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2 Charts That Put the Chinese Pollution Crisis in Perspective

No one now alive has experienced anything similar in North America or Europe, except in the middle of a forest fire or a volcanic eruption.
A NASA satellite photo of a smog episode in northern China ( NASA via Atlantic )

Everyone "knows" that China is badly polluted. I've written over the years, and still believe, that environmental sustainability in all forms is China's biggest emergency, in every sense: for its people, for its government, for its effect on the world. And yes, I understand that the same is true for modern industrialized life in general. But China is an extreme case, and an extremely important one because of its scale.

Here are two simple charts, neither of them brand-new but both easily comprehensible, that help dramatize how different the situation is there. The first, by Steven Andrews for China Dialogue via ChinaFile, compares official Chinese classifications of "good" air conditions with those in Europe or North America. 

Here is the point of this graphic: The green and yellow zones in the left-hand column, showing official Chinese government classifications, are for "good" or "OK" air—while those same readings would be in the danger zone by U.S. or European standards. When you're living in China, it's impossible not to adjust your standards either to ignore how dire the circumstances are, so you can get on with life, or to think that any day when you can see across the street is "pretty good."

The scale for all countries stops at 250 (micrograms per cubic meter). Everyone who has spent time in Beijing or other bad-air cities knows what it is like with readings of 500 or above. Even Shanghai had a 600+ "airpocalypse" this past winter. No one now alive has experienced anything comparable in North America or Europe, except in the middle of a forest fire or a volcanic eruption.

Here's the other chart, comparing the 10 most-polluted Chinese cities with the 10 in America. It is from The Washington Post a few weeks ago:

The U.S. readings on this chart show something about challenges in the Central Valley of California, which is where six of the seven most-polluted cities are. (And the other is Los Angeles.) More on that shortly, in our American Futures series. But the scale difference of Chinese pollution is sobering. Even the worst American cities would be in the tip-top most excellent bracket in the chart at the top.

More sobering still: Air pollution, while the most visible (literally), is not the most serious of China's environmental problems. Water pollution, and water shortage, are worse.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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