Taking the Pulse – Summer 2023 Newsletter
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In Focus: Did extreme weather advance the climate discussion in the Chinese media?
It was a challenging summer for many regions in China. Heatwaves, typhoons, storms, and floods…extreme weather events occurred one after another, testing society’s resilience in every dimension.
Beijing was on the front line. The capital city recorded its hottest June day in over 60 years, reaching 41.1°C. Just a few weeks after experiencing a prolonged heatwave, Beijing received the heaviest rainfall in 140 years, which led to 33 deaths.
Globally, climate change is becoming more salient in media coverage of extreme weather, thanks to increased climate awareness and advances in attribution science. Is there a similar trend emerging in China?
There is no easy answer to that question. Our observations of Chinese media coverage of heatwaves and rainstorms point to two very different pictures. Using a trend analysis tool provided by Chinese tech giant Baidu, we can see a correlation between heatwaves and climate change (or global warming), both in terms of search queries and content generated online. But this is not the case for rainstorms.
The chart below presents the Baidu Index from June 1st to July 15th of the keywords “high temperature” (blue line) and “climate change or global warming” (green line). The index takes consideration of a range of factors including the volume of related content generated, and the number of viewers, comments, and interactions. The higher the index is, the more popular the topic is. In China, high temperature days are defined as those with maximum daily temperature above 35°C, and three or more consecutive days of high temperature constitute a heatwave. To many Chinese reporters and readers, global warming is the term that they are more familiar with, so the analysis considers both terms – climate change and global warming.
Chart 1: Baidu Index – “high temperature” (blue) and “climate change or global warming” (green)
Chart 1 shows that during the periods when “high temperature” became more popular as a news topic, searches for climate change also rose. However, the curves were not perfectly correlated. The peak of the blue line around July 10th was triggered by the World Meteorological Organization’s news release on the hottest week on record.
The second chart shows the Baidu Index from July 20th to September 9th of the keywords “rainstorm” (blue line) and “climate change or global warming” (green line). The index for rainstorm is much higher than that for climate change or global warming, which means rainstorm, as a news topic, received a lot more media attention.
Chart 2: Baidu Index – “rainstorms” (blue) and “climate change or global warming” (green)
The peak of rainstorm-related news coverage occurred at the beginning of August, when historic rainfalls took place in Beijing and its neighboring cities, causing disastrous floods. In September, Hong Kong and southern China were hit by record-breaking rainfall, which created another spike in media attention. However, despite the high volume of coverage about rainstorms in absolute terms, this did not seem to have an effect on the salience of climate change or global warming. Most coverage focused on the damage and rescue efforts, without looking into how climate change might increase the frequency or severity of similar extreme events.
In summary, it appears the role of climate change in extreme weather is more closely linked to heatwaves than rainstorms or other types of extreme events in Chinese media coverage. This does not come as a surprise, since the attribution science about heatwaves is the most robust, and to regular readers, the link between high temperature days and global warming is more intuitive.
Coming back to the question raised at the beginning of this newsletter, we think China’s media discussion about extreme weather is taking baby steps toward higher awareness of climate risks. Chinese scientists are also becoming more vocal, sending warnings and conducting attribution studies at greater speed, which is encouraging.
In addition to connecting the dots between extreme weather and climate change, some experts also called for building resilience across different sectors of society, including in the power system, infrastructure, and urban planning. We present some of their opinions and commentary in the following section.
Nevertheless, these steps are far from enough to convey the urgency of climate adaptation and mitigation, or to boost public support for climate actions. But there is an opportunity – personal experiences with extreme weather events are driving larger numbers of people to ask whether they are becoming more frequent. Building on that intuition and turning it into awareness of climate impacts and resilience against risks will require joint efforts from the climate community in China and beyond.
Flood discharge in Beijing. Photo credit: The Paper
Quotes and opinions
Extreme weather and climate risks
The root cause of extreme heat lies in global warming. The systematic risks of global climate change are universal, unpredictable, and endogenously correlated. Extreme heat is just one facet of the issue. The ‘disaster package’ brought by global warming also includes torrential rains, floods, droughts, wildfires, stronger typhoons, ocean acidification, sea level rise, etc. In essence, humanity has entered an era marked by frequent disasters.”
– Wei Ke, Associate Researcher of Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Based on our model’s predictions, there will be an evident increase in annual precipitation in China in the future. In the north, for example, from 2026 to 2045, urban regions in Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei will experience an increase not only in summer precipitation but also in annual average precipitation. There will also be more torrential rains, more days of moderate and heavy rainfalls, a greater number of rainy days and an increase in maximum consecutive five-day precipitation. As urban areas expand, the risk posed by heavy rainfalls continues to expand as well.”
– Chao Qingchen, Director general of National Climate Centre, China Meteorological Administration
Climate resilience, adaptation, mitigation
Until global carbon neutrality is achieved, the situation ahead will certainly be more severe and challenging. The first thing we must do now, from my perspective, is to ensure early warning and prevention against extreme events. As global warming intensifies, its impacts grow, which we must manage to minimize.”
– Zhai Panmao, Co-Chair of Working Group I, IPCC; Researcher at Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences
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