Just because it’s out of sight and doesn’t show up on the evening news night after night after night doesn’t mean it’s gone away. Consider the case of air pollution:
Pollution from China travels in large quantities across the Pacific Ocean to the United States, a new study has found, making environmental and health problems unexpected side effects of US demand for cheap China-manufactured goods.
On some days, acid rain-inducing sulphate from burning of fossil fuels in China can account for as much as a quarter of sulphate pollution in the western United States, a team of Chinese and American researchers said in the report published by the US National Academy of Sciences, a non-profit society of scholars.
Cities like Los Angeles received at least an extra day of smog a year from nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide from China’s export-dependent factories, it said.
“We’ve outsourced our manufacturing and much of our pollution, but some of it is blowing back across the Pacific to haunt us,” co-author Steve Davis, a scientist at University of California Irvine, said.
In the 1960s and 1970s we solved our environmental problems with a series of clean air and water laws. Those cleaned up our air and water but, ultimately, drove manufacturing to China where the environmental problems are beyond our direct control and intractable because China does not have a robust system of civil law.
There have been a few articles in recent weeks about the Germans reconsidering their own environmental strategy
Germany must reduce the cost of its switch from atomic energy toward renewables to protect growth, Economy and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said.
German companies and consumers shoulder as much as 24 billion euros ($32 billion) a year for renewables because of subsidy payments, Gabriel told an energy conference in Berlin.
“I don’t know any other economy that can bear this burden,” Gabriel said today. “We have to make sure that we connect the energy switch to economic success, or at least not endanger it.” Germany must focus on the cheapest clean-energy sources as well as efficient fossil-fuel-fired plants to stop spiraling power prices, he said.
What goes unmentioned is that most of the greening of Europe hasn’t been accomplished by conservation, by weatherizing their homes and offices, or by the “cap and trade” system they put into place. It’s been accomplished by offshoring their heavy manufacturing to China. That doesn’t solve the problem. It just moves it to China and, as the article cited above suggests, eventually back to us and makes the problem much harder to address.
The environment isn’t the only area in which “out of sight, out of mind” is a hopeless strategy. When our troops left Iraq, it meant that our news media stopped covering the news in Iraq. It didn’t mean that the war ended. When we leave Afghanistan as we surely will, it won’t mean that the war has ended there, either. Just because we’re not bombing Libya today, it doesn’t mean that the civil war there has ended.
There are solutions we could implement that would, at least marginally, address the problems that Chinese environmental recklessness are wreaking on our air and water even if they’re measures that would make free trade advocates tear out their hair. For example, we could impose an environmental surcharge on products imported from China as long as the pollutants originating in China remained over some established level.
Solving the problems caused by our “bull in the china shop” approach to foreign policy will be significantly more difficult.