que, até 2020, pelo menos 10% das áreas costeiras e marinhas, especialmente aquelas importantes por sua biodiversidade, deveriam estar protegidas.

Decorrido quase um terço do prazo, porém, as chamadas Áreas de Proteção Marinha (APMs) não cobrem mais do que 1,17% da superfície dos mares e oceanos do planeta. Dos 151 países com linha de costa, apenas 12 excederam os 10%. E a maior potência do mundo, os Estados Unidos, dotada de extensos litorais tanto no Atlântico como no Pacífico, não aderiu ao protocolo.

As informações, que configuram um alerta urgente, estão no artigo Politics should walk with Science towards protection of the oceans (“A política deve caminhar com a ciência na proteção dos oceanos”), assinado pelo brasileiro Antonio Carlos Marques, professor associado do Instituto de Biociências da Universidade de São Paulo, e pelo uruguaio Alvar Carranza, pesquisador do Museu Nacional de História Natural, do Uruguai. Enviado ao Marine Pollution Bulletin, o texto, que será publicado como editorial da versão impressa do periódico, está disponível on-line em

O artigo também destaca que, com uma das mais extensas costas do mundo – de 9.200 quilômetros, se forem consideradas as saliências e reentrâncias –, o Brasil possui apenas 1,5% de seu litoral protegido por APMs. Além disso, 9% das áreas consideradas prioritárias para conservação já foram concedidas a companhias petroleiras para exploração. As costas altamente povoadas dos Estados de São Paulo e Rio de Janeiro concentram a maioria das reservas de petróleo do país.

Os dados publicados são derivados de dois projetos apoiados pela FAPESP e coordenados por Marques: um projeto de Auxílio à Pesquisa – Regular, que apoia a Rede Nacional de Pesquisa em Biodiversidade Marinha (Sisbiota Mar), e um Projeto Temático para pesquisar fatores que geram e regulam a evolução e diversidade marinhas.

“Como um expediente para cumprir a meta, alguns governos têm criado Áreas de Proteção Marinha gigantescas, mas em torno de ilhas ou arquipélagos praticamente desabitados, muito distantes do próprio país”, disse Marques à Agência FAPESP.

“A maior APM do mundo, situada no arquipélago de Chagos, tem mais de meio milhão de quilômetros quadrados. É uma área enorme, que cumpre, com sobra, a meta do Reino Unido”, disse. O arquipélago faz parte do Território Britânico do Oceano Índico.

“Porém a população dessa área se resume ao contingente rotativo de uma base britânica. A ninguém mais. Além disso, as características da área, situada no meio do Oceano Índico, em nada correspondem à biodiversidade do Reino Unido”, prosseguiu.

Embora reconheça o valor de uma APM como essa, Marques argumenta que sua criação não é necessariamente efetiva em termos de preservação ambiental. Segundo ele, cumpre-se o aspecto quantitativo, mas não o qualitativo, ou seja, não oferece proteção efetiva ao litoral do país onde está a maior parte de sua população. E o que é mais grave, segundo Marques, é que o mesmo expediente foi adotado em todas as outras grandes APMs criadas recentemente.

“Verificamos, e divulgamos em nosso artigo, que a população média das 10 maiores APMs do mundo, computada em raios de 10 quilômetros em torno das mesmas, é de apenas 5.038 pessoas”, informou Marques. E essa média é puxada para cima por apenas duas APMs, a Reserva Marinha de Galápagos (Equador) e o Parque Nacional da Grande Barreira de Corais (Austrália), ambas com pouco mais de 25 mil habitantes. A população total das demais APMs não chega a 4 mil indivíduos, sendo nula em três delas.

“Para os governos, é uma medida muito cômoda criar áreas de proteção ambiental em regiões como essas, porque o desgaste socioeconômico de tal implementação é baixíssimo. Exceto por uma ou outra indústria pesqueira, ninguém vai reclamar muito. É uma situação muito diferente da que ocorreria se as APMs fossem criadas nos litorais dos respectivos países”, disse Marques.

O pesquisador ressalta que essas áreas remotas são úteis, como nas APMs de Galápagos e da Barreira de Corais, pela especialidade dos ecossistemas protegidos. Mas as APMs não seriam representativas da gama de ambientes dos países.

Fracassos e sucessos

“Nossa principal intenção ao escrever o artigo foi destacar que existe uma necessidade de proteção, que pode ser parcialmente atendida pela meta de 10%, mas essa proteção tem que respeitar os ambientes reais dos países. Não basta alcançar o número sem que haja uma correspondência entre quantidade e qualidade”, disse Marques.

O pesquisador conta que, ao enviar o artigo para o Marine Pollution Bulletin, um de seus objetivos foi estabelecer uma interlocução com o editor do periódico, Charles Sheppard, da University of Warwick, no Reino Unido. Sheppard é considerado uma das maiores autoridades em conservação marinha do mundo e foi um dos mentores da APM britânica do arquipélago de Chagos.

“A resposta do professor Sheppard foi a mais positiva que eu poderia esperar, tanto que ele decidiu publicar nosso artigo como editorial do Marine Pollution Bulletin.

De acordo com Marques, os dados básicos e as análises gerados pelos cientistas são vitais para o melhor uso dos recursos, ao estabelecer áreas de preservação.

“É necessário entender se a área é a ideal para ser protegida do ponto de vista evolutivo, genético, biogeográfico, ecológico etc. Há exemplos de sucesso em que isso foi observado e exemplos de fracassos em que foi ignorado. O melhor cenário possível é aquele em que cientistas, técnicos e políticos participam francamente do processo”, disse.

Água marginalizada: O reflexo da sociedade (Envolverde)

9/12/2012 – 10h35

por Sarah Bueno Motter e Giovani de Oliveira, da EcoAgência

Diluvio Água marginalizada: O reflexo da sociedade

O Dilúvio é o maior riacho que corta a cidade de Porto Alegre. Foto: Divulgação/Internet

As margens são um limite. Até onde o Dilúvio vai, até onde ele pode ir. Balizado pelo concreto humano, o arroio que corta a capital faz parte da rotina da cidade. Em suas margens, estão os congestionamentos e a ansiedade de Porto Alegre. Nas suas beiradas, está, na hora do rush, o stress de querer chegar rápido ao outro lado da cidade e não conseguir a velocidade pretendida. A poluição que corre dentro do Dilúvio também passa nos seus limiares, os quais são contaminados pela exaustão da sociedade perante sua rotina.

As margens do Dilúvio transbordam o vazio de nossa civilização que corre apressada sem nem saber o motivo. Que deixa à sua margem aqueles que não têm o capital e as oportunidades iguais, aqueles que não têm o carro, aqueles que não têm a casa. Esses ficam às margens.

As bordas também refletem as novas tendências. O desejo da ciclovia, do transporte limpo. Elas falam de um novo caminho que a cidade “quer” abrir. Um caminho para o sustentável.

Mas a sustentabilidade não caminha junto da miséria e da desigualdade e ela não é parceira do descaso. A sustentabilidade não está nas aparências. Ela não é balizada por frágeis mudanças sem conteúdo maciço, sem a pretensão de uma metamorfose. Ela não parte do nada e não chega a lugar nenhum. Ela não se inaugura com uma quadra de ciclovia, ela é uma estrada inteira.

A água, quando cai no Dilúvio, faz o barulho característico dos riachos, aquele som que muitas vezes queremos levar para casa, comprando uma fonte de decoração. O barulho é tão bonito e característico, mas o concreto afasta a cidade da natureza, que suja de nossos resíduos, continua seu caminho. As margens do Dilúvio são uma síntese do que somos. Os carros, os excluídos, a sujeira, os “novos caminhos” e a natureza que teima e vive entre o cinza da ambição humana.

O Dilúvio é o símbolo de uma sociedade precária, individualista e agressiva. Como muitas das crianças que moram embaixo de suas pontes, suas águas são agredidas desde o começo de sua vida. Já em sua nascente, na Lomba do Sabão, o arroio é violentado pela ocupação irregular da área. Famílias, sem condições de moradia, ocupam um local protegido por lei, e jogam seus dejetos nas águas do Dilúvio. Pessoas violentadas pela sociedade do ter, sem espaço para tentar ser, violentam também o arroio e invadem seu espaço.

Espaço que cada vez existe menos. Espaço cada vez mais ocupado pelo lixo, espaço que nós não temos mais. O espaço que poderia ser de lazer, de contato com a natureza em meio à cidade, torna-se um espaço do qual fugimos. Não a toa, algumas pessoas defendem que se cubra o Dilúvio. Defendem uma grande tampa de concreto, que não cure a ferida, mas nos impeça de ver ou sentir.

Mas incrivelmente, violentado do começo ao fim, o Dilúvio segue vivo, suas águas, são a moradia de peixes, pescados por improváveis gaivotas porto-alegrenses. E suas margens, costeadas pelo cinza, ainda conservam um verde, que insiste em se manter vivo.

* Publicado originalmente no site EcoAgência.