China: Does Cleaner Air Mean More Global Warming?

Dissidents aren't the only ones being forced off the streets of Beijing during these Summer Olympics. The Chinese government's heavy hand is also pushing drivers off the roads--about 3.5 million of them, in fact--as part of an effort to reduce the city's notoriously bad air quality. Late last month, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau ordered half of the city's automobiles off the streets for the duration of the Games and closed hundreds of factories, steel mills, foundries and coal plants. "We can guarantee good air quality during the Games," Du Shaozhong, Beijing's smog czar, asserted at a recent news conference. "We can provide a good environment for the athletes."

But can they really? As the Games begin this weekend, many experts say the air is not healthy at all, especially for athletes competing outside. And it's worth mentioning that air deemed "healthy" in Beijing would still be considered "unhealthy" in any U.S. city, where pollution limits are as much as five times lower. Neither Shaozhong nor any other Chinese pols have had much to say about that, or about how bad Beijing's air will be for the 17.4 million residents once the athletes and reporters go home and all those cars are back on the streets and all those factories reopen.

But Veerabhadran Ramanathan will be able to tell us. Ramanathan, a leading climate researcher from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, is studying the air in Beijing for the duration of the Olympics and beyond (eight weeks total) to see how it affects the environment not only for the folks in Beijing, but the world. One of more than 100 scientists conducting air-quality experiments during the Games, Ramanathan is actually doing his work on the South Korean island of Jeju, some 500 miles southeast of Beijing but directly downwind from the pollution.

Ramanathan is launching unmanned drones to monitor air quality up to 12,000 feet and is using another unmanned plane from Edwards Air Force Base to measure how much of the bad stuff reaches California. Ramanathan says his goal with this experiment is to see how China's air affects the rest of the world, specifically with regard to climate change. The Chinese have made the air cleaner, he says, but it is still not healthy air for athletes, or children or other living things. And here's the real irony. "Air pollution actually masks global warming," says Ramanathan. "When you clean up very polluted air, as China is doing during these Olympics, it has a direct impact on global warming and temperatures rise."

Air pollution's ability to mask global warming is not something Al Gore just dreamed up. Scientists like Ramanathan have in fact been heeding this call for several years. Particles in pollution that enter the atmosphere cool the Earth by shielding radiation from the sun and bouncing it back out to space. Cutting down on the release of these particles by improving air quality, which China is doing right now and which the West has been doing for some time, actually diminishes this shield and the Earth's temperature rises, Ramanathan and others say.

If you think the idea that making the air cleaner can cause global warming sounds like a Faustian bargain of the worst kind, well, you're getting warmer. "There is indeed a cruel irony to all this," says Ramanathan. "And of course I'm not saying 'let's burn more coal,' I'm just saying that we need to start thinking of clever ways to address both problems. We know that air pollution masks the effects of global warming, but to what percentage we are still not certain. That's one of the things my experiment will be looking at. If it's 80 percent, that would be bad news."

Among the many good things about these Olympics, however, Ramanathan insists, is that they will not only increase awareness of the worldwide problem of air pollution but also the present danger of climate change--and the surprising connection between the two: "I'm not a policymaker, and there's no magic bullet. But we have to be aware of both the climate-change aspect and the pollution aspect. China has done a good thing by cleaning up the air for these Games, but they are all at the mercy of the winds. Beijing remains a very polluted city."

The British Broadcasting Corp.'s Beijing bureau confirms this, reporting that its pollution-measuring device has shown readings this week for tiny particles of soot and other particulate matter well above the World Health Organization's recommended levels for healthy air.

Unmoved, Chinese officials, and even some non-Chinese members of the International Olympic Committee, continue to preposterously insist that the thick yellow haze blanketing parts of Beijing this week is fog, not smog, and that the air is just fine. And they insist that if the air does get worse, they can force as many as 90 percent of the automobiles off the streets and close even more factories. But the athletes aren't breathing any sighs of relief.

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