Yellow dust terrorism

It's springtime in Korea. Time to get your HazMat gear out of mothballs.

Published April 4, 2007 9:51PM (EDT)

It's April in Korea, which means it is time to don surgical masks, seal windows tightly shut, and keep a weather eye out toward the Chinese border. April is yellow dust storm season, when a noxious brew of Gobi desert sand particles and assorted effluent from China's industrial development comes roaring out of the west and dumps down on Japan and Korea.

The frequency and duration of yellow dust storms has been increasing in northeast Asia for years. So far, this season looks to be one of the worst so far -- over the weekend, one of the worst yellow dust storms in history came barreling out of China, prompting the South Korean government to issue its first nationwide yellow dust alert, urging citizens to stay at home, avoid outdoor exercise, and be sure to regularly brush their teeth.

It's a sorry state of affairs -- Koreans don't have the power do anything to defend themselves, other than erect monitoring stations at the border that might give earlier warning of particularly bad storms, and ask the Chinese nicely to maybe, pretty please, clean up their industrial sector just a little bit. But even if China does reduce industrial pollution outputs, the problem is still set to get worse. This year, atypical warm temperatures and low snowfall are contributing to the virulence. Higher temperatures in the future, as a result of climate change, are expected to speed up the desertification in Mongolia and China that is generating the majority of the yellow dust.

As dystopian visions of the future go, it's hard to beat being forced to stay inside your home by a yellow dust storm fueled in part by a neighboring country's pell-mell industrial development and the entire world's emissions of greenhouse gases. If it is a sign of what's to come elsewhere, as the world's ecological systems continue to break down under the pressure exerted by the planet's teeming humanity, then generations to come are in for a rough ride.

But anyone who remembers what it was like to breathe the air in Los Angeles in the 1970s knows that humans can clean up their atmosphere, if their governments enact the right kind of legislation. What must be unendurably frustrating for Koreans is that they have no power to legislate Chinese reform. What some are calling "yellow dust terrorism" is a prime example of the kind of cross-border environmental issue that will present ever more severe challenges to a globe divided into enclaves of national sovereignty.

Environmental economists might argue that China would be quick to clean up the industrially generated portion of its yellow dust if it had to pay the full cost of the damages incurred in Japan and Korea -- lost work time, gooped-up high-tech factories, long-term healthcare fees. But where is the court that could enforce such judgments?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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