On China’s environmental record, take it from Al Gore: “China's role is complicated, but in some ways they're moving the ball in the right direction,” he told The Washington Post last week.
Today’s issue traces China’s environmental attitudes back 20 years. It’s part of our series The Present Past, in which we bring fresh eyes to articles from The Atlantic’s archives. Our source material today is Mark Hertsgaard’s 1997 piece, “Our Real China Problem.” Alex Wang, a specialist in China’s environmental law, filled in the story since then.
- Listen to an in-depth interview with Wang that accompanies this story. The audio is available on SoundCloud and in your members-only podcast feed. Here’s how to access it via your podcast player of choice.
How China Went From Rampant Polluter to Assertive Climate Negotiator
By Matt Peterson
After two weeks of talks, negotiators wrapped up plans in Poland on Saturday for implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement. That pact came together when the United States and China decided to work together on climate issues. But early in his presidency, Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw from the deal. “When the U.S. stepped back, China decided to step up,” Canada’s environment minister, Catherine McKenna, told CBC News.
Over the past 20 years, environmental issues have come front and center in Chinese policy making, as the nation’s rapid growth brought about the sharp degradation of its environment. In 1997, the Atlantic reporter Mark Hertsgaard went to China to investigate its climate efforts. But he ended up writing a story about China’s massive pollution problems instead. “When one is inhaling appallingly polluted air for weeks on end,” Hertsgaard wrote, “one tends to focus the questions on that.”
While addressing those problems, Chinese leaders created a political logic that is now largely self-sustaining. Environmental protection has gone from a problem best ignored to one that stays on top of the political agenda. China will no longer allow itself to be seen as ignoring environmental issues, including climate change, though its new rhetoric isn’t always matched by effective action.
The Old Story: Growth at All Costs
In some ways, the country Hertsgaard visited in 1997 barely resembles the China of today: It was mostly poor and heavily reliant on coal and other fossil fuels. “China has only one car for every 150 inhabitants,” he noted. Today it’s closer to one for every four. China’s economy was ranked somewhere between No. 3 and No. 7 in the world in 1997; as of 2014, China’s is the largest economy according to one estimate, and second only to the United States according to others. Coal accounted for 75 percent of the country’s energy consumption in 1997; today it makes up closer to 60 percent. These changes have had significant health effects. Lung disease due to air pollution or cigarette smoking caused 26 percent of all deaths in China in 1997; now that figure is down to 17 percent.
For a long time, environmental degradation was treated as an unavoidable by-product of the country’s breakneck growth. Hertsgaard walked into a paper factory in Chongqing that was openly dumping chlorine into the Jialin River. Local officials were aware of the practice but chose to look the other way. One official, Hertsgaard reported, “was honest enough to concede that short-term economic considerations often do override environmental goals in China. ‘The trouble is, if we close that factory, many workers will lose their jobs, and our government would rather support the workers than protect the water,’ he said with a shrug.” The view Hertsgaard encountered from official after official was that pro-environment policies would interfere with growth, and that would be “political suicide.”
But the costs of such unregulated growth eventually became untenable, said Alex Wang, a law professor at UCLA who has worked as an environmental lawyer in Beijing. “You have that boom and the pollution just gets worse and worse and worse, to the point where it's really intolerable and you cannot ignore it. And it started to exacerbate social instability to a level that the costs of this type of growth are starting to really exceed the benefits of it. And so that leads to, slowly, a change in the government attitude toward environmental regulation,” Wang said. “To not respond to it, and not allow people to voice their complaints about it, would be seen by the citizens as damaging to the government.”
The New Story: Environmental Protection Shows Seriousness
The trajectory of environmental-protection efforts reveals how government really works in China. Compared with an issue such as labor rights, environmental protection has been unusually amenable to public pressure. “You can frame environmental advocacy in a way that's often consistent with government goals,” Wang said. Environmental protection allows officials to show alignment with their citizens, enhancing their political legitimacy.
But as Hertsgaard observed, having laws on the books doesn’t mean much if local officials are also getting the message to ignore them. “The law is not primarily where the action is,” Wang said. Instead, leaders such as President Xi Jinping have set out broad policy directives in the country’s five-year plans. Then they’ve had to show they really mean them. “The way that they've sort of tried to signal seriousness is to have these big campaigns where they repeatedly go down and do inspections and make examples of people and try to essentially create some fear among local actors,” Wang said.
This approach can be effective for addressing obvious and easily measurable issues such as air pollution—the U.S. embassy in Beijing publishes air-quality data on Twitter. But other ills, such as soil pollution, can be harder to monitor from afar. Similarly, some of China’s promises to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions are difficult to independently track.
The country’s change in attitude, at least, seems genuinely substantial. Hertsgaard recounted a 1995 meeting between the American and Chinese presidents, in which Bill Clinton lectured Jiang Zemin on the importance of learning from America’s mistakes. “Jiang was probably wondering whether his American counterpart could possibly be serious,” Hertsgaard wrote. “If ever there was a non-issue for China's leaders, global warming is it.” As late as 2009, China was seen as a spoiler at the Copenhagen climate summit, a predecessor to this year’s meeting in Poland. Now China is assertive on climate, Wang said, because its leaders understand environmental protection differently. “There's economic logic to it; it can help the economic transformation in China. There are political dividends to it, that China is getting a lot of praise right now as an environmental leader and especially in contrast to the Trump administration,” he said. “I think all of these things accrue to the benefit of certainly these Chinese leaders, and to the extent that it's reducing pollution, to Chinese citizens as well.”
This year, Xi had China’s constitution changed to allow him to serve as president indefinitely; he also included a reference to “ecological civilization” in the text, signaling a continued focus on environmental issues. China’s leaders have labored to change the story line since the era when Hertsgaard’s story was published. “I think the challenge for any of us who are observers of China is to figure out how much is still the old story and how much is the new story,” Wang said.
- Question of the day: Have you seen China’s changing story firsthand? We’d love to hear from readers who live there or who visit regularly. Share your experience in an email to email@example.com or by posting on forums.theatlantic.com.
- What’s coming: The Masthead will be taking an end-of-year break starting December 24. But we’ll have some great stories for you before we go, including a report from Karen Yuan on a heist that shocked the rare-books world.
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