Will the forests return to China?

China is, environmentally speaking, a mess. Only 19 percent of the people living there have access to tap water, said C.S. Kiang, a professor of Peking University speaking at the China-U.S. Climate Symposium at U.C. Berkeley this week. The water in six of the 27 largest cities do not meet state standards.

Roughly 1.5 million new cases of bronchitis are reported annually, he added. And one of the most ominous developments has been the cancer villages. These are villages that now report high levels of cancer among citizens. The tally isn't being kept by the government but activists. "This could be like the bird flu," he stated.

Agriculture is also threatened by global warming., according to Crop yields, after a burst of growth due to a one to two degree Celsius increase over the next two decades, will be in decline by 2050 in China, according to other research out of the country.

But there is hope, in part because the government now acknowledges the problem exists, said Kiang. A plan has been put into place to cover 26 percent of China's land mass with forests, he said. The government is also setting up organizations like the Bashang Earth Systems Observatory to study increases in greenhouse gases and changes in the water supply.

The scope of reversing global degradation, of course, won't be easy. We live in what an be called the Anthropocene era, or the era of human change on the earth. In the past 50 years, industrial output has increased by 40 times and the population on the globe has doubled. Energy consumption in the same period has gone up 16 times.

"Linear acceleration does not apply to the modern world," he said. "The GDP (gross domestic product) of 2000 was equal to the GDP of the 19th Century."