China’s response to climate change

Fairly or not, China has been getting a lot of the blame in the UK for the failure of the Copenhagen Summit. It’s far from the first time that China’s drive for economic growth has been used as an explanation – or justification – for the weakness of international climate agreements.

However, the polls reveal something much more interesting than a country which just wants development without sustainability. Awareness in China of climate change, and recognition of its effects, is strong. There is also a strong belief that action should be taken in response to climate change. But in terms of how we should respond to climate change, there appear to be important differences between China and other countries.

First things first, it’s clear that climate change is perceived in China to be an important issue. In GlobeScan’s Jun-Oct ’09 international poll, 57% in China say “Climate change or global warming, due to the Greenhouse Effect” is a very serious problem. Compare that with 45% in the US, 58% in Canada, and 59% in the UK saying the same thing (1).

On top of this, the scores in China for whether the government should prioritise climate change at the expense of economic growth, are startling. In both GlobeScan’s poll, and another conducted in Sep-Oct ‘09 by WorldPublicOpinion.Org, agreement with this in China is significantly higher than agreement in any of the development countries polled.

From the WPO report:

Similarly, in the WPO data, 98% in China agree that “our country has a responsibility to take steps to deal with climate change”, and 77% think that their government is not doing enough.

But there’s something interesting in responses to the WPO question “when do you think climate change will start to substantially harm people in [country]?”. In China, just over 7 in 10 think that people in China are being affected by climate change now. That’s compared with 34% in US, 47% in France, and 58% globally.

If these figures are anything close to being right, they show something interesting and important about how climate change is seen in China – and how the Chinese population expect their government to respond to it. It suggests that in China, climate change is seen as an immediate issue, causing problems for people now. So the government’s response to climate change may be expected to focus on adapting to the effects, to a greater extent than it is in other countries, where climate change may be seen more as a future problem.

This gives a different context for the relatively high scores in China for the seriousness of climate change, and the need for the government to take action. And thus, the Chinese government’s apparent strategy of resisting a binding emissions reduction deal in Copenhagen may not be such a contradiction of the popular desire in China for government action.

(1) The WPO poll gives a relatively lower score for China on the equivalent question: 28% seeing it as very serious, compared with 31% in the US, and 43% in France (no data for Canada or the UK). My feeling is that this is caused by a difference in sampling methodology: GlobeScan is urban only, while WPO is urban and rural. However, other than in this question, the answers across the two polls are comparable so there may be other factors in play, like the set-up of the respective questionnaires.


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