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Climate Change Through the Eyes of Chinese Youth

[A version of this article was originally published in The Mantle]

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By Chris Eberhardt

BEIJING – Recent headlines read that the CO2 emissions of China may actually be 20 percent greater than previously thought, essentially equal to adding the emissions of the world’s number five emitter, Japan, to China’s total. The difference lies in how the central and local government authorities measure energy use as a means of calculating greenhouse gas emissions. The news has created alarm for some activists and scientists alike as this news means greenhouse gases like CO2 are accumulating in the atmosphere much quicker than previously thought. Yet for those both inside and outside China, the task of framing China’s role in that of global debates on climate change can often be a difficult task to say the least. 

This blog, and three subsequent blogs are informed by research that focuses specially on how Chinese youth (ages 18-35) living primarily in Beijing, make sense of climate change in their daily lives; how they learn about the issue; figure out responsibility for action; to what extent they take action towards mitigating emissions in their daily lives. 

Climate Change, Carbon and the Case of China
What scientists have known since the publication of the 2007 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is: a. since the “little ice age” that ended in 1700, the Earth has generally been on a warming trajectory; b. since the middle of the 1900s CO2, a key greenhouse gas that helps trap heat around the earth has been increasing in volume; c. humans likely play a role in the increase in CO2 volumes contributing to warming temperatures; d. changes in climate could have dramatic impacts on how humans live their lives.

The 2007 IPCC report gave the issue of climate change credibility in China as it was then possible for citizens in varying roles to debate the issue with less restrictions from the government. The 2007 report also coincided with China surpassing the United States to become the greatest annual emitter of CO2 emissions. Today China receives global attention regarding climate change not only because it is the greatest emitter but also because it is not legally required through the UN process to reduce its emissions due to its developing nation status; China youth are clearly aware of this as they read international and domestic news accounts spotlighting their nation’s situation. Yet this does not mean China is not doing anything towards mitigation. Both the Chinese government and the clear majority of its citizens see climate change as a problem; China is expected to be one of the countries most affected by climate change and is arguably doing more policy-wise than any other country to limit CO2 emissions. Yet as China continues to pursue the economic reforms of 1978 known as Reform and Opening (改革开放 gaige kaifang) and develops a carbon-based market economy, its emissions continue to grow.

Chinese Youth
One of the significant results of Reform and Opening is that today Chinese, including youth are increasingly experiencing the urban and suburban experience of living in a market-based society, often using energy at equal or greater levels than in cities in more developed countries. Furthermore, Chinese youth are increasingly asked to make sense of climate change while facing social and economic issues problems found in the United States or Western Europe as responsibility has been placed on the individual to take care of housing, education, employment and other services as China has shifted from socialism to a market-based economy. Chinese youth have demonstrated that while larger structural processes like Reform and Opening are going on, they see responsibility for success and failure as resting on themselves. Looking at how Chinese youth define modern life for themselves, there might be lessons for those in North America and Europe who similarly face the daunting and complex problem of climate change amid the challenges of daily life. In looking at the lives of Chinese youth, three threads about the Chinese experience emerge throughout these blogs.

CO2 Emissions per province, primarily urban and in the east | source: chinaproject.harvard.edu

Communist China, Environmental Protection and the Citizens
The simulated bike races and green fashion shows of Beijing that Chinese youth participate in today stand in stark contrast to the first thirty years of the People’s Republic of China, characterized by conflict and struggle, as China moved towards a centralized economy and the Chinese Communist Party consolidated power most clearly through the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The Great Leap Forward led to famine for millions and set in motion an ethos of economic growth built on environmental destruction and the Cultural Revolution tore at the fabric of society down to the household, limiting opportunities for constructive debate on environmental and other social issues. It is only in the last thirty years following Reform and Opening that some semblance of environmental protection or environmentalism that might be recognizable in the United States or Western Europe has emerged, although clearly shaped by the authoritarian nature of China. The work of environmental groups in China is understood as “embedded activism,” focusing on cooperation rather than antagonism with the government.

“China is a Developing Nation” and its Citizen Consumers
When asked who was responsible for addressing climate change, the majority of responsibility is placed on the government, while Chinese are to save resources in their daily lives. Somewhat related Katherine Morton uses the term “citizen consumers” when speaking of Chinese citizens and protecting the environment. Quite often at the level of the individual it seems all they can do is limit resources and consume in an earth-friendly manner, as both domestic and international actors encourage consumers to develop the Chinese economy. The characters for development (发展) were mentioned over forty times in an online survey of Chinese youth conducted in 2011 when discussing social problems in China. There was a sense that respondents were resigned to the fact that the social issues that China faces due to Reform and Opening, like inequality, environmental pollution, and deficiencies in education are inevitable, and there is little they can do about it.

China and International Networks
As the chart below demonstrates, the Reform and Opening that brought both economic development and social tensions did not by itself dramatically alter the rate of CO2 emissions in China. China’s dramatic increase in CO2 emissions coincides not with the 1978 Reform and Opening, but with China’s induction into the World Trade Organization in 2002. Making sense of China’s development and its linkages to the global economy extends beyond Chinese youth who often feel helpless. China first joined this debate at the state level in the 1970s when China participated in the first UN environmental forum held in 1972 in Stockholm at the urging of Premier Zhou Enlai. Today, not only government officials but also youth join international fora on climate change in places ranging from Washington, D.C. to Copenhagen and Durban. As can be seen particularly in the next installment of this series, Beijing’s role as a node in international networks of government and non-government activists shapes how Chinese youth understand climate change, learning about it not only in the classroom and through propaganda but also in spaces of play.

Historical CO2 emissions of China. | source: www.tradingeconomics.com

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Chris Eberhardt holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from The New School for Social Research. He was a 2008 India China Institute Student Fellow and can be found on Twitter @enviroeberhardt.

[Photo courtesy of 350.org]

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