This summer’s record heat and epic floods in China failed to spark local public debate about how the world’s top carbon polluter should mitigate climate change, leaving environmentalists furious at a wasted opportunity.
While state media and officials have previously stated that climate change makes China more prone to extreme weather, few have made the connection this year, and even fewer have linked it to China’s own emissions, which now account for roughly one-third of world emissions and are rising.
“I actually see that as a big missed opportunity, actually, for the Chinese government to garner enough social support for its climate agenda,” said Li Shuo, senior adviser at Greenpeace in Beijing. “At the very least, to arrive at a new narrative that is more in line with reality on the ground.”
According to their official search indexes, there has been no significant increase in searches for climate change in recent weeks on either the popular Weibo China’s largest search engine or Baidu. Despite considerable concern about bad weather, at least 33 people perished in Beijing alone.
Several locals in Beijing and flooded areas in neighbouring Hebei province stated they were aware of changing climate trends but were hesitant to say anything more.
“Extreme weather is becoming more common these days,” said Su, a 53-year-old native of the Hebei city of Zhuozhou.
“We are unable to remark on it. We are not in charge. “The summers are hotter than they used to be, and the winters aren’t as cold,” remarked Su, whose crops and home were destroyed by the floods.
In the first few dozen results of a Baidu search for the topic “should China be more responsible for climate change?” or variations on it, there were no articles critical of China’s climate policies.
Instead, the results, many of which came from official media channels, emphasised China’s leadership in combating climate change and demands for wealthy countries to shoulder greater responsibility.
Although China’s foreign ministry did not reply promptly to a request for comment on this article, government spokespeople have consistently defended China’s record on climate change and press freedom.
Environment campaigners in rich countries are also concerned, since governments seeking re-election have reduced climate aspirations in reaction to a backlash from individuals opposed to the lifestyle adjustments required to reduce emissions.
In principle, China is well-positioned to implement top-down, state-led campaigns that promote government policy, perhaps propelling it to the forefront of climate action.
However, Fang Kecheng of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who published a paper on Beijing’s “authoritarian environmentalism” in June, stated that climate messaging was employed differently.
“Like many other issues in China, climate change is basically used as an issue by the media to glorify the state and the supreme leader while also attacking the United States and other Western countries,” he said.
This wasn’t always the case. A grassroots-led campaign against air pollution drove China’s officials to clean up its smog-filled skies, particularly in the capital Beijing, around a decade ago.
Pan Zhongdang, professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes that fear of what freedom of expression can unleash is part of the problem. “It doesn’t have the minimum self-confidence to allow for debate or discussion,” he added of the Chinese government.
President Xi Jinping’s attack on NGOs, civil society, and media freedoms has rendered grassroots climate change unlikely, pushing campaigners to adapt and instead aim to influence an increasingly centralised leadership.
“In general, it appears that they have kept a very tight lid on freedom of speech to the point where they don’t even know how to walk back,” said Yifei Li, assistant professor of Environmental Studies at New York University’s Shanghai Campus.
China has set some ambitious green goals, like Xi’s commitment to make the country carbon neutral by 2060, but experts urge Beijing to move faster and are concerned that failing to engage the public may hinder the change.
According to study released on Thursday (Aug 10) by the Centre for study on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), China’s CO2 emissions increased 10% year on year in the first quarter of 2023, increasing about 1% over record levels in 2021.
Despite the catastrophic weather, China has emphasised energy security more than climate change in recent months, according to CREA’s principal analyst, Lauri Myllyvirta.
“In this context, emphasising China’s emissions, even saying that policies are in place to reduce them, would not fit the narrative and might hit too close to home,” he said.