China Compares Its Smog Problem to "Nuclear Winter"


The news: In the ongoing inquiry into how much smog actually blankets China, recent information has revealed a new answer: "Enough to create a nuclear winter." 

According to He Dongxian, an associate professor at China Agricultural University's College of Water Resources and Civil Engineering, Chinese agriculture will suffer conditions "somewhat similar to a nuclear winter" if the smog persists and continues to grow. By comparing the growth of one set of chili and tomato plants inside a controlled lab — using artificial light — with another inside a suburban Beijing greenhouse, he found that the greenhouse plants took almost three times as long to grow, and were "lucky to live at all."

He further demonstrated that the smog's air pollutants adhere to greenhouse surfaces and block as much as 50% of the light, desperately impeding photosynthesis, the process plants use to convert sunlight into energy. If the smog doesn't let up, almost every farm in the affected areas could be in serious danger of losing their ability to grow crops. This would also affect farmers' ability to grow the livestock that depend on these crops for sustenance.

But we could live without food, right? Let's assume you've taken that crazy position. Even if that were the case, a study released by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences found that Beijing's pollution has made the city almost "uninhabitable for human beings."

The smog's density hit frightening highs this week, with Beijing's concentration of PM 2.5 particles — those small enough to deeply penetrate the lungs and enter the bloodstream — reaching 505 micrograms per cubic meter on Tuesday night. On Wednesday morning, the U.S. embassy in China warned American nationals they'd measured the air-quality index at 512. By 11 a.m., that number had reached 537. The World Health Organization recommends a safe level of 25. Both the American embassy and the Chinese government — which tends to be slightly more forgiving with smog tolerance — have warned people in affected areas to avoid outdoor activities and wear masks at all times. The WHO has since called the smog in China a "crisis."

The background: China's smog, which is clearly visible from space (yikes!), is going from bad to worse. Though it's been an issue for a while, the government only recently allowed the state media to report on the issue. Since then, complaints about "the weather" have been correctly attributed to human interference. 

However, despite state media coverage and warnings, the government is still trying to maintain a brave face. On Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping stepped out into Beijing's choking smog and walked around the trendy Nanluoguxiang neighborhood without a facemask, signaling to locals that the air was safe to breathe. "Xi Jinping visits Beijing's Nanluoguxiang amid the smog: Breathing together, sharing the fate," read the headline of a Xinhua News Agency report.

Image Credit: AP

The takeaway: As the smog thickens and solutions fail to materialize, China's problems will only get worse — and there's little anyone can really do. Well, maybe there's something: Li Guixin, a man from Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province near Beijing, has sued the local environment protection bureau for failing to "perform its duty to control air pollution according to the law." It's a bold strategy, and Li isn't looking for much in terms of monetary compensation (roughly $1630). But the message he's sending is much stronger: The government must act soon or the people will get restless. 

Additionally, while this might seem like China's problem exclusively, two separate studies released earlier this year indicate that the country's smog problem could become so severe that it affects weather problems around the world, even causing serious issues for the U.S.