Air pollution in China is so bad, we all believed it when the Internet claimed Beijing residents had to watch the sunrise on television. That story turned out to be a fraud, but the pollution that inspired it is real, and headed for America.
Over the weekend, I was appalled by a post in my Facebook feed. It was an article published by the UK’s Daily Mail featuring what has become a familiar scene over the past few years: Beijing smothered in smog. What made this image different was the massive LED television screen. The article claimed that pollution was now so severe in Beijing that residents now watch radiant sunrises broadcast on a huge screen in Tiananmen Square. Like this:
The Internet went crazy, and the article was reposted and shared by some of the biggest media outlets. Within 24 hours (as is often the case) those willing to dig a bit deeper exposed it as a fraud. While Tiananmen Square does indeed have a massive television screen, it’s purpose isn’t to provide pixelated vitamin D–the image that had everyone in an uproar was just a moment in a longer commercial meant to promote tourism. Just because this story was blown way out of proportion doesn’t mean air pollution in China really isn’t as bad as we thought, however. It is. Maybe even worse.
Just days after the fake sunrise story went viral and then fizzled, the Guardian (a much more reputable UK news outlet), reported on a new study that found air pollution in China isn’t staying in China. In fact, it’s traveling in large quantities across the Pacific Ocean to the U.S. West Coast, increasing the number of smog days for Americans.
“We’ve outsourced our manufacturing and much of our pollution, but some of it is blowing back across the Pacific to haunt us,” study co-author Steve Davis, a scientist at University of California Irvine, said in the Guardian article
“Between 17 and 36% of various air pollutants in China in 2006 were related to the production of goods for export, according to the report, and a fifth of that specifically tied to US-China trade.”
Though we criticize China for its lack of environmental regulation, we’re actually a big part of the problem. The United States imports a massive amount of Chinese goods, from electronics to food. We’re the customer who demands cheaper goods faster, and like a good supplier, China has done whatever it must to please us. Even if it means polluting its own air and soil.
So though air pollution in China has not yet made fake sunrises a necessity, it very well could in the future. And if China loses its ability to see the sun, our own line of sight won’t be very far behind.
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