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An aerial picture taken on August 24, 2022 shows the riverbed of the Jialing River, a tributary of the Yangtze River, in China's southwestern city of Chongqing.

An aerial picture taken on August 24, 2022 shows the riverbed of the Jialing River, a tributary of the Yangtze River, in China's southwestern city of Chongqing. (Photo: Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

Extreme Heat, Droughts in China and Europe Signal Global Climate Emergency

"People always thought that water is unlimited, but it really isn't," said one climatologist.

Kenny Stancil

Record-breaking extreme heat and historic droughts continued to wreak havoc in China and Europe on Wednesday, highlighting the life-threatening reverberations of the global climate emergency and underscoring the need to rapidly transition away from its primary driver: fossil fuels.

"There's no question that there will be some loss of crops."

Chinese government officials recently declared a nationwide drought emergency for the first time in nearly a decade. An emergency notice issued Tuesday warned that the fall harvest is under "severe threat" and urged local authorities to ensure the careful use of "every unit of water."

During what is usually flood season, "we have dry season water levels, or below typical dry season water levels," Even Pay, an agricultural analyst at Trivium China, told The Guardian on Wednesday. "The conditions are very, very extreme and there's no question that there will be some loss of crops." Also, she added, "I think we're going to start to see reports of livestock farmers getting hit."

In addition to imperiling food production, a shortage of rain during China's longest and most intense heatwave since record-keeping began in 1961 is exacerbating forest fires and causing rivers and lakes to dry up—reducing drinking water supplies, limiting hydropower-generated electricity, and disrupting shipping.

Large swaths of China have been baking since June 13. After more than 70 days of scorching temperatures, there is little relief on the horizon.

"China's National Meteorological Center downgraded its national heat warning to 'orange' on Wednesday after 12 consecutive days of 'red alerts,'" Reuters reported, "but temperatures are still expected to exceed 40°C (104°F) in Chongqing, Sichuan, and other parts of the Yangtze basin."

Amid record-low precipitation in the basin and soaring temperatures that are increasing evaporation, the Yangtze River's water levels have fallen to half of their historic average. Tributaries of the world's third-largest river, which provides drinking water to 400 million people, have also been harmed by extreme heat and a monthslong decrease in rainfall throughout the basin.

With hydropower capacity sharply curtailed and demand for air conditioning surging, rolling blackouts have become common. Last week, factories in Sichuan, a province where 94 million people rely on hydropower to meet over 80% of their energy needs, reduced production or shut down completely after being ordered to ration electricity.

"Sichuan is a major manufacturing hub and the curbing of electricity to factories has had global impacts, affecting suppliers of Toyota, Volkswagen, Tesla, Intel, and Apple, as well as pesticide and solar panel manufacturers," Grist reported Tuesday. "On Monday, companies were asked to continue rationing electricity until Thursday."

As Bloomberg noted recently, "The extreme weather in China is worsening a global power crunch and squeezing commodity supplies at a time when nations are struggling to cope with the upheavals caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine."

Although the ongoing crisis underscores why swiftly eliminating the burning of fossil fuels and ramping up clean energy is necessary, it is poised to ironically lead to more greenhouse gas pollution as China looks to offset drought-induced cuts to hydropower by increasing coal production.

As for protecting its grain harvest, China is turning to geoengineering. Agriculture Minister Tang Renjian said last Friday that "authorities will 'try to increase rain' by seeding clouds with chemicals and spraying crops with a 'water retaining agent' to limit evaporation," the Associated Press reported.

China is far from alone in experiencing dangerously hot and dry conditions this summer.

A study published Tuesday found that Europe is in the midst of its worst drought in at least 500 years. According to the latest report from the European Drought Observatory, 47% of the continent is under a warning for soil moisture deficits, and 17% is in a state of alert because vegetation is affected.

"The severe drought affecting many regions of Europe since the beginning of the year has been further expanding and worsening as of early August," the report said, adding that abnormally hot and dry conditions are likely to keep pummeling parts of western Europe and the Mediterranean until November.

Weeks of extreme heat across much of Europe have sparked wildfires, damaged crops, and led to thousands of deaths. As in China and the United States, blistering temperatures have also intensified historic droughts, causing rivers and reservoirs to shrivel with adverse effects on electricity generation and shipping routes.

"People always thought that water is unlimited, but it really isn't," José Marengo, a climatologist at the Brazilian government's disaster monitoring center, recently told Reuters.

According to Grist:

Hydropower is the largest source of clean energy in the world, but last year dry spells in places like the southwestern United States, China, and Brazil created significant disruptions in the supply, and the International Energy Agency predicts that global hydropower expansion will slow down this decade. Brazil, which in 2021 sourced 61% of its electricity from hydropower, had to cut water flows into hydroelectric dams to a 91-year low during its drought that year.

Drought-induced power shortages "could easily be used as an argument to build more coal plants," warned Li Shuo, a climate campaigner with Greenpeace in Beijing. But a summer of extreme weather across the globe may also encourage more robust climate action, she added.

Preserving a habitable planet depends in large part on cooperation between the U.S. and China—the world's leading emitters of carbon dioxide.

The prospects for green collaboration, however, have dimmed in the weeks since U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) provocative trip to Taiwan, a breakaway province that China considers part of its territory.

In response to Pelosi's visit, which was followed by a larger congressional delegation to Taiwan, Beijing canceled climate talks with Washington.

Mark Beeson, a professor at the University of Technology Sydney who studies global climate politics, told Reuters Wednesday that if the current manifestations of extreme weather in both countries "don't focus minds, it's hard to know what will."

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