ASCF REPORT 11.10.21

A wise old saying counsels, “Better to fix the problem than fix the blame.” But sometimes the former depends on the latter. America’s government, military and closest allies have all identified climate change as a major international problem, with the White House describing it as a “crisis at home and abroad,” the Pentagon labeling it an “existential threat” and NATO calling it “one of the defining challenges of our times.” The consensus among those groups is that climate change is caused by humans. Even though there’s actually quite a bit of debate among scientists about the causes of climate change and even the science surrounding climate change, for the purposes of this essay, let’s stipulate that climate change is a problem caused by humans. If that’s the case, the main source of this problem and the main impediment to solving it are increasingly apparent.

PRC Pollution
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) annually generates about 12 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases—byproducts such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide. (By way of comparison, the United States generates less than half as much.) China is responsible for 28 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, though it accounts for less than 19 percent of the world’s population. Twenty-three of the 25 worst greenhouse-gas polluting cities on earth are located in China. Thus, it’s no surprise that air pollution causes 1.1 million premature deaths per year in China. (Even the mayor of Beijing has called China’s capital city “unlivable” due to smog and pollution.) Coal-burning electricity plants are a chief source of greenhouse-gas emissions, and China is not only reliant on such plants, but continues to build new ones: 24 in the first half of this year alone.

U.S. government reports detail how China’s greenhouse gas-emissions increase by 3 percent annually, while America’s are decreasing, sometimes by as much as 2 percent annually. China continues to belch out CFC-11, an ozone-depleting substance that most the world has stopped using. Xi’s China is the world’s largest emitter of mercury—a neurotoxin—and leads the world in mercury air pollution. China is the “world’s largest consumer of illegal timber products,” harvesting trees from impoverished countries that have entered into terribly one-sided deals with Beijing that make 18th-century European colonialism look positively enlightened by comparison.

China, which generates more plastic waste than any country, is dumping hundreds of cubic-meters of plastic waste into the ocean each year. In 2018 alone, it vomited 27-percent more plastic junk into the ocean than in 2017—a year which saw the PRC pour a million tons of plastic waste into the ocean. The PRC Ministry of Ecology and Environment reports that there are 24 kilograms of floating trash per 1,000 square-meters of PRC coastal surface water. More than 88 percent of that waste is plastic.

All those numbers tell part of the story, but a picture paints a thousand words. For a visual representation of how Xi’s China treats the environment, consider the industrial city of Baotou, where a toxic mix of mineral-processing byproducts continually pours into manmade lakes of poisonous, irradiated sludge; or glance at the orangey-brown midday air of Beijing, which is laced with as much as 8,000 micrograms of polluted particulate (the World Health Organization recommends no more than 25 micrograms); or glimpse China’s rapidly expanding deserts—a thousand square-miles of Chinese land is lost to desertification every year due to water mismanagement, negligent farming and overgrazing; or peruse satellite images of the South China Sea, where Xi’s illegal island-building operations are destroying coral reefs and where hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels loiter and dump thousands of tons of raw sewage; or look at South America’s Pacific coastline, where armadas of Chinese ships are plundering local fishing stocks and decimating already-endangered species.

None of this should come as a surprise. With its contempt for the environment and those who live in it, the PRC is simply following in the footsteps of the USSR. Simply put, communist regimes lay waste to the earth.

Most of us know about the nuclear disaster and consequent environmental devastation of Chernobyl, but we hear little about how, decades after throwing off its Soviet occupiers, post-Soviet Europe still deals with the effects of communism.

As The Economist has reported, parts of the Czech Republic suffer from “the toxic legacy of communism” due to the Soviet military’s destruction of large swaths of the Czech environment. Among the presents left behind by the Red Army: 7,000 metric tons of kerosene dumped in the soil around the Hradcany airbase (some of which has leached into rivers), along with 4.3 million metric tons of sulfuric acid in the soil around the town of Straz pod Ralskem. Experts say the area will never be completely clean, but it will be “stabilized by 2035.” The European Union spent about $9 billion between 2007 and 2013 on environmental cleanup in the Czech Republic.

In the 1990s, researchers discovered that children in parts of Poland had five times more lead in their blood than children from Western Europe, that drinking water in Hungary was contaminated with arsenic, that Bulgaria’s farmland was poisoned with heavy metals, that 60 percent of East Germany’s population suffered from respiratory ailments.

One author called post-Soviet Eastern Europe in the 1990s “the dirtiest, most degraded region on earth.”

The communists treated the Soviet heartland no better. Seventy-five percent of Russia's surface water was considered polluted in the 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of tons of pesticides were dumped or leached into Russia’s soil due to improper storage. Half of all children in St. Petersburg had intestinal disorders during the communist era due to contaminated water.

The USSR diverted the rivers that fed the Aral Sea, then poisoned it and then killed it. Once the world’s fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea has nearly disappeared. By the early 1990s, 23 miles of Lake Baikal’s shoreline was polluted by industrial waste. “Islands of alkaline sewage have been observed floating on the lake, including one that was 18 miles long and three miles wide,” one economist wrote soon after the collapse of the USSR.

In the 1990s, 40 percent of Russia was considered in high or moderately high ecological stress. One study found that “Each of Russia's natural zones has suffered degradation.” In the tundra, reckless extraction and transportation of mineral resources, unattended oil spills, unresolved pipeline leaks and ruptures, and the uncontrolled flaring of natural gas destroyed marshland ecosystems and grazing lands. The overcutting of trees devastated forestlands. The steppe regions were denuded of topsoil, scarred by soil-compacting and succumbed to erosion.

Freedom’s Solution
To be sure, environmental accidents and misuse are not confined to communist countries. However, countries that embrace free government and the free market are far more effective at addressing such challenges.

Indeed, real-world examples and academic research alike reveal that higher levels of political freedom and economic freedom (a broad term for property rights, free markets, free enterprise, rule of law and free exchange) correlate with better environmental outcomes. For example, the 20 highest-ranked countries on the Fraser Institute’s economic freedom index—all but three of them are strong liberal democracies, and none of them are communist—enjoy air-pollution levels almost 40-percent lower than the 20 lowest-ranked countries.

Without the self-corrective forces of free government (which aims to serve the people rather than those in power and responds to the needs of the people rather than the diktats of central planners) and the free market (which is continually sending and receiving signals that encourage the rational use and development of resources), the environment is at the mercy of ends-justify-the-means regimes like the PRC and USSR.

The free market isn’t perfect. But 100 years of history and data confirm that it’s far better at meeting society’s needs, while developing and stewarding the environment, than communist central planning. Indeed, comparing what the communist PRC and communist USSR have done to the environment with what the Free World has done for the environment underscores that the environment has no greater friend than free government and free enterprise—and no greater enemy than communist regimes like the PRC.

What we have learned in global health and international trade, in the South China Sea and the South Pacific, in space and cyberspace holds true with regard to the environment: The PRC’s internal political system is an international problem. Fixing the blame where it belongs will go a long way to addressing this climate challenge.