Debating China's Effect on the Environment


Will China's rise lead to an environmental catastrophe? That was the question debated Oxford-style at Chicago's Harris Theater this past October 24. Sponsored by The Economist and Chicago public radio station WBEZ and moderated by WBEZ's Jerome McDonnell, the debate featured for the affirmative Orville Schell, Arthur Ross director of the Center on US-China relations at the Asia Society; and Barry Weisberg of the Univ. of Illinois, Chicago. Arguing the negative were Vijay Vaitheeswaran, global correspondent for The Economist, and Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of the Energy Technology Innovation Project of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the Belfer Ctr. for Science and Intl. Affairs at Harvard Univ.

Following are some highlights:

Schell said the issue isn't whether China's rise will become an environmental catastrophe; it already has. The heart of the matter is coal, he added; that's what drives their economy. They are the largest emitter of greenhouse gases; they have contaminated wheat and grain from dirty water; and they practice massive overlogging.

Vaitheeswaran said we must remember that one-third of the world's population is rising out of unimaginable poverty, and it's happening in our lifetime. These so-called environmental horrors are a byproduct of this fact. England, Japan, and the US went through this at one time.

Weisberg agreed with Schell that the environment in China is already a catastrophe, and the country does not have the infrastructure to regulate growth. Their system of production, distribution, and consumption is out of balance with the biosphere, he noted. China must redefine these three things, as must everyone else on earth.

Gallagher acknowledged that China's environmental challenges are enormous, but she doesn't believe they will lead to catastrophe. For example, she said, China already is making cleaner cars than is the US. She reported there is a lot of internal pressure there, including protests, to clean up. We just don't hear about that. Gallagher believes there will be a political will to clean up China; her question is, will it be in time?

Other points on both sides:

  • We all need cleaner coal technologies — coal is not going away. We have to figure it out first, then China will buy technology off the shelf.
  • No government can do it alone — they all need peripherals such as environmental organizations.
  • No one really knows how to address the structural problems of newly developing mega cities.
  • When China gets serious about a problem, it can solve it.
  • We're helping ourselves by helping China's environment.
  • 750,000 people die from pollution in China each year.
  • China has taken measures to increase its regulatory environment; e.g., they do care about recent product recalls.

The one resource we all have in abundance is human ingenuity, and we must use it, said Vaitheeswaran in his concluding statement.

The audience voted (unscientifically) before and after the debate. The before vote was declared by the moderator too close to call. The vote taken after the debate was given to the yeas (China's rise will lead to an environmental catastrophe), but it was a narrow victory.

To hear the full debate, go to

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