Wang Yuetang’s sneakers sink into the mud of what was once his thriving corn and peanut farm as he surveys the damage done by an unstable climate.
Three months after torrential rains flooded much of central China’s Henan province, stretches of the country’s flat agricultural heartland are still submerged in several inches of water. It’s one of the many calamities around the world that are giving urgency to the UN climate summit underway in Glasgow, Scotland.
”There is nothing this year. It’s all gone,” Wang said. “Farmers on the lowland basically have no harvest, nothing.” He lost his summer crop to floods, and in late October the ground was still too wet to plant the next season’s crop, winter wheat.
On other nearby farms, shriveled beanstalks and rotted cabbage heads bob in the dank water, buzzing with flies. Some of the corn ears can be salvaged, but because the husks are moldy, they can be sold only as animal feed, bringing lower prices.
The flooding disaster is the worst that farmers in Henan like Wang can remember in 40 years — but it is also a preview of the kind of extreme conditions the country is likely to face as the planet warms and the weather patterns growers depend upon are increasingly destabilized.
“As the atmosphere warms up, air can hold more moisture, so when storms occur, they can rain out more extreme precipitation,” said Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University. “Chances are extremely likely that human-induced climate change caused the extreme flooding you saw this summer in places like China and Europe.”
China, the most populous country in the world, with 1.4 billion people, is now the planet’s largest contributor to climate change, responsible for around 28 percent of carbon dioxide emissions that warm the Earth, though the United States is the biggest polluter historically.
As world leaders take part this week in the climate summit, China is being criticized for not setting a more ambitious timeline for phasing out fossil fuels.
President Xi Jinping, who has not left China since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and will not be attending the summit but sent a veteran negotiator, has said the country’s carbon emissions will level off before 2030. Critics say that’s not soon enough.
Chinese government projections paint a worrying vision of the future: rising sea levels threatening major coastal cities, including Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong, and melting glaciers and permafrost imperiling western China’s water supply and grand infrastructure projects such as the railroads across the Tibetan plateau.
Top government scientists also predict an increase in droughts, heatwaves, and extreme rainfall across China that could threaten harvests and endanger reservoirs and dams, including the Three Gorges Dam.
Meanwhile, China’s people are already suffering the brunt of climate change. And in a common pattern around the world, those who have contributed least to the warming and have the fewest resources to adapt often feel the pain most acutely.
In late July, Chinese news broadcasts carried startling footage of torrential rains swamping Henan’s provincial capital, Zhengzhou — at one point, 8 inches (20 centimeters) fell in a single hour — with cars swept away, subways flooded and people struggling through waist-deep water. More than 300 people died as the megacity turned into an accidental Venice, its highways transformed into muddy canals.
Even after the most dramatic storms ceased, the water continued to pool in much of the surrounding countryside, a flat and fertile region.
Here the economy depends on corn, wheat, and vegetables, and other regions of China depend on Henan for food. The local government reported that nearly 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of farmland were flooded — an area about the size of Connecticut — with damage totaling $18 billion.
“All I could do at the time was to watch the heavens cry, cry and cry every day,” said Wang, the peanut farmer.
A limited number of rudimentary pumps were shared among farmers in Henan. Soft plastic tubes were stretched across fields to drain water, but they periodically burst, sending farmers running to patch holes.
A 58-year-old farmer who gave only her last name, Song, said everything she owned was submerged by the floods — her home, furniture, fields, farming equipment.
“Nothing was harvested. This year, the common people have been suffering all year long,” she said. “Ordinary people suffer most.”
“We have been working so hard, breaking our backs … without even a penny back, my heart aches,” said Hou Beibei, a farmer whose simple vegetable greenhouses — plastic tarps covering plots of eggplant, garlic and celery — remain flooded, her hard work washed away.
She is worried about her two young children. “The tuition fees of the children and the living expenses of the whole family rely on this land,” she said.
The summer also saw another climate-linked natural disaster in China. In July, the hottest month on Earth in 142 years of record-keeping, according to US weather experts, a vast and toxic blue-green algae bloom spanning 675 square miles (1,748 square kilometers) engulfed coastal waters off the prosperous city of Qingdao, threatening navigation, fishing, and tourism. State broadcasts carried footage of people using dump trucks to remove the mounds of algae.
Another threat to China’s coastal provinces is sea-level rise. Government records show that coastal water levels have already risen around 4.8 inches (122 millimeters) between 1980 and 2017 and project that within the next 30 years, waters could rise an additional 2.8 to 6.3 inches (70 to 160 millimeters).
Because China’s coastal areas are largely flat, “a slight rise in the sea level will aggravate the flooding of a large area of land,” erasing expensive waterfront properties and critical habitats, a government report projects.
“I think these impacts are triggering a national awakening. I think people are increasingly asking, ‘Why have extreme weather events like this happened? What are the root causes?’” said Li Shuo, a climate policy expert at Greenpeace East Asia in Beijing.
“I think this is bringing the Chinese policymakers and the general public to a realization that we are indeed in a climate emergency.”