Monday, April 12, 2004

April 12, 2004

It took about 40 minutes by taxi to get to Beijing International Airport from the Dongcheng District apartment. Enough time for breakfast on the go. Fresh sweet yoghurt in a small clay jar sipped through a straw, Dido singing on the MP3 player, and thoughts of the family waiting back home.

The short trip was somehow like a long train ride minus the clacking of the rails. It was dreamy and yet indifferent, the pining for home fertilizing the blur of urban vistas and the uncertain climate of the present.

Only weeks ago, the trees of Beijing were barren as temperatures hovered between below-7 and 12 degrees. And yet that morning, as I was making my way to the airport, peach, cherry and pear trees were in full bloom, a riot of unruly pastel colors quarreling with infantries of greenery. It was quite jarring.

According to the Beijing Meteorological Observatory, last Thursday was actually the second-warmest April day in Beijing since the foundation of the New China in 1949. Over the next week, "more dry and warm weather is expected."

The sharp shift of the capital's climate was as if spring had somehow hurled and impaled itself on Beijing, expiring as quickly as it arrived, "giving residents the impression that spring simply did not happen."

Warmest weather. Sounds familiar. The ten hottest years in recorded history all occurred around the last ten years.

I think of the photo a friend had given last month, a snapshot of camel owner Baoyin Culu kneeling in prayer at the very place where his last camel died. The camel's bleached bones are scattered in front of Baoyin, like sentries confronting the camel owner's shadow. In the photo, the desert dunes of Inner Mongolia surrounding Baoyin appear as desolate as his plight; once upon a time, he owned 80 camels. But each one has died due to disappearing grasslands and accelerating desertification.

I think of Peter Timeon who, as foreign secretary of the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati, said in 1990 in Sweden at a United Nations plenary session on Climate Change: "Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, I wonder how many people in this hall know where my country is? ... Without wishing to take up so much of this meeting's precious time, it suffices to say briefly that ... no place among our 33 tiny atolls rises higher than two meters above sea leve ... [In the absence of] concerted international action ... commensurate with the dire warnings of ... scientists ... long before the sea rises that far, my country and others like it will have been condemned to annihilation."

I remember the warning issued last March by Swiss Re, the world's second largest reinsurer, that if the world did not curb the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal, the economic costs of global warming may double to $150 billion a year in 10 years and hit insurers with $30-40 billion in claims - "the equivalent of one World Trade Center attack annually."

The impacts of climate change are not trivial, after all. In fact, consequences of humankind's addiction to fossil fuels are the reason why climate change is considered by many as the greatest threat the planet is facing today. The increase in frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts, flooding and storms. Retreating glaciers. Rising sea levels.

I think of the words of Lord Peter Levene, board chair of Lloyd's of London, who said recently that terrorism is not the insurance industry's biggest worry, despite the fact that his company was the largest single insurer of the World Trade Center. According to Levene, "Like other large international insurance companies, [Lloyd's] is bracing for an increase in weather disasters related to global warming." In the business sector, the insurance industry is the canary in the coal mine, and right now the canary is nervously tottering on its perch.

I think of Sir John Houghton, a co-chair of the UN-formed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who said that "Global warming is already upon us ... The impacts of global warming are such that that I have no hesitation in describing it as a weapon of mass destruction."

And I think of Hans Blix who said that he too was "more worried about global warming than [he was] of any major military conflict."

In the volley of my worries, I think of my son and daughter and I collide once more with a familiar impasse: that I have not contributed enough to make the world that they will inherit a better one. And that I have not spent enough time with them eating ice cream, reading books and romping around the bedroom.

It is a good dilemma, one that I am in no hurry to resolve. "We worry too much," someone once said, "about something to live on and too little about something to live for." Another good dilemma.

I smile as a gust of cold wind enters the vehicle. I take out a photo of my wife and kids, my mind shifting to dreams of kite-flying.

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