October 29, 2019
NANJING, China — In October 2010, Chinese leaders were infuriated with the United States after the American Embassy in Beijing tweeted about “crazy bad” levels of air pollution. The embassy’s air pollution data showed that air pollution in Beijing was much worse than the official Chinese data suggested. To Americans, this episode seemed to prove China’s negligence and dishonesty regarding its environmental problems. Eight years later, Chinese mocked the resurgence of climate change denial in American politics. To many Chinese, the fact that someone who actively disregards science (or at least pretends to for the sake of economic growth) could become America’s commander in chief is evidence that American democracy is fundamentally flawed.
As the United States and China struggle to address climate change, they have encountered different types of barriers. U.S. climate policy must contend with climate-change deniers and vested corporate interests, whereas in China, climate policy is often at odds with economic development goals.
In the U.S., part of the problem is denial. About one in six Americans think climate change “is not a threat” to America at all. That’s not precisely the same as saying climate change “isn’t real,” but both statements demonstrate a similar degree of disregard for the international consensus on climate science.
This phenomenon can be understood in terms of the influence of partisanship on the American public. Worldwide, there is a strong positive correlation between one’s level of scientific knowledge and one’s belief in the risks posed by climate change. However, American Republicans are an exception to this pattern. Whether or not a Republican believes that climate change will harm the planet has no relationship with the degree of his or her scientific knowledge.
Why do so many American conservatives deny the effects of climate change? Some researchers attribute this to the so-called “conservative white male effect” in doubting anthropogenic climate change; in other words, a growing body of research suggests that conservative white men around the world are less likely to believe in climate change than other demographic groups.
Political and business interests also play a key role in American climate denial. Efforts from the fossil fuel industry to obfuscate the conversation on climate change have successfully confused the American public. Campaign finance contributions by the oil and gas industries are primarily directed to Republicans, further leading Republicans to less stringent climate policy.
In China, widespread climate change denial is not the problem. The Chinese government “wants everyone to believe in climate change,” said Pan Siran, a Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) student from Hainan. In China, climate change “is not a political issue,” she said. According to Fang Jianyu, an HNC student from Inner Mongolia, climate change is taught in freshman high school geography, so anyone with a high school education should know about it.
But because high school is not compulsory in China, there are some people who never learned about climate change in school. A 2017 study conducted by the Center for China Climate Change Communication (CCCCC) showed that roughly 5% of Chinese adults don’t think climate change is happening, and a 2012 CCCCC survey showed over 6% of Chinese adults have never heard of climate change.
Taken together, these data could suggest that the main reason some Chinese don’t believe in climate change is that they have never heard of it. This was corroborated by Zhang Haiyan, Associate Professor of Energy, Resources, and Environment (ERE) at the HNC. She said virtually everyone in China who has heard of climate change knows that it’s real, but that some people with less education may not know about it, and hence not believe in it.
Professor Zhang further emphasized that addressing climate change is especially difficult for developing countries like China. Developing countries are still in the process of setting up basic infrastructure and providing basic social services; how can they be expected to be on the vanguard of climate change adaptation? Chinese recognize the need to address climate change, but poverty alleviation based on economic development is a far more urgent priority. This tension is reflected in the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which dates back to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This concept acknowledges that wealthy, developed countries with greater capabilities must shoulder a greater share of the burden of dealing with climate change.
The problem in China isn’t denial but rather the notion that developing China’s domestic economy is a higher priority than helping the planet. Compared to economic growth, the environment is a small concern. A popular phrase in Chinese media reflects this systemic lack of concern for environmental law: “The costs of illegal behavior are low, but the costs of following the law are high.”
China and America have the world’s largest carbon footprints, but their barriers to addressing the problem are vastly different. In the United States, those who dispute the facts of climate change have significant political power. On the other hand, climate change is widely accepted in China, but the reaction has been to deny responsibility. China has seen some major environmental protests in recent years, but the push for economic development seems unstoppable.
As key players in the international effort to address climate change, America and China will face enormous environmental challenges in the coming years. Expanding the exchange of ideas between China and America may prove essential for the health of the planet. Such cross-cultural exchanges may also allow each side to avoid the mire of endless criticism and search for mutually beneficial solutions.