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Too Hot to Handle

The grim irony is that the techniques we use to alleviate the price of heat, such as air conditioning, are among the most environmentally costly

By James Palmer Updated Sept.22

It’s been hot in Beijing this summer. That’s normal. What isn’t normal is just how hot it’s been. An ordinarily sweltering summer city turned into an oven, a sweaty cooking-pit in which even the toughened grandmothers who inhabit the city’s public squares have been waving fans and retreating into their houses. Every time I opened the door of my apartment, I was blasted by a wave of heat that sent me scuttling back into the sweet bliss of air conditioning.  

Even the 10-minute walk between the supermarket and my house became a Bataan Death March of sweat. It was so humid that drying clothes took days; sometimes they seemed to get wetter, if anything. I’ve never cursed China’s bizarre lack of dryers more. My electricity bill spiked as I turned on every air conditioning unit at the fullest blast possible; of course, that caused the power to run out in the middle of the night, and left me desperately trying to add more money onto my electricity on the utilities function of the WeChat app.  

If I suffered, my dogs suffered more. I took them for a trim, but even with their winter fur shed, they were still walking around in permanently unsuitable gear for the weather. Walks became a matter of precisely timed pooping before they ran back inside to the blessed icebox of the apartment. They regarded me as the perpetrator of their suffering, imploring paws demanding that I make it less hot with my magic human powers.  

For me it was weeks of inconvenience. For a lot of people, though, the heat is deadly–literally. Death rates spike in heat waves, particularly among the elderly and the poor, those most unlikely to be able to afford relief from the stifling temperatures.  

The truth is, this is the new normal. As climate change speeds up, temperatures that were once record-breaking will begin to be an annual occurrence. You’d better get used to the heat, because there’s not going to be any end to it – or to the cold, hard winters we’ve been getting.

Beijingers can probably manage this, of course. They’re a tough bunch, environmentally speaking. The fact that the capital is in such an absurd position in the first place – left here basically as two fingers up to the Mongols – is a big part of that. Dry summers, desolate land and brisk winters are as much of a mainstay of the Beijing diet as noodles and duck.  

The grim irony is that the techniques we use to alleviate the price of heat, such as air conditioning, are among the most environmentally costly. Every time we blast frozen air to take the edge off a heat wave, we’re adding just a little bit to the burden of an already over-stretched planet. But as anyone who was in London this summer – where temperatures hit 35 Celsius and air conditioning is as rare as central heating below the north-south divide in China – knows, its absence makes life almost unbearable.  

China may be more familiar with the costs of environmental crisis – and the consequent need to radically rethink the places, and the ways we live – than most countries. As Timothy Brook and others have shown, it was environmental crisis, more than anything else, that helped bring down the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The shifting climates of the 16th and 17th century, as the environmental impact of the post-Colombian world became clear, left Ming officials struggling to manage famines, flooding and other environmental chaos.  

That crisis became even more acute in the last century of the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911). Thanks to a combination of changing weather patterns and the depletion of Chinese forests, the Qing desperately struggled to cope with a population forced to the brink of starvation. By the middle of the 19th century, the average Chinese farmer was poorer than he or she had been a thousand years beforehand – at a time when Europe was blazing into new heights of prosperity. That change forced a reversal of the great historical pattern of Chinese migration; where it had previously gone from north to south, the“northern crash” of the late 19th century saw Han migrants pouring into the northeast, where Qing policies had previously restricted settlement and attempted to preserve the purity of the grasslands.  

So perhaps it’s time that the government should rethink just how many people should be in places like Beijing. It’s not as if the capital hasn’t been moved before, after all. Lots of places are softer and fluffier than the northeastern border. Maybe it’s time to give Nanjing or Xi’an another shot at being the top city – or just surrender to Shanghai, with its blissful coastal weather – at least, until the oceans start to rise and all those banks and fancy restaurants disappear underwater.