BEIJING — When the latest shroud of thick, toxic filth consumed the skies above the Chinese capital this week, I texted a photo of the opaque taupe surroundings to my sister in Montana.
“No way! You shouldn’t be there,” she responded from Big Sky Country.
Really, who should be here when the air is essentially unbreathable and the long-term health risks unknown?
On Tuesday morning, Beijing issued its first-ever red alert for air pollution, shuttering schools and government offices, pushing many employees of private firms to stay home. The order led to some confusion and anger. Why didn’t the air of just a week earlier, a smog so thick it registered beyond index, prompt a red alert? The government-run China Daily newspaper explained that red alerts are meant for smog periods of three or more days of beyond 200 on the air quality index. Again, not a first for this year.
And yet, there is cause for optimism with the red alert: The danger of this strange soup, finally, is widely acknowledged.
Beijingers grumble openly about smog and call it what it is. Only two years ago, awareness was shockingly low. I undertook repeated, futile arguments with staff at my local gym over why windows shouldn’t be left open for “fresh air” during Beijing’s smoggiest coal-burning winter months. Today, we have precise smog forecasts, smog artists, and smog humor. Beijingers know this strange-tasting soup isn’t fog and they know it’s dangerous.
By Thursday morning, the smog blanket began clearing, a purple-gray haze ringing the horizons as winds blew the mess elsewhere. The rest of northeastern China is still horribly polluted, but, here, the city is coming back to life. Outside, traffic resumed and pedestrians reappeared, this time without respiratory masks.
If the forecasts continue to be on target, this is only a brief respite and the smog will return to Beijing Saturday. Chinese officials have been accused of stymieing the Paris climate talks, and a recent report shows that the country burns 17 percent more coal than previously disclosed. With forecasts that China’s carbon emissions will not peak until 2025, this odd dystopian existence of air masks and confinement to indoor spaces with filtration systems seems the new normal.