China has asserted itself as a world player in the international climate arena. I just heard that Vermont Law School is starting an environmental law clinic in China, which is a fantastic idea that perhaps the UW law school can learn from.

Last July, Jeni and I attended a conference at East China Normal University in Shanghai, China. The conference was hosted by the University of Colorado’s Consortium for Capacity Building, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and East China Normal University, along with other partners and funders. Recently I was asked to reflect on the conference for a report that students are writing about the conference. Given the increasing relevance of China in the climate conversation, I thought to post my report here.

What you thought about the conference?

Understanding climate change means understanding China. It’s that simple! With seven out of ten of the world’s lowest elevation coastal zones located in Asia, the powerplay between the US and China during the COP 15 negotiations in Copenhagen, and the expansive development of new technologies (such as solar and high-speed trains) coming out of China, China is already setting new standards for the world.

That’s why it was so important that the Conference on Climate, Weather, Water, and Society was held in Shanghai, China. With the harsh juxtaposition of the ancient city in rubble piles beneath brand new towering glass skyscrapers, China is breaking out if its shell, flexing its muscles, and ushering in a new phase of competitiveness that will hopefully force the US to see the economic, political, and national security futility of failing to coordinate with its own citizens and the rest of global society on climate change. It gave context to the pivotal question raised at the conference of whether its climate variability or society that’s the problem.

For me, someone who is deeply immersed in the climate problem, the opportunity to be physically in China was par none. It provided me with the tremendous opportunity to give a talk on the human rights impacts of climate change, but also the opportunity to learn from Chinese students, as well as students from all over the world, how they see climate change as a force shaping their future. Also, my other colleagues who spoke—on topics ranging from geoengineering to long-lead flood forecasting to space debris to food security—gave me a much more robust picture of the vast areas touched and potentially made more vulnerable by climate changes and also societal resistance to rethinking solutions.

Was it worth doing?

Yes.  A few potent learning moments:

Moment: Tesgay Wolde-Georgis showed a cartoon in his talk about climate change and food security. The cartoon depicted someone stealing corn from an African because he needed it to run his car.

Questions Raised: How might development projects framed as “adaptation” short cut development in places like Africa? How do you work with the development community to ensure that climate adaptation efforts don’t make vulnerable people and places more vulnerable?

Moment: Eating dinner at a fancy Chinese restaurant and asking about every dish, “What is this I am eating?,” with the response always being, “Don’t ask. Just eat it.”

Question Raised: How do such different cultures like China and the US work together on climate change? How do we break down personal stereotypes and ideological walls and learn to hear and digest what other people are saying rather than hearing what you want to hear? (Even though it tastes like chicken, it’s probably not chicken.)

Moment: Listening as one group told the conference about its idea to pitch a mainstream TV award show produced by the best minds in Hollywood to showcase countries, peoples, and villages that contribute to climate change solutions.

Question Raised: Who’s working on this? This is an example of the power of an idea. Are we going to let it go to waste? Someone, quick, get Hollywood on the phone!

What you learned at the conference and was it useful? If yes, how?

I learned that mitigation and adaptation, the two main solutions to climate change promoted by the international climate regime, are limited solutions. Mitigation and adaptation boil down to this: rich countries throw money at the problem while poor countries are forced to live with a problem that they did not cause.

We have to think beyond mitigation and adaptation as ways of dealing with the climate problem, and look at the problem from a much more micro-scale: How will climate change impact local communities? How do you understand local values from a global perspective? How will national or international policies take into consideration the very particular needs of local communities or regions?

The conference, in gathering people from Ethiopia, Malaysia, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Puerto Rico, China, Australia, the US, and other places makes me think we need to craft policies that respond well to the needs of communities, rather than the needs of people who just want to force change without understanding the consequences on local ecologies, local peoples, local politics, and local values. Coming up with an international solution with enough flexibility to allow niche applications and enough predictability to ensure we’re on target with science is our greatest challenge.

What you hope for the future of the conference?

I hope that more women will be presenters (I was one of two). I also hope that the conference can be held in Asia continually, in the local language, with English translation, rather than the other way around.

Other valuable input?

My favorite conference quote: “Only when the last crops die, the last tree has been cut, and the last fish is gone, will we realize that we cannot eat money.” (North American Cree proverb.) In response to that quote, another conference wrote that, “Sometimes we focus so much on looking for complex modern solutions, like schemes that try to grow money on trees, that we often forget that the simplest and most effective answers lie in the past.”

Perhaps the next conference can explicitly test solutions—new and old—that have been proposed from the bottom up. So, test solutions on a regional level, and work those solutions up into a political framework that could be implemented in each region. And only then, build an international framework around it to coordinate efforts and standardize for efficiencies.