Along with the U.S. … China makes up the climate change ‘G2’

It’s a virtual truism that two countries matter above all others when it comes to avoiding the most severe impacts of anthropogenic climate change: the U.S. and China.

That’s why so much was on the line when President Obama visited China last fall, and why speculation up to, during, and since Copenhagen focused so much on what the “G2” might or might not agree to.

But understanding in the U.S. of how climate change plays out in China and Chinese media is sparse.

With its striking rise in civil society, China has become more open to reporting and blogging, more citizen petitions and protests, more nongovernmental environmental organizations, and relatively more state responsiveness.

Democracy, Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Falun Gong, and other sensitive topics still seem off-limits. But not the environment or climate. On those topics, there is ongoing coverage in the state-backed China Daily newspaper and on the media giant CCTV. Moreover, loosely independent outfits like Caijing magazine, Global Times, and Hong Kong-based outlets like the English-language South China Morning Post are able to report reasonably critical items.

Efforts to improve the independence of media are widespread, with some young Chinese journalists now getting their education in the West and then moving back home, as Feng Wenxin notes at

All of this is linked too to the shift in climate policy by the Communist Party itself, which in just the past few years has gone from dismissing international calls for climate action to pledging an active, albeit carefully qualified and nuanced, role in addressing, and perhaps even leading on, the issue. (Many China watchers point out that the country’s environmental problems are so dire that addressing them has become a national security issue.)

“Chinese press runs a lot on this topic and educated people do pay attention to it,” Shen Dingli, professor and executive dean at Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies in Shanghai, said in an e-mail interview with The Yale Forum.

Shen, who directs Fudan’s Centre for American Studies, said that the “usual view” does involve a good deal of criticism of the West and securing ample flexibility for China’s economic growth.

Common Elements of Chinese Media Climate Reporting

Chinese media coverage of climate change usually involves a multi-tiered set of points, he said:

  • The Western countries have emitted a lot of greenhouse gases in the past;
  • on a per capita basis, China still is way behind;
  • China is doing a lot to reduce the relative release of CO2, compared with its increased economic output;
  • but China is not in a position to reduce the total amount of CO2 release, and this has to be met by 2050;
  • America for a long time has both released a lot and refused to take responsibility to control its releases;
  • Obama’s competing domestic agenda is pulling him away from treating this issue with more urgency.
The iconic Great Wall … a metaphor for media climate coverage?

As became painfully clear to all in Copenhagen, Chinese leaders still resist “defined limits” and hard caps on carbon emissions. They still also emphasize “differentiated responsibility,” or having the West pick up its share of the tab for its outsized role in creating climate problems. And there of course is the “transparency” concern that so dominated much of the negotiations in Copenhagen.

But there nonetheless is burgeoning interest within China on climate.

A good chunk of China’s own economic stimulus package is dedicated to green efforts, and coverage in recent months by state-backed media in China often has focused on local energy efficiency efforts and new green technologies. Whatever critics may say about resistance to carbon caps, it is clear that Chinese authorities want to highlight their own efforts to reduce emissions and spread the message to their society’s grassroots.

National Public Radio’s Beijing-based Anthony Kuhn has pointed out that the Chinese public’s attitudes toward climate coverage in China vary widely.

“Basically, public opinion in China on the climate change issue is to a great degree shaped by different levels of economic development,” Kuhn wrote in an e-mail interview with The Yale Forum. “The central government leaders are quite proactive on the climate change issue, probably from their interactions with foreign counterparts. They are determined to achieve cuts in carbon intensity (i.e., emissions per unit of GDP), while not sacrificing economic growth. They want to control targets for cutting emissions, rather than having them imposed by foreigners.”

“At the local level, there are many poor people who believe that meeting material needs comes before protecting the environment and preventing climate change,” Kuhn said. “The theory that climate change is a foreign conspiracy to constrain China’s economic growth has quite a few adherents.”

Registering in Public Consciousness

Orville Schell, the former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley and a respected China watcher, has pointed out that coverage of the many unusual natural and environmental phenomena – things in the “weird weather” category – has raised eyebrows. For an ancient culture where history is recorded over millennia, changes in natural patterns can be striking and can even play into China’s “highly evolved” notion of “fate” rendering judgment, he suggested.

In a 2009 lecture, Schell ticked off a litany of events that have registered in the public consciousness in China:

  • record droughts of the northern plateau, where China’s wheat-growing “breadbasket” is located;
  • unprecedented downpours in certain places, including 29 inches of rain in a 24-hour period in one city;
  • a record winter cold snap in 2008 that nearly brought civil unrest;
  • the shrinking of the crucially important Tibetan glaciers; and
  • the drying up of various rivers.

The water scarcity issue has prompted an expensive engineering effort to connect the Yangtze River and Yellow Rivers, a project three times bigger than the Three Gorges Dam. And, Schell said, it has led drought-plagued cities and provinces to engage in a virtual battle with one another to “seed” clouds through artillery and airplanes to try to induce rainfall.

“We begin to see them become conscious around these very concrete problems,” Schell said.

Robert Weller, a Boston University anthropology professor who studies Chinese culture and the environment, points to a traditional complacency among the Chinese public on pollution issues, a kind of “it’s part of life” attitude.

But Weller, author of “Discovering Nature: Globalization and Environmental Culture in China and Taiwan,” also said in an interview with The Yale Forum that environmental NGOs have been on the rise. Those grassroots organization are often operating illegally, with invalid permits, he said, but Chinese leaders tolerate them – and tacitly acknowledge that such groups can help highlight violations of environmental laws.

Moreover, having fledgling independent media can help the Communist Party better understand the public mood, giving vent to energies within the society. Journalism, Weller said, is part of the state’s big “experiment,” which includes allowing NGOs, petitions, and limited protests.

Of course, China’s “great firewall” of Internet censorship remains in place, and dissidents continue to be jailed for speaking truth to power on all manner of issues.

“I think [the Chinese authorities] understand that they have to know what’s going on,” Weller said. “But how do you do that without elections?”

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John Wihbey

John Wihbey, a writer, educator, and researcher, is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a correspondent for Boston Globe Ideas. Previously, he was an assistant director...