China's War on Natural Disasters

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In one of the bolder moves against nature's fury to come along in a while, China is declaring war on natural disasters, according to an article in The Guardian yesterday.

This isn't anything as circumspect as calling for limits to greenhouse gas emissions or cleaning up water pollution, no: this is a brute-force approach to protecting people from the effects of climate change and severe weather. This is about building sea walls to hold back the rising ocean, installing advanced detection systems to warn people of approaching typhoons, even watching space for solar flares and other events that could upset telecommunications networks.

The details — like how much all of this is going to cost — remain fuzzy, according to the article. All we know is that it's a ten-year plan designed to prevent the loss of life and property as a result of natural disasters.

Whatever shape this project takes, you can rest assured it's going to be big. Think Three Gorges Dam big, Beijing Olympics big, or planting giant new forests to ward off dust storms big. Americans may have invented "big," but China knocked it off like a fake Gucci handbag and is now building "big" faster, cheaper, and more efficiently than the U.S. has in decades (I'm not counting Walmart here). I wouldn't be surprised if this collectively becomes one of the largest engineering projects the world has ever seen.

So the question is: is China the smartest (or at least most forward-thinking) country on the planet?

Their population is beset by poverty, public health issues, and many regions of the country lack access to clean drinking water, so they certainly have their problems. But while much of the western world puts its hope for the future of the environment in stagnant climate change legislation and impotent international climate change conferences, China is reading the writing on the wall.

As just about any international environmental organization can tell you, the number of natural disasters has been on a steep upward trend for decades (Click figure for full size — arrows indicate 1996 Kobe earth quake and Hurricane Katrina in 2005). This is more to do with exploding population than climate change, but as weather becomes more extreme and less predictable, we've got a recipe for a double-whammy of disasters brewing. 

The Chinese government understands that, and is battening down the hatches. Perhaps it's time for the rest of us to do the same.

Figure: Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters

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