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Jacqueline Sheehan: Why China’s pollution is our problem too

I don’t mean a little smog, or a few days of the year when the air quality warrants a warning for elders and children to stay indoors. I mean the kind of pollution that sits like a wet toxic blanket, filled with carbon emissions, making it difficult to breathe. They don’t see the sun. They might not be able to see boats in the harbor while standing on the shore. My daughter and her family have been sick with respiratory illnesses since they arrived.

The Gazette published a graphic chart Feb. 4 about warming trends. Last year, the U.S. decreased greenhouse gases by 2 percent. China increased its emissions by 10 percent. While the U.S could do better, China’s level of pollution is unbelievable. If I hadn’t experienced it, I wouldn’t believe it either.

China is building and expanding at a rate that may be unparalleled by any other nation. It is building roads, bridges, high-speed railways, skyscrapers and factories. Lots and lots of factories. I would not begrudge them any of this phenomenal growth (in fact, good for them) were it not for a lack of environmental regulations. They are primarily generating power with coal, which we sell to them. We are the number one coal mining country.

If we rush too quickly to judgment, it would be convenient to blame China and its one-party government. But wait; Who else is profiting from this lack of regulation in China that favors economic gain over human life?

The answer is, every single American company that scampered to China in the last 30 years to save money by paying low wages and the freedom to pollute the daylights out of their continent. And it is not just American companies. Italian companies have joined the club and France’s fashion industry is there as well.

What can we do? First we have to look in our own backyards, because we produce a disproportionate amount of greenhouse emissions. We can tell our elected officials in Washington to get on board with the Kyoto Protocol that has been accepted by most developed nations.

But we can go a step farther. Look in your closet, kitchen cabinets, electronic devices, and under the hood of your car. Which American company manufactured products in China? Write to them, call them and say this: When you relocated to China, you not only took a living wage away from Americans, you benefited by paying low wages to the Chinese and lowered your costs additionally by factory production without environmental regulations. You can now use some of your corporate clout to urge the Chinese government to decrease emissions. You can do that, you’ve earned more than you and all your descendents can spend in this lifetime.

Or you can think of something more diplomatic to say. Before writing to anyone, go outside and breathe, look up and chances are that there is blue in the sky and the sun is visible. And bring a glass of water with you, right from the tap, and take a sip. I haven’t even mentioned the quality of water in China; that is for another day. Imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t do any of these things, which may be exactly what happens if we continue to turn a blind eye to China’s policies.

Jacqueline Sheehan is a writer who lives in Florence. Her most recent novel is “Picture This.”

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