Reporting from Lijiang, China – If you want to see a glacier melt with your bare eyes, try Yulong Snow Mountain, an 18,000-foot peak in southern China’s Yunnan province.
On this early December morning, the mountain is etched against the technicolor sky in shades of gray — definitely more gray than white. Naked boulders of limestone and daubs of shrubbery protrude from the shallow snow cover.
At a scenic overlook on the way up, tourists leave their woolly hats in the tour bus when they hop out to take photographs.
Even with its bald spots, the mountain is a picture postcard. But scientists worry about the way it is changing.
“Look here,” said Du Jiankuo, a 25-year-old Chinese scientist, raising his telephoto lens to a gray patch. “You can see where we lost another big chunk of ice.”
In the study of climate change, glaciers are sometimes likened to the canaries in the coal mine, and to many observers the condition of Yulong (“Jade Dragon”) mountain is troubling.
He Yuanqing, one of China’s leading glacier experts, found that the mountain’s largest glacier, known as Baishui No. 1, has retreated about 275 yards since 1982.
“At this rate, the glacier could disappear entirely over the next few decades,” said He, who heads a team of scientists who have been studying Yulong mountain since 1999 for the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute, a government-run think tank.
A solid majority of Americans support the idea of a global treaty that would require the United States to reduce significantly greenhouse gas emissions, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, although many also express concern about the potential impact on the economy.
The results provide some encouragement for President Obama, who attends the United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen on Friday. By 55%-38%, those surveyed endorse a binding accord to limit the gases tied to global warming.
By a lopsided 7-1, however, Americans say the administration should put a higher priority on improving the economy than reducing global warming. And they are split on the likely economic impact of enacting new environmental and energy laws to address climate change: 42% say they will hurt the economy; 36% say they will help.
“There’s a lot of public support for various climate policy approaches that diminishes as you begin to put a specific dollar figure with it,” says Barry Rabe, a University of Michigan political scientist who studies public opinion on the environment. He says the findings show many Americans open to persuasion.
For instance, two in 10 say new environmental laws “definitely” will hurt the economy; one in 10 say they “definitely” will help. Two thirds are somewhere in the middle, less certain of the economic effect or saying it would have no impact at all.
Young people, those 18 to 29 years old, are by far the most supportive of a treaty, backing the idea by 66%-26%. Those over 65 are opposed by 49%-42%.
There also are geographic differences. Support is highest in the East, lowest in the South.
Battles between Democrats representing environment-conscious coastal areas and those from Rust Belt states that depend on coal have complicated White House efforts to push an energy bill through Congress. The House passed a measure in June, but it is stalled in the Senate. In Copenhagen, world leaders who struggled to reach a binding treaty now are working toward an interim one.
Americans are divided about where to strike the balance between the economy and the environment: 46% say they worry more that the United States will take actions against global warming that cripple the U.S. economy. An additional 38% worry more that the country will not take action against global warming because of economic concerns.
The poll of 1,025 adults taken Friday-Sunday has an error margin of +/-4 percentage points.
More Americans believe steps taken to reduce global warming pollution will help the U.S. economy than say such measures will hurt it. It’s a sign the public is showing more faith in President Barack Obama’s economic arguments for limiting heat-trapping gases than in Republican claims that the actions would kill jobs.
In an Associated Press-Stanford University poll, 40 percent said U.S. action to slow global warming in the future would create jobs. Slightly more, 46 percent, said it would boost the economy.
By contrast, less than a third said curbing climate change would hurt the economy and result in fewer jobs, a message Republican members of Congress plan to take to an international global warming conference in Copenhagen this week.
“They’re wrong,” Ron Classen of Seattle, who participated in the poll, said of the GOP stance. “People are going to be shifted from one job to another,” said Classen, a self-described fan of environmentalist and former Vice President Al Gore.
The survey’s results seem to boost Democratic efforts to curb global warming pollution and sign on to an international agreement to reduce heat-trapping gases, despite the concerns many Americans have about the recession and the high unemployment rate.
For some, the recession has manifested itself in a nothing-left-to-lose attitude when it comes to tackling climate and to sparking a revolution in where and how the nation produces its energy.
“I don’t know if anybody has looked around lately, but the economy is dead,” said Jake Berglund, a home-improvement contractor from Portland, Conn. “We are in a sinking ship, and Obama has bought us enough life rafts to keep on going. But we need to figure out how to build a new boat when we are still on the water.”
Pope Benedict XVI called for urgent action to protect the environment, saying Tuesday that climate change and natural catastrophes threaten the rights to life, food, health – and ultimately peace.
In his annual message on the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace, the pope argued that the world’s economic, social, and environmental problems are moral crises that require mankind to rethink its way of living.
“We can no longer do without a real change of outlook which will result in new life-styles,” he said, touching again on a theme that has earned him a reputation as the “green pope.”
Benedict called on advanced societies to adopt “more sober lifestyles,” reducing energy consumption and favoring energy-efficient policies. He encouraged research into ways to exploit solar energy, to manage forests and to improve waste disposal.
Action is more pressing than ever “in the face of signs of a growing crisis which it would be irresponsible not to take seriously,” he said.
Houston should encourage its universities, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to develop clean types of energy, because the city’s in a good position to create some of the million new jobs the emerging technology is expected to generate, General Electric’s top executive said during a visit Monday.
GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt, who made his remarks in a speech sponsored by the Greater Houston Partnership, called for Houston’s business leaders to get behind an enlightened public policy to develop a clean energy standard. It should include targets for lower emissions and a more sensible power grid with consistent rules from state to state.
“I’m a Republican,” he told the business leaders in underscoring his point that willingness to discuss changes in energy policy shouldn’t be exclusive to those on the left.
He said countries in Europe and South America are moving faster than the U.S. in successfully and systematically developing their energy sources.
He said he is a “fuel agnostic” and doesn’t focus on a single energy source such as oil or wind. Instead, he said, he promotes an environment to invest in technology, research and development.
“Houston should be the technological and innovation hub,” he said. “And universities in Texas should be in the lead.”
More students also need to study engineering to meet the challenge. Only 4 percent of college students are going into engineering at U.S. universities, he said. This year the nation will graduate more sports therapists than engineers.
Across the brown hills of Zhongzhuang Village in northwest China, farmers count the costs of a changing climate in lost crops, dry wells and lives weighed down by poverty.
Villagers here plough their narrow, terraced fields dug into the brittle slopes much as they have for generations, with wooden ploughs and donkeys. But the seemingly timeless rhythms of this village in Yongjing County, Gansu province, have been changing.
Over the past 20 years, summers have become hotter and drier, rains now come later and droughts more often, and winter now sets in late and mild enough so farmers can grow corn, which would not mature here 10 or more years ago, said Pu Yanjun, resting at midday from ploughing his soil before winter.
“Water is our biggest problem, Gansu, they say, has nine years of drought every 10 years,” he said, hunkered over a lunch of flat bread and potatoes in his neat courtyard home.
“Now the rain often doesn’t come when we need it, and then it rains when we don’t need it. If it rains now, it will be useless anyway.”
The threats from climate change for areas such as Zhongzhuang are at the heart of negotiations 6,843 km (4252 miles) away in Copenhagen, where leaders will be locked in talks this week seeking a new international pact on fighting global warming.
Greenhouse gases from human activity are trapping more solar heat in the air, feeding planetary warming likely to stoke droughts, disrupt rainfall, and threaten crops in many areas.
For China, with its 750 million strong farming population, such changes could strain food security in coming decades. Poor villages in environmentally stressed areas such as Yongjing County are likely to suffer first and worst.
“Once you get into the reote communities in poorer parts of China, people are very exposed to climate hazards,” said Declan Conway, an expert on climate change and agriculture at the University of East Anglia in Britain who has studied what could happen to China’s farmers.
“Those people are already quite vulnerable, and it’s quite likely that with an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, they’re going to feel it more in the future.”
For Ma Tuili, a 25-year-old mother, the pressures of this harsh landscape come down to the buckets of water she hauls from the family well each day, measuring them out so supplies last her family of five through the usually dry winter until rain arrives.
She and the 100 or so other residents of Zhongzhuang are mostly Hui, a Muslim group ethnically close to the country’s majority Han Chinese people. They grow wheat, potatoes, and corn, and herd goats and occasionally cattle.
Their daily diet is potatoes, flat bread baked on the side of stoves, and noodles. Meat is a luxury many said they ate perhaps two or so times a year, during the Lunar New Year and Muslim festival of Eid. Ma said a bad harvest and debts accumulated last year had made even that impossible.
“We didn’t have meat for the (Lunar) New Year this year, so I fried dough balls instead,” she said, between bouts of heaving water from the well. “I was thinking, ‘Why can other people eat well but we can’t?’ We work hard here, but we don’t get rich.”
Farmers said fields here produced about 100 kg of summer wheat per mu (one sixth of an acre or 0.0667 hectares), less than a third of the national average, on family plots of two or three mu. Most said their families earned between 2000 yuan and 3000 yuan a year — some much more — skidding close to outright poverty, especially in bad years.
The changing climate has been making it harder for them to climb out of poverty, despite government programmes to raise incomes and improve water availability, found a recent study of Yongjing and other vulnerable parts of China sponsored by Oxfam and Greenpeace.
“There’s less rain than before. The droughts have been getting worse,” said Cai Wenfu, a 20-year-old farmer, resting after coaxing a braying donkey to finish ploughing a plot.
“The hardest part of life is not having enough rain so there is not enough to eat. It’s not like that every year, but we were down to two meals of bread a day in the last bad drought.”
The study found that since the 1980s, average temperatures here have risen, rain has decreased, and droughts are more frequent. Average annual precipitation was 323 millimetres in the 1970s; between 2008 and 2008 the average was 279 mm.
“There’s an association between these changes and reversion to poverty,” said Lin Erda, one of China’s top experts on climate change and agriculture, who helped write the study.
“There are uncertainties about how global warming will affect agriculture, but the risks are big, and they will first hurt the farmers in arid and semi-arid vulnerable regions.”