In Hong Kong, the impact of the national security law (NSL) and the related clampdown on freedoms is widening by the day. But the fallout from the legislation is being felt far beyond the city.

For one thing, the law has focused the world’s attention on violations of human rights in China, exacerbating tensions between Beijing and a nascent coalition of Western countries. 

National security law
Photo: GovHK.

Up to now, officials in Hong Kong have demonstrated an astounding ability to find “national security” violations in contexts that in the past went unnoticed, and still do in free societies. Almost every day there is another official threat to use the NSL or anachronistic colonial-era laws against newfound enemies in society, and seemingly every week — sometimes several times each week — there are new arrests.

A recent example was the arrest of speech therapists allegedly responsible for producing a book of children’s cartoons deemed to be so threatening to national security that the supposed culprits were denied bail. 

In ordinary circumstances, none of this would be of much professional interest to scholars (including me) who study and write about the human dimensions of climate change. Yet, given the ever-expanding maw of the NSL and associated hysteria, and the way that it is spreading its tentacles into more aspects of life, can even the issue of climate change be immune? 

greenhouse gases climate change
Photo: Mohri UN-CECAR via Flickr

At first glance, it would seem to be extremely far-fetched, even irrational, to ask such a question. But in today’s Hong Kong, rationality has been turned on its head. As it transpires, the connections between climate change and the NSL are potentially quite far-reaching. The NSL might bring doom to more than Hong Kong’s democrats and free media; it might also help to bring doom to planet Earth. 

If this appears to be a wild assertion, consider the role of climate change in Sino-US relations. These have been deteriorating for quite some time, and we may already be in the early years of a new Sino-US cold war. Nevertheless, it has been widely assumed by pundits and some top-level officials that the two countries could cooperate on climate change even as they compete on most everything else. That assumption now seems to have discounted the effect on relations of the obsession with national security in Hong Kong. 

As the crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong has been implemented over the last year, condemnation from the United States and other countries has increased. Among other things, the US government has sanctioned officials deemed responsible for what is happening in Hong Kong and warned businesses of potential liabilities if their operations here are involved in the NSL crackdown. 

china smog pollution
Photo: Wikicommons.

China and the Hong Kong government have responded with indignation. More to the point, China recently declared that its cooperation with the United States on climate change would depend on “the overall strength” of their wider relationship. China seems to be saying that American complaints about the NSL crackdown will undermine, and possibly prevent, bilateral cooperation on climate change. 

Every year, China produces more of the greenhouse gas pollution causing climate change than do the United States and its democratic allies put together. Without cuts in China’s emissions, there is no hope of averting catastrophic climate change. Last week’s deadly floods in China — and massive wildfires in North America and Russia, and recent deadly floods in Germany, etc — will certainly become routine if that happens. 

The long-term effect could be suffering and death for millions of people in the future. It is worth asking whether top-level officials in Hong Kong considered such suffering and death when they confidently declared that the NSL would affect only a very small number of people. 

The climate-related effects of the NSL crackdown are also being experienced locally. The Hong Kong administration’s preoccupation with imagined national security threats is blinding it to the real threats to China and its people posed by climate change. It is being distracted from doing anything about the extremely high per capita greenhouse gas pollution from Hong Kong that is worsening those threats. 

National security law
Photo: GovHK.

To be sure, for decades Hong Kong’s environmental policies have been piecemeal and out of touch with the scale of threats posed by climate change, whether to Hong Kong, China or the wider world. This lacklustre approach is now being made worse by the political pressure on all government departments to orient their operations toward protecting “national security” from the Hong Kong people. 

For example, instead of redeveloping the educational system so that students of all ages, from kindergarten to university, and in every type of class, learn about climate change — what it is, why it is so vitally important, how to live a good life without costing the earth — the Education Bureau is pushing for pupils of all ages and in every type of class to become hypersensitive to national security. 

Across the administration, the brain power of local officials of all kinds is being distracted from the biggest long-term threat to the Chinese people: climate change. If a fraction of the administration’s efforts to crack down on imagined security threats were directed at climate change, Hong Kong could very quickly become an environmentally sustainable city that is part of the solution to the problem — instead of being a big part of making the problem worse. 

The administration should ask itself some simple questions: How many people in China have died from any national security threat, however wildly conceived, originating in Hong Kong? How many people in China have died from the recurring floods, storms and other events that have been aggravated by climate change, and to which Hong Kong has disproportionately contributed? 

climate crisis hong kong
Photo: Extinction Rebellion Hong Kong.

On a brighter note, the implications of the NSL for those concerned about climate change might not be entirely negative. The NSL crackdown on erstwhile freedoms has reduced already low public support for the government. The establishment knows this, so it is looking for ways to bolster approval ratings. One of its approaches has been to eliminate critical voices in the media. 

But the administration may also try to garner public support by implementing calls for it to focus on livelihood issues, not least those related to housing. If it heeds those calls, it may be inclined to improve the living conditions of Hong Kong people most vulnerable to climate change.

For example, it might provide new homes to people now living in the subdivided flats and “cage homes” that are extremely vulnerable to the oppressive summer heat being made worse by global warming. It might also increase financial assistance to poor members of the community to help them cope with the rising costs of food that will inevitably come as climate change makes agricultural disasters more common. 

Looking ahead, if China’s commitment to address climate change is genuine, Hong Kong may eventually be asked to play its part in helping meet President Xi Jinping’s pledge to become carbon-neutral by 2060. If so, the local administration’s eagerness to implement Beijing’s priorities might lead to action that reduces Hong Kong’s environmental footprint. Too bad Beijing hasn’t imposed a law requiring that already. 

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Paul G. Harris is the Chair Professor of Global and Environmental Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. He is the author/editor of two dozen books on global environmental politics, policy and ethics. Learn more about Paul's work on his website.