Perspectives from China

I spent the last three weeks in China partly for a conference, partly for a vacation, and partly for a rest. In catching up over the last couple of days, I notice that the break has given me a slightly different perspective on a couple of issues that are relevant here.

First off, the conference I attended was on paleoceanography and there were was a lot of great new science presented, particularly concerning the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (around 55 million years ago), and on past changes to tropical rainfall patterns (see this week’s Nature) – two issues where there is a lot of relevance for climate change and its impacts today. I’ll discuss the new data in separate posts over the next few weeks, but for now I’ll just mention a topic that came up repeatedly in conversations over the week – that was how to improve the flow of information from the paleo community to the wider climate community, as represented by the IPCC for instance.

There was a palpable sense that insights from paleo-climate (in this case referring mainly to the ocean sediment record rather than ice cores or records from the last millennium) were not being given their due, and in fact were frequently being misused. In a panel discussion (hosted by Stefan), people lamented the lack of ‘synthesis’ that would be useful for the outside community, while others stressed (correctly) that synthesis is hard and frankly not well regarded within the community or their funders. I think this is a general problem; many of the incentives for success within an academic field – the push for novel techniques, the ownership of specific slices of data, the desire to emulate the paths to success of the previous generation – actually discourage work across the field that pulls together disparate sources of information.

In the paleo-oceanography case, this exhibits itself in the overwhelming focus on downcore records (the patterns of change at a single point through time) and the relative lack of integrated products that either show spatial patterns of change at a single time, or that try to extract common elements from multiple events in the past. There are of course numerous exceptions – the MARGO project that compiled records from the peak of the last ice age, or the work of PMIP for the mid-Holocene – but their visibility makes their uniqueness all the more obvious. There were no ideas presented that would fix this overnight, but the discussions showed that the community realises that there is a problem – even if the solutions are elusive.

My second thought on China came from travelling through some of the most polluted cites in the world. Aerosol haze that appeared continuous from Beijing to Hong Kong is such an obvious sign of human industrial activity that it simply takes your breath away (literally). In places, even on a clear day, you cannot see the sun – even if there is no cloud in the sky. Only in the mountains or in deeply rural parts of the country was blue sky in evidence. This is clearly an unsustainable situation (even if you are only thinking about the human health impacts) and it points the way, I think, to how China can be engaged on the climate change front. If reducing aerosol emissions can be done at the same time that greenhouse gases can be cut, the Chinese will likely jump at the chance. As an aside, I noticed that Compact Florescent Light bulbs were being used almost everywhere you looked, and that the majority of Shanghai’s motorbikes and scooters were electric rather than gasoline powered. These efforts clearly help, but they are just as clearly not sufficient on their own.

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