Cities on the front line of climate change

By Li Xing (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-01-07 07:40
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Garbage has been piled up on the streets of New York for nearly a week after a blizzard hit the northeastern part of the United States on Dec 30. The city's sanitation workers had a hell of job to tackle the garbage after days of hard work to clear the streets of thick snow.

Although Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked for patience and pledged swift action, the news media have relentlessly criticized Bloomberg and his team for their inability to deal with the snowstorm in a timely manner.

For days, pedestrians had to wade through water to cross the streets. Of course, that was nothing compared to the plight of residents in some parts of the city, who did not see a snowplow for five days after the storm. A leukemia patient missed his appointment for treatment; it took one woman in labor three hours to reach a hospital.

Complaints about the snow were soon replaced by grievances about the garbage. Local TV news channels showed how bags of garbage in front of some restaurants, including those in Chinatown, were scaring off tourists and residents alike.

It is frightening that an extreme weather event, such as this snowstorm, can catch a city like New York unprepared.

The same sort of thing happens in Beijing. On a December afternoon 10 years ago, thousands of commuters were stranded for hours on the ring roads as a result of a snowstorm which left a few centimeters of snow over a five-hour period.

Four years ago, a summer downpour again brought Beijing to a standstill. The rain submerged several major roads; traffic near the Capital International Airport and on some ring roads stood still for hours.

These days, whenever snow or heavy rain is forecast in Beijing, police and sanitation officials prepare for the worst so as to reduce the effect on the lives of residents.

Unfortunately, the situation is only going to get worse. As climate change continues and the earth's surface temperature keeps rising, we are in for more extreme and unpredictable weather events

Scientists say 2010 is likely to rank among the warmest years since the middle of the 19th century. Some 19 countries set all-time heat records last year. Moscow, for instance, suffered not only record heat, but also raging forest fires.

Extreme weather not only ties up traffic; it also disrupts the delivery of essential supplies. The third day after the blizzard, I got a notice from the management of my hotel, apologizing for not being able to change the bedding. The supplier, it seems, was unable to get into the city.

That is nothing compared to what Chenzhou, a third-tier city of nearly 500,000 residents in central China's Hunan province, went through as a result of continuous snow and icy rain in January 2008. The supply of coal was cut off, leaving the city without electricity for more than a week. The city's water supply system also froze, so residents had no drinking water.

A World Bank report released in early December warns that many coastal cities - from Kolkata, Shanghai, and Guangzhou in developing countries to Rotterdam, Tokyo, and New York City in developed countries - face the same risks if sea levels continue to rise as a result of global warming.

In the same report, the World Bank points out that "residents of cities, especially the rich, are the largest contributors to climate change," even though they, especially the urban poor, are also the victims.

It is not enough to prepare emergency response systems to deal with extreme weather. Cities must also take drastic measures to cut down greenhouse gas emissions.

Countries should encourage residents to change their lifestyles to recycle more and generate less garbage, so as to reduce their carbon footprints.

The author is assistant editor-in-chief of China Daily. E-mail: