Understanding Climate Change: Moving Beyond Responsibility

Science and Tech


BEIJING – When I was designing my research for my dissertation, I put together a model or ideal type that consisted of three processes: Chinese youth learn about climate change; figure out one’s responsibility; take action as able and willing. Yet carrying out my research, focusing on responsibility was awkward to say the least. As this blog cites below, there are various Chinese and foreign governments and organizations asking about one’s responsibility, but when one finishes the questionnaire and returns to one’s daily life the story can be somewhat different. The limits of speaking of one’s responsibility for climate change quickly become apparent when one steps back and looks at the larger landscape of contemporary China, or at least contemporary Beijing.


The final question of the online survey I administered asked respondents if they thought environmental problems were the most serious social issue facing China, or if there were other more pressing social issues. While some respondents did reply that the most serious problems were environmental issues, quite often responses were similar to this one: “environmental problems are very important, but not the most serious” (环境问题很重要但不是最严重的问题).


This sentiment could be heard in the classroom at Renmin University this past summer. One day as a way of indirectly asking students if China had social problems, I asked my Chinese students who all take required courses on Marxism, if the utopia articulated by Marx in The German Ideology had been realized, hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and criticize after dinner. The short answer was no and in the two classes I taught, we proceeded to fill the chalkboard with various social problems that China faces. The students, similar to respondents for my online survey, mentioned problems including the income-gap, government corruption, the urban-rural divide, access to healthcare, expensive housing and unemployment. My second class also added environmental problems.



Environmental Problems Amid Daily Responsibilities

Individuals have to sort through issues both near and far from them while trying to figure out what if any responsibility they have, and if they should do anything, climate change being just one of these issues. Youth are asked to act on climate change while navigating a contemporary China that often means scarce or at least unstable jobs, expensive housing, and inadequate healthcare as they try to take care of themselves and family members. Increasingly, both in China but also in North America and Europe the state increasingly is less able to help them if they falter or encounter hardship. 


"Protecting the environment is one's responsibility, cherishing the environment is moral richness." (Hebei Province, 2011)


In North America and Europe, the reduction in social services has been brought on by a sputtering economy while in China the reduction in social welfare is not so much a result of a sputtering economy as it is a dismantling of the socialist state and a move towards a market-based economy. Prior to the Reform and Opening economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s a small minority of the parents and grandparents of China’s youth, the roughly 20% that lived in the cities, experienced the “iron rice bowl” of housing, employment, education and health care all provided by the state, introduced by the Communist Party. To a large extent they did not have to worry about the problems that consume the thoughts of China’s youth today. During this time the vast majority of the population, as much as 80%, lived in rural settings in what has been described as a form of serfdom, bound to the land. For neither those working at the urban danwei or those on the communal farms was life ideal yet it was stable, yet during this time the political climate was different and there was limited space to debate or engage in environmental protection (see part 1 ). Today when opportunities do exist to debate and engage in environmental protection individuals quite often are caught up having to compete and sell themselves in the marketplace as the urban collective work unites and farms have been dismantled. 



Responsibility for Environmental Protection | The Chinese State, the Citizen and the Factory

The story of responsibility for climate change and for environmental issues that emerges from surveys and interviews is one of the Chinese state, its corporations, factories, and citizens. Even this account is not quite so simple, as the distinction could be made between local and central government, state-owned and private factories, and perhaps the affluence of the citizens. The narrative given by citizens both in interviews and other related research is as follows: corporations are the source of the pollution (including greenhouse gases), citizens suffer from the pollution, and it is the role of the government to stop the corporations from polluting.


"Protect the environment, everyone has a responsibility." (Beijing 2011)


In a survey by OgilvyEarth, 60% strongly agreed and 27% agreed with the statement that irresponsible behavior on the part of corporations was more to blame than individuals for existing environmental pollution. At the same time approximately 56% strongly agreed and 31% agreed that lack of government action and intervention is to blame for the state of the environment. Looking more specifically at Chinese youth, in research done during 1998 and 1999 on college students in Beijing, slightly less than 6% said that responsibility for solving environmental problems in general should be on the individual. Yet, as the figure below demonstrates, respondents to the online survey I conducted overwhelmingly agreed that environmental protection should start with oneself.



The Government has the Ability (能力), We can Save Electricity and Ride Public Transportation

When I asked respondents on my online survey to divide responsibility for climate change between the government and the individuals, the majority of the responsibility was placed on the government; in follow-up interviews the most common explanation was that the government had the ability (能力) to regulate corporations and citizens could do their small part, for example saving electricity or taking public transportation. This is a narrative that can also be observed in places like Canada and the United Kingdom.


During interviews I asked if the government was doing enough regarding climate change, and the common answer was no; the same could be said for individuals. Somewhat contradictory, in 2007 Taking It Global China surveyed 2,000 Chinese youth in ten cities and slightly less than 3% chose youth in response to the question “who do you think should care more about climate change.” At the same time approximately 42% said they were willing to do more, but didn’t know what they could do.


I asked respondents if there was anything that could be done to get the government to do more, or could individuals just sit in their homes and hope that the government would do more. The most often cited option was trying to use the media in some way to get the government to do more, this might mean through news stories or the airing of grievances through online social media. Of the twenty individuals that I interviewed, only one person admitted to discussing environmental issues online, so while using social media is an option to express one’s frustration, it was not commonly used regarding any environmental issues.


What could be heard in terms of discussing environmental issues, was not so much discussion of one’s responsibility but rather gentle nudges or encouragement to do or not do various actions, some of the time related to climate change. Respondents encouraged others to not litter, to save water, to join them taking the stairs instead of the elevator and to print on both sides of paper. One respondent, encouraged by his girlfriend, began taking his own bag to the grocery store instead of using a plastic bag so as not to pay the plastic bag fee and also as a means of reducing litter. In addition using one’s own bag in China means the production of less CO2 as one television commercial pointed out.



Beyond Surveys

When one looking at one’s daily life, at least among those interviewed it was difficult to link climate change, responsibility and action. When asked in a follow-up email if individuals took action to protect the environment out of a sense of responsibility, all but one or two of sixteen respondents spoke in general terms that it is everyone’s responsibility (每个人都有负责). One person replied that it was more the government’s responsibility and that it was a heavy task to think of responsibility. Another respondent replied that she hadn’t thought that much about it.


As these responses indicate and the next blog further explores, it is difficult  to argue that Chinese youth are doing things differently out of a sense of responsibility. Yet one’s daily actions still have significance for climate change mitigation and what this research revealed is that in order to better understand these actions it is important to move beyond just thinking of motivation in terms of responsibility.



Upcoming: Living the Modern Life


[read part 12]



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China, Climate Change, Youth