With all eyes on the U.S. east coast and the devastation visited upon folks by megastorm Sandy, an article in Xinhua today about public views on climate change in China drew my attention:
A survey released on Thursday shows that a majority of Chinese people are familiar with issues related to climate change and they believe it has been caused by human activities and inflicts suffering on the country, but especially farmers.
The survey, conducted by the Center for China Climate Change Communication (CCCCC), randomly selected and polled more than 4,000 mainland residents aged between 18 and 70 from July to September. The survey was conducted ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will be held from Nov. 26 to Dec. 7 in Doha, Qatar. About 93 percent of respondents agree that climate change has already taken its toll.
Businessweek’s current cover story is entitled “It’s Global Warming, Stupid,” a blunt push back against American climate change denial and kooky conspiracy theorists. If 93% of Chinese believe in climate change (and yes, I have to use the term “believe” when discussing the U.S. position here), then what is the comparable number for the U.S.?
Xinhua cites (not by name, though) a Yale University study it says is comparable, which found only 62% of Americans are somehow on board with accepted science when it comes to climate change. Yes, there are a lot of assumptions made here in comparing the two studies, so I won’t get too caught up in the specific numbers.
Neither China nor the U.S. have led the world on the issue of controlling greenhouse gas emissions. During this year’s U.S. presidential election, neither candidate has put forward any proposals in this area or even discussed the issue. China’s leadership handover has produced a great deal of chatter about economic rebalancing, but nothing about the global environmental challenge. The U.S. Congress has more than a few climate change deniers as members. Surveys have shown that “belief” in climate change has actually gone down in the U.S. since the days of Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth.”
Neither government is likely to win a “Good Steward of the Earth” award any time soon.
But this is all secondary to my main takeaway from the Xinhua article. When we think about Chinese and American public opinion, we (i.e., Westerners) tend to focus on the ability of the Chinese government to shape and mold public opinion. In the past few years, this discussion has mostly been about the Internet and social media, but the role of print and broadcast media remains quite significant here and actually dominant for a significant portion of the population.
Shaping public opinion in China is done in a rather blunt fashion. A rumor is spread online, for example, and access to that information is blocked. If this is accomplished early on in the process, that information may never seep into the general consciousness. But this is not the only way to influence public opinion, of course.
In the U.S., climate change is a great example of how opinion can be shaped/changed even when the facts are well known and not in dispute. The ability of a relatively small group from the energy sector (with a great deal of money) to spread disinformation has been breathtaking to behold. It’s almost enough to make one lose faith in Justice Holmes’ marketplace of ideas. After all, it’s hard for the truth to shine through when so much money is spent tossing bullshit into the sky.
My point here is not to downplay free expression or blunt criticisms of China’s media management. Neither am I making an equivalency argument between the U.S. and China in terms of access to information.
That being said, these numbers give me pause. Climate change is perhaps the greatest single issue of our time, and yet among what many would call the top two nations in the world in terms of power, it is in the U.S., not China, where a large minority does not even accept scientific evidence on an issue of global significance. And I don’t know about you, but Hurricane Sandy is not likely to change the basic political dynamic on climate change in the U.S. It all comes down to money, unfortunately.
I’d like to gather a few folks from China’s propaganda ministry and put them in a room with Roger Ailes and the Koch brothers. The conversation would be fascinating. A lot of common ground there, with the only differences being that the Americans would be envious of China’s information management infrastructure, and the Chinese would be in awe of the Americans’ success selling The Big Lie.