Climate Change Threatens to Destroy China's Rural Communities

Climate Change Threatens to Destroy China's Rural Communities

While China’s economic miracle and unprecedented growth routinely makes headlines, the reality for many Chinese is often one of great hardship. Often living in rural settings, many Chinese people earn low incomes and are exposed to growing economic and social pressures. United Nations figures indicate that 15% of the Chinese population survives on less than $1.25 a day, and over 35% of the entire population lives on a mere $2 each day, usually depending on the land for their livelihoods.

The heartland of China is less developed than the coast, and Beijing’s aim is to develop this huge region. Yet this development effort could come as too little too late: If scientists’ predictions are correct, the future for the rural Chinese and their land looks bleak due to climate change. Climate change could result in even greater socio-economic and political divergences, thereby isolating the interior even further from the prosperous Pacific shoreline.

China has a long agricultural heritage and produces a significant proportion of the world’s food. Despite this, increasing competition from other nations, social constraints like the one-child policy, government land-ownership, and deteriorating environments have had a significant impact upon rural communities. These factors have resulted in mass migrations from rural to urban regions, a phenomenon typical of many developing countries. Due to its vast population – estimated from the 2010 census at over 1.3 billion registered individuals – these migrations are of great importance to national demographics and China’s future.

A mounting world issue is anthropogenic climate change, caused by increased volumes of car-exhaust fumes, industry and energy emissions, and agricultural releases. Increasing emissions of these gases are predicted to alter the current composition of the atmosphere, which could result in an average rise in global temperature.

Agriculture is an important part of society that could be affected by climate change. The effects could range from lower yields of sensitive crops, increased rates of regional precipitation or desertification, alterations in crop and livestock survival, soil structure changes, land erosion, and drastic shifts in regional weather patterns, possibly leading to agricultural failure.

Experts say the populations of most developing nations will move from rural to urban locations over the next 40 years. Yet, during the first half of the 21st century, these movements could also include the migration of skilled workers, who will move from developing to developed countries to ease projected population declines in the First World. This could further motivate people-movements from rural to urban areas in non-industrialized countries, due to altering urban-populations in large developing cities. If agriculture is affected by global warming, such migrations could be exacerbated, leading to dramatic demographic shifts, unsustainable urbanization, and a reduction in agricultural production.  

With its enormous agriculture-reliant population, China will undoubtedly see the consequences of any climate change. Indeed, such changes could provide a catalyst that leads to the socio-economic fragmentation of China into richer, more liberal coastal regions, such as Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu, or Guangdong and Fujian. These places will be keen to trade with other countries in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, while the poorer, rural provinces that comprise the nation’s interior will remain governed by Beijing.

Melting ice-caps. Rising sea levels. Drowning Pacific atolls. The media likes to remind us about the threats that could arise from climate change; yet these threats usually concern the natural world, often bearing little significance to our daily routines. However, it is important that we consider climate change as affecting the entire planet and all species, including us.

Global warming could have severe impacts on the developing world, altering demographics and geopolitics. With the emerging economies of China, India, and Brazil, it is worrying to think that a proportion of their citizens could be seriously affected by environmental degradation – a phenomenon that will ultimately, directly or indirectly, impact our lives, too.

Photo Credit: Ray_from_LA

Jonathan Booth

BSc in Marine Biology, MSc in Sustainable Engineering and PGCE/MEd in Secondary Science. Travelled and worked across East Asia, Oceania, the Middle East and Africa.