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Chris Honoré: The canary in the coal mine

So the summer of our discontent draws to a close and we can once again look up and see, to our surprise and delight, a cobalt blue sky. The surrounding mountains are no longer hidden behind a haze of smoke, smoke that was all but palatable and triggered health warnings day after day as temperatures too often slipped into triple digits. Sweet summer rain abandoned us. Was this the new normal? Of course there is no reliable answer.

What lies ahead environmentally can still seem elusive and hypothetical, all but impossible to grasp.

Recently, President Obama traveled to Anchorage, Alaska, for the Glacier Conference, a gathering of nations to discuss climate change. To those in attendance, his speech was unusually blunt, urging nations to act boldly. If we fail, he said, we will “condemn our children to a world they will no longer have the capacity to repair. Human activity is disrupting the climate, in many ways faster than we thought. The science is stark. It proves that this once-distant threat is now very much in the present. On this issue of all issues there is such a thing as being too late. That moment is almost upon us. But if we unite our highest aspirations, if we make our best efforts to protect this planet for future generations, we can solve the problem.”

But can we unite? Or is China, collectively, to use a familiar metaphor, the canary in the coal mine (isn’t this the definition of irony?), portending what awaits us all, most especially our children.

Writers have characterized China’s generational assault on its natural resources as not only rapacious and violent, but a “demonic” rush toward industrialization and urbanization, combined with an insistent rate of growth.

According to an article from the Council on Foreign Relations, by Beina Xu, China consumes almost half of all the world’s coal. As a result, it has 16 of the world’s most polluted cities. Life expectancy has decreased by 5.5 years because of air pollution and extreme water contamination, which are responsible for some 250,000 premature deaths. Less than 1 percent of China’s 500 largest cities meet World Health Organization air quality standards and one third of the urban population is breathing polluted air. In January of last year, 1 million square kilometers were covered in heavy smog affecting millions of people. By some estimates, 70 to 80 percent of all its cancers are related to the environment. China, having passed the U.S. in 2007, is today the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

But water depletion is becoming China’s most pressing problem. Two-thirds of China’s 660 cities don’t have enough potable water. Deserts are expanding (27.5 of China’s arable land mass is impacted by desertification), acid rain is now common and half of the water in the nation’s seven largest rivers is so polluted as to be rendered useless.

China, however, is not alone. Pollution is global and spreading. There’s Brazil. The attention of the world will turn toward this nation as next summer’s Olympics draws near. Many of the events will take place on and in Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay, which Brazil promised would be pristine for the games. Rio’s reality: only 34 percent of the raw sewage of some 10 million inhabitants is treated, while millions of liters are dumped directly into Guanabara Bay. Sailors practicing on the bay state that it smells like a toilet and their boats have run into sofas, doors, dead dogs and cats.

Brazil has the wish; it does not have the will.

But as mentioned, though China may be prologue to our global future, the ability of the world community to “unite” as we confront an unprecedented, existential crisis remains elusive. It is also a question of will.

Two final points: While President Obama’s comments were long overdue, his administration granted Shell Oil a permit to begin drilling in the Arctic, creating a dissonance that cannot be ignored and represents a worldwide dilemma.

In America, Republicans refer to the burden of government regulations and the abiding wish to truncate if not eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency. Know that China decentralized all environmental controls and allowed the factory owners to self-regulate. The results are evident.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.