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Assessing the groundwork: Surveying the impacts of climate change in China

By Stephan Robin

The immediate and unprecedented impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent across China, as they are for many parts of the world. Since June 2022, China has been battered by record-breaking heatwaves, torrential downpours, flooding disasters, severe drought and intense forest fires.

In isolation, each of those climate hazards is a reminder of the vulnerability of human systems to environmental changes, but together they are a stark reminder that climate change presents a real and existential threat to prosperity and well-being of billions of people. 

Sea-level rise will undermine access to freshwater for China’s coastal cities and increase the likelihood of flooding in China’s highly urbanised delta regions. Droughts are projected to become more frequent, more extreme and longer lasting, juxtaposed with growingly intense downpours that will inundate non-coastal regions. Wildfires are also projected to increase in frequency and severity, especially in eastern China. China’s rivers, which have historically been critical to the county’s economic and political development, will experience multiple, overlapping climate (and non-climate) impacts.

In addition to these direct climate hazards, there will also be major disruptions to the various human systems that underpin China, such as China’s food and energy systems as are discussed in this report. These impacts deserve greater attention from policy analysts, particularly given that they’ll increasingly shape China’s economic, foreign and security policy choices in coming decades.

This report is an initial attempt to survey the literature on the impact that climate change will have on China. It concludes that relatively little attention has been paid to this important topic. This is a worrying conclusion, given China’s key role in international climate-change debates, immense importance in the global economy and major geostrategic relevance. As the severity of climate change impacts continue to amplify over the coming decades, the significance of this gap will only grow more concerning.