President Trump has made clear through executive orders and appointments that he does not care much about climate change in particular or environmental protection in general. Trump’s announcement that the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement shows that his views have not changed significantly from his 2012 tweet that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
Chinese leaders, on the other hand, are closing coal-fired power plants and ramping up use of renewable energy. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping called the Paris Agreement “a hard-won achievement.” Addressing the United Nations in Geneva later that month, President Xi reassured the world that “China will continue to take steps to tackle climate change and fully honor its obligations.”
I have studied public opinion on weather, climate change and the environment in both the United States and China. In my view, by taking the United States out of the Paris agreement, President Trump has opened up space for China to increase its political and economic influence. China is likely to seize that opportunity.
Questing for ‘soft power’
China’s goal is to become a dominant economic powerhouse by shaping a new global order through initiatives such as its “One Belt, One Road” project. The Chinese public supports this ambitious vision. In the 2016 Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Survey, as many as 75 percent of Chinese respondents agreed that their country is playing a more important role than it did a decade ago, and 60 percent viewed China’s involvement in the global economy as a good thing.
China has risen rapidly since the late 1970s when it adopted its “reform and opening up” policy. Today’s Chinese leaders want to project soft power – that is, nonmilitary influence – on a global scale, and are well aware that they cannot do this only through economic dominance.
For China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter since 2006, climate change presents itself as both a crisis and an opportunity, perfectly captured in the Chinese characters for “crisis” - “危机” with “危” (wei) representing crisis and “机” (ji) opportunity. By showing that they are willing to lead on climate change, Chinese leaders can win international good will, clean tech market share, and their own people’s support.
China’s domestic environmental crisis
China’s rapid economic growth rate over the last three decades is largely based on energy-intensive construction of cities, highways, railroads and other infrastructure, which requires enormous production of electric power, pig-iron and cement. Coal provides nearly two-thirds of China’s energy supply, although its share is shrinking.
Heavy reliance on coal has produced epic air pollution in Chinese cities that has been dubbed an “airpocalypse.” According to one recent study, air pollution has reduced life expectancy for 500 million residents of northern China by a total of more than 2.5 billion years. To further complicate matters, climate change may be intensifying China’s air crisis by altering weather patterns in ways that promote smog formation.
The Pew Global Attitudes Survey asked Chinese respondents, who are disproportionately represented by urban residents, about their views on air pollution in 2008 and then yearly starting in 2012. In every survey, a majority of Chinese have called air pollution either a very big or moderately big problem. Public concern spiked in 2013, when eastern China experienced unprecedented air pollution, with readings far higher than levels considered hazardous under U.S. law, forcing many public facilities and schools to close.
Public concern has moderated since 2013 – possibly because the Chinese public has become accustomed to these harsh conditions, or perhaps because the government’s aggressive efforts to shift from coal to clean energy sources is sending a positive signal and easing public nerves. Chinese leaders stressed economic growth for years, but now are paying more attention to pollution because of rising public protests.
Chinese perceptions of global climate change
At the same time, climate change is having clear impacts in China, the world’s most populous country. Average annual mean surface air temperatures are rising, and uncertainty over future river runoff levels in northern China is worsening anxiety over water resources in this especially dry region.
In my research on public views of climate change in the United States, I have found that opinions are sharply polarized along political lines, with Democrats and liberals more likely than Republicans and conservatives to view it as a serious problem. In contrast, a vast majority of Chinese recognize the severity of climate change. In the 2016 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, one-third of the Chinese public viewed climate change as a major threat to China, and another 39 percent viewed it as a minor threat.
While climate change divides U.S. political leaders along party lines, Chinese leaders appear to be unified behind President Xi on this issue. Premier Li Keqiang on Tuesday in Berlin spoke of China’s strong support for the Paris accord.
A new leader
Today, thanks to massive government investments in the solar industry, China has two-thirds of the world’s solar panel production capacity and buys half of the world’s new solar panels. With determined backing from the central government, China has pledged to produce at least 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030.
This campaign is already attracting billions of dollars in foreign investment and generating millions of jobs in China. Dominating global clean energy markets is part of China’s economic strategy, but aligns with its need to cut carbon emissions.
The domestic environmental crisis has increased Chinese public concern about climate change. By pulling the United States back from international leadership to address climate change, President Trump has opened up an opportunity for China to step up. At this historic moment, China has every incentive to become a global climate leader.