China Addressing Climate Change and its Social Implications
Tags: 2017-06-15
China Addressing Climate Change and its Sociological Implications
 
Global climate change is undoubtedly one of the important issues facing the world today. Every negotiation on global cooperation in climate change draws worldwide attention. Every progress elevates and encourages the whole world, while every negotiation failure is sure to be depressing. With the apparent shift in the global political climate, the implementation of the recently-reached “Paris Agreement” has once again become a headache. This paper focuses on the efforts made by the Chinese government to address climate change and the major challenges it faces, and then analyzes the sociological implications of climate change practices in order to promote the development of social science, including sociology, and to conduct valuable research on climate change.
 
Unbalanced Awareness of Climate Change
 
In the scientific community, climate change may be considered by many to be the gravest environmental risk facing human society since the Industrial Revolutions. The risk is manifested by the increasing volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (see Figure 1).  The ultimate cause of the risk lies in the modern society, and it needs a positive response through changes of the society itself.

 
 
Figure 1 China, United States, and world CO2 emissions from 1960 - 2013 (mt)
Source: World Bank Open Data, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.KT

In the famous China Academic Journals Full-text Database (China National Knowledge Infrastructure, or CNKI, http: //acad.cnki.net/), 11626 pieces of texts (as of Nov. 8, 2016) are found under the key words of "climate change". But if to exclude those in natural science journals, only 1844 are left. In other words, literature of this kind takes up merely 15.7% of all in humanities and social sciences journals. Even fewer are those written by sociologists. Among the 2889 articles published in Sociological Studies, the best journal of this type in China, there is only one on climate change [1]. It can be said that Chinese sociologists pay almost no attention to the social causes and effects of climate change and its solutions, for many take it for granted that those fall into the area of natural scientists.

If you randomly interview someone, asking if he or she understands climate change, it is very likely that he or she knows but does not understand it, or may just talk with you about “weather change". According to the 2010 China Comprehensive Social Survey (CGSS) data by Renmin University of China, only 5.7% of respondents believe that China's most important environmental problem is "climate change" (see Table 1). Although a recent study shows that about 63% of respondents “have heard about” global climate change, 23.6% "never heard", and 13.4% "do not know", the researchers [2] pointed out in the analysis that Chinese citizens’ knowledge on the global climate change is "superficial and inaccurate".
In fact, as the public of many other countries, the public of China is plagued by many problems in social transformation, not just the environmental issues. For example, according to the 2010 China CGSS data, among the social issues such as healthcare, education, crime, environment, immigration, economy, terrorism and poverty, the respondents rank them in order of importance as health care (30.7%), education (23.5%), poverty (16.3%), economy (15.0%), crime (6.1%), etc. Environment ranks sixth (5.5%). Even in developed countries environmental issues do not rank on the top of the list. If we are to focus solely on the environmental issues, we will find that Chinese respondents are more concerned with issues that relate to their daily life, such as air pollution (34.7%), water pollution (20.0%) and garbage pollution (17.7%), and the importance of climate change ranks far behind. In this regards, a perceived difference can be seen between people in developed countries and people in developing countries (see Table 1).

 
 
Table 1 The Most Important Current Environmental Issues in China (Percentage + Sample Size) 
Note: The total sample size should have been 45564, but some are deleted as missing value for their options are not being chosen.
Source: 2010 International Social Survey Programme (ISSP2010); 2010 China Comprehensive Social Survey (CGSS2010)
 
China 's Efforts to Tackle Climate Change
 
Despite the inadequate research and awareness of climate change, the Chinese government has long been confirming the seriousness of global climate change, and has taken various continuous and active response measures. It has not only approved a series of important documents on climate change, such as the “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”, the “Kyoto Protocol” and the “Paris Agreement”, but also taken practical and suitable actions to slow down the change.

The "Five-year Plan", an implementation of the guiding ideology of CPC, plays a direct role in promoting green development and addressing climate change. Statistics shows that the efforts made have achieved initial success in some respects. For example, since 2008, China's GDP growth rate significantly exceeds that of the total energy consumption. Since the reform and opening up, China's GDP energy consumption continues to decline, and fell to 0.7 tons of standard coal in 2014 (see Figure 2). During the implementation of the 12th Five-year Plan, the carbon intensity dropped by 20%, surpassing the plan target of 17%.
 
Figure 2 China's GDP Consumption and GDP Coal Consumption per Million Yuan from 1952 - 2014
Source: Official Website of National Bureau of Statistics of China
http://www.stats.gov.cn/ztjc/ztsj/201502/P020150212308266514561.pdf
 
At the same time, China's energy mix continues to improve. In 2014, the energy consumption of coal, oil, natural gas and non-fossils respectively accounts for 66.0%, 17.1%, 5.7% and 11.2% of the total. That of non-fossil energy increases to 12% in the following year, exceeding the target set by the 12th Five-year Plan, and the growing trend continues (see Figure 3).
 
Figure 3 China's Non-fossil Energy Consumption from 1952 - 2014 (%)
Source: Official Website of National Bureau of Statistics of China
http://www.stats.gov.cn/ztjc/ztsj/201502/P020150212308266514561.pdf
 
The first white paper of “China's Climate Change Policy and Action”, published in 2008, sets out the basic path for responding to climate change. This path accords to China’s real situation. It leads to the right direction, takes into full consideration the facilitation of coordination, interconnection, synergy and change of economy, politics, culture, society and environment, and fully embodies China’s autonomy in responding to climate change.
 
Challenges China Faces in Response to Climate Change

With vast territory, large population, varied climate, fragile ecological environment, and changeable international conditions, China is confronted with tremendous challenges in wrestling with climate change. 

In terms of domestic challenges, first of all, the Chinese government needs to popularize its interpretation and confirmation of climate change to people from diversified industries all over the nation for an extensive and strong social support and a driving force from within the society. Second, China needs to balance its efforts on climate change and on promoting the development. Third, China needs to balance the tension between its ambitions to address climate change and the available resources (especially technical resources). Last but not least, the Chinese government needs to balance the tension between its climate change policy goals and implementation system.

For international challenges, the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) is far from being effectively implemented as the developed countries have not fulfilled their emissions reduction commitments for past emissions. China's per capita emissions are still fewer than that of US even for today (see Figure 4). Second, as China's economy continues to prosper, its total greenhouse gas emissions keeps increasing (see Figure 1), accounting for more portion of the world's total. Third, in accordance with the provisions of international treaties, the developed economies are committed to transfer advanced technology and financial support to developing countries. But more often than not, these commitments are just lip service and never effectively meet the needs of the developing countries.
 
Figure 4 China, US, and World CO2 Emissions per capita (t)
Source: World Bank Open Data. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.KT
 
The Sociological Implications of Practices in Response to Climate Change

The social complexity of climate change issues has already exposed itself in the author’s above analysis of China's response to climate change. In this sense, climate change is a social fact that requires an in-depth study in social science (especially sociology). So far, studies of such kind still have a lot of deficiencies, thus hindering people's understanding of and effective response to climate change. 

As I mentioned earlier, few sociologists at home touch upon the study of climate change, and so do those abroad[3]. In speaking of the political innovations needed to address climate change, Professor Anthony Giddens pointed out in one of his books published seven years ago that "we have no climate change politics yet" [4].

Observing and analyzing the social practices dealing with climate change allow us to further examine the biophysical factors that affect the functioning of the social system, which have long been known and have a broad impact before the birth of modern sociology. However, modern sociology rejects bio-determinism and geo-environmental determinism, emphasizing one-sidedly the importance of cultural and social factors for social functioning and human behavior in the social system. Therefore, it has been considered anthropocentrism [ 5].

The practices also have also created opportunities and space for a great deal of sociological experience. First, sociology can better describe the social orientation of climate change. Second, sociology can analyze the "human" and the complex process of human society more specifically. Third, thanks to the former two benefits, sociology can better serve the climate governance by providing more alternatives. Finally, the emergence of climate change and the complexity in addressing it once again remind sociologists that they must keep reflecting on their study object, be critical to make constructive advice. Some researchers have pointed out that the sociological critical perspective can help "reveal the taken-for-granted ideological blinder, and offer more intellectual support for alternative views which may lead to innovation and strategies more effective responding to climate change "[6].

On concluding, I would like to briefly mention two stories or legends in the East and West respectively. In China, the legend of Yu the Great’s introduction of flood control has be passed on from generation to generation. It is said that the story happened in 2000 B.C. In the face of torrential floods, tribal leader Gun, Yu’s father, tried to dam the river flows and Yu decided to dredge the riverbed, both embody the courage to face and solve problems. The Bible also records the attack of great floods. Around 2000 B.C, Noah built a huge ark with the revelation of God, and succeeded in escaping the flood. When putting the two stories together, I find it very interesting that people from different cultures have different wisdom and ways to overcome the disaster. The story of Yu emphasizes the courage to face difficulties and the wisdom to adjust measures to local conditions. I believe that it may be a choice to escape the challenges facing us today (such as climate change), but perhaps it would be a better one for us to face them bravely and address them flexibly. Humans need to challenge and change themselves.

 
 
 
Hong Dayong
Member of the Academic Committee of ZMT
Vice President of Renmin University of China, Professor, Doctoral advisor 
 
 
Note: This article is an excerpt from "Sociological Review" 2017 No. 2
 
 
[1]张倩,2011,《牧民应对气候变化的社会脆弱性——以内蒙古荒漠草原的一个嘎查为例》,《社会学研究》第6期。
[2]黄乐乐、任磊、何薇,2016,《中国公民对全球气候变化的认知及态度》,《科普研究》第3期。
[3]Dunlap, Riley E. & Robert J. Brulle. 2015. Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives. Oxford University Press.
[4]Giddens, Anthony. 2009. The Politics of Climate Change. Cambridge: Polity Press Ltd.
[5]Catton, W. R. Jr. & R. E. Dunlap. 1978.“Environmental Sociology: A New Paradigm”. The American Sociologist, 13: 41-49.
[6]Dunlap, Riley E. & Robert J. Brulle. 2015. Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives. Oxford University Press.