With a deal to transition away from fossil fuels recently signed by nearly 200 countries at the COP28 UN climate conference, the climate has once again been a topic of global conversation. But you’re unlikely to have heard it being discussed in China.
That said, many studies have found a high level of climate change awareness in China. There has been strong support for an active government response and for the two decades of energy-saving and emissions-reduction policies that have been rolled out so far.
But our research into climate awareness has found a lack of knowledge of the science behind climate change and of the impacts it has on the individual. Some misunderstandings persist. We believe this is largely down to how climate change is communicated in China.
In recent years, the most commonly discussed topic – China’s “dual carbon targets”, of peaking CO2 emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060 – has been contextualised in terms of what the elite and powerful are doing. But mobilising the public to support low-carbon policies and make associated changes in their lives is key for a successful response to climate change, both in China and globally. So, how can we better communicate climate change, and thus improve the public’s understanding of it?
Confused definitions of climate change
First, let’s consider attitudes in China.
In 2012 and 2017, Renmin University’s China Centre for Climate Change Communication (China4C) carried out two surveys on the public’s understanding of climate change. Each collected over 4,000 responses from representative samples of the population, and produced encouraging results.
In both, over 90 per cent of respondents agreed that climate change is real, and supported the government taking active measures to respond to it. Those attitudes might not have been useful as bargaining chips around a conference table at somewhere like COP28, but they do show public support for climate action. These results will make it a little easier for the world’s largest emitter to act; there has been plenty of pressure on China to do so, despite it being a developing nation and, until signing the Paris Agreement in 2015, having no legal obligation to.
The 2012 survey results revealed that, even before China had taken on the legal obligation and declared its dual carbon targets, its public was supportive of climate action and willing to buy greener products, indicating that the country was getting its people onside.
But the surveys also found that the public isn’t necessarily clear on what climate change really means. The surveys asked about attitudes to climate change, and whether or not it was caused by human activity. Although over 90 per cent of respondents agreed that climate change is real and happening, only 60 per cent in 2012 and 66 per cent in 2017 believed it was mainly caused by human activity.
It seems that many respondents had in mind a different definition of climate change, and its causes, than those who work in the climate change field. Non-specialists, particularly in rural areas, often do not distinguish between climate and weather. The term “climate change” can also be taken to mean different things in different contexts.
Our more recent research took a different approach, but again found a similar mismatch in understanding.
In April 2022, we commissioned a national online survey that elicited 1,469 valid respondents. The sample covered most of China’s provincial-level administrations, and urban residents accounted for 71 per cent of responses. Location, age cohort and gender distribution matched demographics found in the China Statistical Yearbook. In September 2022, our second survey connected with 1,500 valid respondents, and similar types of characteristics and answers were recorded.
The responses we gathered look very similar to those obtained by China4C. There was, for example, a similarly high level of acknowledgement of anthropogenic climate change, and very strong support for government policies.
When we asked respondents to judge the meaning of “carbon peaking” – that is, China‘s plan to peak its emissions by 2030 – nearly half were able to make a correct judgment (40.5 per cent in the first survey, and 50 per cent in the second). However, when we tested the statement, “China has been practising energy saving and emission reduction for many years, which means that China has started to reduce the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions a long time ago,” the majority could not recognise it as incorrect, or even endorsed it (in the first survey, 27.8 per cent agreed, 65.1 per cent said I don’t know, and in the second, 68.8 per cent agreed).
Accepting these two contradictory statements has something in common with agreeing both that climate change is caused by human activity and that it is solely the result of natural processes. It shows that people do not understand the precise meaning of climate change and its related carbon emissions.
The public’s reliance on policy and the state
If members of the public do not believe human activity is causing climate change, or don’t understand carbon emissions, why would they approve of government action to reduce emissions?
Our study assessed public understanding of climate change on various dimensions including attitudes toward it, economic and educational factors, and scientific knowledge. We found several factors with strong predictive value: nationalism, environmental values, perceived personal economic benefits, and trust in domestic institutions (such as government, research institutes and scientists).
While the results suggest that a significant percentage of the population agree that climate change is anthropogenic and support policies in response to it, we believe this is largely out of a desire to keep in line with the state and government. People are confident that the government is doing the right thing, and that this will bring real benefits both for themselves and the country. They may show support for environmental protection, but this reflects less their valuing of it than their nationalism, trust in institutions, and perceived personal benefits.
Although scientific knowledge did positively correlate with climate attitudes, it was at a lower level than the other indices. In other words, while more scientific knowledge means a higher likelihood of agreeing that climate change is anthropogenic, as well as greater support for climate policy, this factor is less important than others.
This is worth thinking about. Many members of the public may have little idea what a carbon peak or carbon emissions mean. But the government has made combatting climate change a major aim, and the public has opted to respect that and accept the prevailing government stance. So, while scientific knowledge will help people understand climate change, it hasn’t necessarily been important in forming public attitudes.
More focus needed on individual risks and benefits
However, the Chinese public do not want to combat climate change solely in order to stay in line with the aims of central government.
In our second survey, in September, we looked deeper into different levels of perceived risk from climate change. Again, we found something unexpected. The public do not think that climate change presents much of a risk to them, their families, or their communities, but they do believe that the risk to the nation is high. And the more that they regard climate change as a risk to the nation, the more likely they are to regard it as anthropogenic and support government climate policy.
We also looked at different levels of perceived benefits from efforts to combat climate change. Similarly, perceived benefit to the individual did not predict attitudes, but benefits to the nation did: the more someone agrees that combatting climate change will help the country innovate and develop, the more likely they are to approve of that process.
However, fewer indicated they were personally willing to use less energy-intensive appliances such as air-conditioners (57 per cent), sort their rubbish (57.9 per cent), pay more for renewable electricity and fossil fuels (25.5 per cent), or cut down on eating meat to reduce emissions from livestock farming (34.7 per cent).
These results mean that a perceived threat to the nation from climate change does not predict a willingness to take actions – particularly climate-friendly ones mentioned above. At the same time, benefits and costs to the individual in aspects such as economic opportunities, daily expenses, health and education, play a clear role, and are very important predictors.
Suggestions for climate communications approaches
If we were to offer a conclusion, it would be that attitudes of the Chinese public towards climate change might not be as encouraging as it seems in the surveys, particularly when it comes to taking actions out of a sense of personal responsibility. This is despite the dual carbon targets being a top national priority. More research is needed into how to increase public support for the low-carbon transition, and into individual behavioural choices in the context of such national policies.
China has made great progress on its climate change targets, reducing carbon intensity and installing huge amounts of renewable energy capacity. But, currently, these are actions taken at the national level, to meet national goals. As the process of combatting climate change inevitably reaches deeper into society, citizens will find their own interests affected, and public support will determine whether or not the process succeeds.
Why is it that levels of perceived national risk and benefit, as well as nationalism, strongly predict climate attitudes, but are of little – or much less – use in predicting willingness to take personal climate action? Because these factors, which we are temporarily referring to as “national affinity”, create a sense of unempowered individuals relying on a powerful state to take action. Turning attitudes into actions is always challenging, and if combatting climate change is seen by the public as a government responsibility, it follows that the individual contribution feels miniscule.
Given this, “perceived individual benefits” becomes the most important predictor of climate change action. What we need might be more than an overarching narrative of combatting climate change and achieving the dual carbon goals, or a tale of a nation’s people proudly uniting in support of them.
To promote more actions in support of the low-carbon transition, it is important to stress the risks to the individual arising from climate change. More important is to create an understanding of the connection between the health of the environment and increased benefits to the individual. That is the only way that national measures on climate change will become a genuine part of sustainable development.
This article was originally published on China Dialogue under a Creative Commons licence.