Dragon Dust: Atmospheric Science and Cooperation on Desertification in the Asia and Pacific Region

By Wilkening, Ken | Journal of East Asian Studies, September-December 2006 | Go to article overview

Dragon Dust: Atmospheric Science and Cooperation on Desertification in the Asia and Pacific Region


Wilkening, Ken, Journal of East Asian Studies


Are scientific or nonscientific factors most influential in initiating international cooperation on newly emerging transboundary environmental problems in the Asia and Pacific region? In a case study of long-range atmospheric transport of dust, which is linked to desertification in China and Mongolia, the relative influence of scientific versus nonscientific factors in promoting cooperation in the region is analyzed. The study examines two dimensions of the problem--Northeast Asia and North America--and demonstrates that similar to the distance-dependence of the problem (i.e., dust concentrations decrease the greater the distance from the sources), cooperation follows a parallel relationship (i.e., motivation to cooperate decreases the greater the distance from the sources). Scientific cooperation in Northeast Asia is being institutionalized, but North America has not joined this effort. A synergy between factors must be invoked to explain this situation. In both cases, obvious and often dramatic negative impacts of massive dust storms are an enabling factor allowing more subtle science-related factors to come to the fore.

KEYWORDS: desertification, long-range transport of dust, science and policy, international environmental cooperation

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East Asia's impressive economic development in recent decades has resulted in, among other outcomes, impressive environmental problems, some of which are transboundary in nature. Transboundary environmental problems in the region include air pollution (e.g., acid rain), contamination and overfishing of regional seas (e.g., East China Sea), degradation of transboundary rivers (e.g., Mekong River), and declines in migratory bird populations (e.g., cranes). To this list can now be added dust storms and long-range atmospheric transport of dust, a form of air pollution.

Most of East Asia's transboundary environmental problems cannot be effectively addressed without international cooperation. However, such cooperation has been slow to emerge. In addition, a trans-Pacific web of cooperation is arguably emerging, albeit at an even slower pace. (1) Why is the pace of international environmental cooperation so slow? And when cooperation does emerge, what factors explain its emergence? A number of recent works tackle these questions. (2) One of the commonalities in many analyses of international environmental cooperation in East Asia is that science is posited as a primary factor inspiring cooperation, especially in the early stages. Thus, more specifically, we can ask: Are scientific or nonscientific factors most influential in initiating international cooperation on newly emerging transboundary environmental problems in the Asia and Pacific region? In this article, I distinguish and compare the influence of scientific versus nonscientific factors in a case study of the recently recognized problem of long-range transport of dust in the Asia and Pacific region, which in turn is linked to desertification in China and Mongolia (herein referred to as the "dust-desertification problem"). The relative influence of these factors in structuring state perceptions, constructing common interests, and promoting international cooperation in the Asia and Pacific region is analyzed.

Numerous works seek to differentiate the influence of scientific and nonscientific factors in regime formation and international environmental cooperation. (3) Some concentrate specifically on atmospheric issues, which are the focus of this article. (4) In addition, there is a growing number of studies of international environmental cooperation in East Asia, (5) some of which concentrate on atmospheric issues. (6) This study contributes to the literature analyzing the determinants of international environmental cooperation in East Asia, especially in its early stages, by adding a case study on the dust-desertification problem. It is, to my knowledge, the first detailed analysis of this transboundary environmental problem. …

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Dragon Dust: Atmospheric Science and Cooperation on Desertification in the Asia and Pacific Region
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