By Matthew Bossons
Mr. Bossons is managing editor of Radii, a Shanghai-based online publication focused on Chinese youth culture.
SHANGHAI — Last month, I traveled with my wife and 5-year-old daughter from our home here to southwestern China for a family camping trip.
Our destination was a region of Sichuan Province where clear rivers tumble down from the Himalayas through steep valleys before watering fertile lowlands that help feed a country with the world’s largest population. My daughter, Evelyn, learned to swim only just last year, and we looked forward to plunging into cool, scenic mountain swimming holes.
Instead, we ran a gantlet of climate change effects caused by China’s historic heat wave this summer — ravaged landscapes, paralyzed cities and populations pushed to extremes.
It had been a year of global climate alarm even before China began heating up in July. Millions of people in the United States, Europe, South Asia and elsewhere have been enduring extreme temperatures. Even famously cool and damp England roasted this summer during a hot spell that scientists say was worsened by climate change.
But the heat wave that baked China for weeks was startling in its scale, duration and intensity. Through July and August, it shattered temperature records, dried up rivers, withered crops, sparked wildfires and caused deaths from heatstroke. It may have been the most severe heat wave ever recorded.
And it laid bare frightening realities about how humanity is expected to adapt.
With temperatures as high as 113 degreesFahrenheit, electricity usage soared as hundreds of millions of Chinese switched on air-conditioners. But where was that power supposed to come from? Severe drought had dried up the rivers on which the country depends for much of its clean hydroelectricity, crippling output.
This forced China, which pumps more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other nation, to double down on carbon-belching coal to make up the power shortfall. The heat wave had created a vicious cycle that, if replicated across the globe during future extreme weather events, will deeply complicate efforts to combat some of the worst effects of climate change.
In Sichuan, the majestic, raging mountain rivers that we had anticipated were no more: The hot, dry weather had reduced them to a trickle, and the deep swimming holes that we had picked out on the internet barely had enough water to reach my knees. Our hopes of gathering around a campfire each night were dashed by a ban imposed to limit wildfire risks in the bone-dry landscape.
Driving back out of the relative cool of the mountains, we were hit by the full force of the heat wave. Vast stretches of the country’s central, southern and southwestern lowlands sweltered.
We drove through normally verdant farmland toward Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu, passing miles of withered cornfields and bumper-to-bumper traffic that flowed in the opposite direction toward the mountains. With hydropower output crippled, the authorities had imposed power-saving blackouts that closed businesses and rendered air-conditioners useless. People were fleeing to higher, cooler ground.
Subway stations were blacked out. At night, buildings were darkened and streetlights were dimmed. We fled the deserted streets one day for refuge in a mall, hoping to cool down, but restrictions on electricity had left it as hot and humid as the outdoors.
A city of more than 20 million people had become practically unlivable.
Chengdu wasn’t the only place. At least 262 weather stations nationwide tied or set heat records, and rivers that are important arteries for shipping and transportation became unnavigable. Water levels in the Yangtze, the world’s third-longest river, hit record lows, dropping as much as 20 feet below recent averages.
Chickens died or struggled to lay eggs, pigs were hosed down by fire trucks to keep them cool and Sichuan’s famed pandas lay on blocks of ice. People hoisted food to their apartments using buckets and ropes because the power blackouts had left elevators idled. Some simply fled to underground tunnels to stay cool.
Chinese people have a phrase, the “Three Furnaces of China,” that refers to a trio of cities — Chongqing, Nanjing and Wuhan — that are best avoided during their sweltering summers. But in the torrid summer of 2022, half of China turned into a giant oven.
Although situated in a more moderate coastal climate, Shanghai offered little respite on our return home. The mercury had soared here in China’s largest city this summer, repeatedly surging past 100 degrees Fahrenheit and causing the authorities to issue multiple public safety alertsfor extreme heat. There was little you could do but huddle at home, running the air-conditioner full-blast, which we’d done almost nonstop since June. I’ve lived in China for several years, and each summer has seemed worse than the last.
The Chinese government has now warned that the autumn harvest is at risk, prompting fears that increased demands for food imports could exacerbate a global food crisis. And ominously, the power crunch caused by the heat wave has given rise to calls for China to slow down its transition from coal to renewable energy in order to keep the economy running.
What happened in China this summer has made it abundantly clear: Even with concerted and aggressive global action to curb carbon emissions, it’s going to be a rough ride.