Has Beijing's "Red Alert" Air Made Its Way to Paris--and COP21?

Coal-fired factories are closed, schools have been urged to shutter their doors, outdoor construction sites have ceased operation, and the city's six million cars are subject to alternate day driving. Beijing, for the first time since its four-tiered pollution alert system went into effect in 2013, has issued a "red alert"--the highest possible. Will a red alert in Beijing affect the atmosphere in Paris more than 5000 miles away?

Last week, when air quality levels were beyond "hazardous"--and significantly higher than the levels this week--the Beijing government was reluctant to make the red alert call. Too disruptive. What would parents with school children do? How would car owners react? And would the city's economy suffer? Authorities settled for the color orange, requiring only that polluting factories suspend work.

Social media responded: if air quality levels 40 times higher than the World Health Organization's standard for safe air does not trigger a red alert, what would? Today's residents of Beijing are far more "air aware" than were their counterparts a decade ago. They know from the 2008 Olympics, the APEC meeting in 2014, and the recent military parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the victory over Japan in WWII that the skies over their city can be blue; they know now that the dirty air in their city is not "fog," as the government had been long been reporting, but smog, air filled with toxic particles; they know too that the toxic concoction they breathe leads to premature death, 1.6 million throughout their country every year, according to Berkeley Earth; and, they know, that every hour they breathe the air, they lose a full 20 minutes of their lives. They have become increasingly insistent that Beijing officials take action.

China may be a one-party authoritarian state, but the party remains responsive to the people. The success of the Communist Party (CCP) since 1949 has been attributable largely to the economic prosperity it has brought the country--lifting 300 million people out of poverty. With GDP growing nearly 10% annually since the market reforms of late 1970s, support for country's leadership has been secure. But the economy is now slowing, while the polluting consequences of economic growth are not. The Chinese public is expressing dissatisfaction, on social media and, increasingly, in the streets, over the air they breathe and the water they drink.

The party is in a bind of its own making. Runaway growth has led to runaway pollution. Fossil fuels, the energy that has powered economic growth, have dirtied the country's air, water, and soil. Ironically, the basis of the party's legitimacy-economic prosperity--has, with its profound effects on public health, become potentially delegitimizing. The Communist Party appreciates that it must find a workable balance between maintaining the nation's economic growth and protecting the environment; and between engaging the public in an environmental protection campaign and giving that public too much space to express environmental anxiety.

This explains why in March of this year the state authorized the showing of Chai Jing's powerful environmental documentary "Under the Dome" on the People's Daily website, and a few days later, after more than 200 million visitors viewed it, ordered that it be shut down and no public mention of it be permitted permitted. A video that informs about the evils of pollution and invites the public to play a role in environmental protection is one thing; a viral video that threatens to mobilize the public in opposition to the state's seeming inability to protect people from the effects of pollution is another.

The aggressive red alert in effect this week is a rebalancing, compensation for last week's too tentative orange alert response. It is meant, in part, to appease a public now seeking heightened protection from a toxic environment--many of whom last week decried the failure of the government to act. This is not to suggest that the party is not genuinely environmentally concerned; rather, it is to say that its authoritarian control notwithstanding, it is not deaf to the distress and demands of the people.

It is hard not to wonder at the coincidence--a red alert issued by Beijing even as negotiators from around the world are attempting to hammer out a global climate change agreement in Paris. The smog blanketing Beijing cannot but be a reminder to all the representatives gathered there of China's enormous contribution to global warming; and it should be a harsh reminder to Chinese negotiators of the incentive their country has to reduce its dependence on coal.

But--and perhaps this is wishful thinking--it might also serve as a lesson for nations like India of what can happen when a country goes all-in on coal combustion in the name of economic development. Development powered by coal combustion comes at a very high cost. Yes, it has brought hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. But it has increased their mortality and morbidity rates, reduced their life expectancy, and, for this week, closed their schools, put a stop to all outdoor construction, taken cars off the road, and even curbed outdoor barbecuing. Chinese negotiators might be doing India and the world a favor this week by highlighting what can come of economic growth that rides on the back cheap fossil fuel energy.