Why are there no climate sceptics in the Chinese media?

Sun Yat-sen University’s Jia Hepeng explains why climate science goes unquestioned, unlike in the West.

Chinese commuters catch up on news in metro
Commuters on the subway in Nanjing, China catch up on the daily news. Why is there almost no climate scepticism in China? Image: Phil Wong, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When the Bonn climate change talks concluded in the early hours of November 18 everyone could finally breathe a sigh of relief. The US decision to pull out (of the Paris Agreement) had not ended global cooperation on climate change.

After tough negotiations the meeting reached a number of positive agreements, laying the foundation for the next round of talks on the implementation of the Paris Agreement. But while the meeting did go well, overall, it cannot be denied that voices questioning the science of climate change are becoming more frequently heard in the Western media.

Research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University recently found that climate change denial and scepticism are particularly common in the media of the United Kingdom and the United States.

One of the lead authors of the research, James Painter, also pointed out that despite the huge international pressure China is under regarding climate change, that scepticism is rarely seen in the Chinese media.

Do Chinese journalists understand science better, and so are therefore more likely to be aligned with mainstream scientists? Or does China’s tradition of Party-led reporting mean that the media sticks to the Party line?

I was one of the first to promote reporting on climate change in the Chinese media, and I don’t think either of those answers are correct.

There is no evidence to show the authorities are telling the media how to report on climate change, or that China’s journalists understand science better than their counterparts in the West. The reason there is almost no trace of climate change scepticism in the Chinese media is down to a combination of factors: the place climate change has on the media’s agenda; the particular relationship between the Chinese media and science; and the actual impact climate change has had on Chinese society.

Still a burgeoning topic

While there is a considerable amount of reporting on climate change in the Chinese media, it is usually not in-depth and is in response to external events, such as the UN climate change talks. During such events the number of reports rises but once they are over the coverage falls off. There are a number of studies that have found this to be the case.

Overall, there is a lack of in-depth reporting and investigation, as the media doesn’t yet regard climate change as a core topic that they would pursue on their own.

This contrasts with the West. There is no question of the importance of climate change internationally. It is one of the most important items on the global agenda. Therefore, it is one of the main topics reported on in the Western media.

Unlike the Western media, the Chinese media places more emphasis on covering major national policies. Global climate events, such as conferences and summits, are where China’s national policies (on climate change) are announced or negotiated. That’s why you find a large amount of Chinese reporting surrounding major climate change events. However, climate change, in itself, is not treated as an intrinsically important topic for the media to cover. So when there are no external events, reporting immediately drops off.

Painter’s research found little climate scepticism in the Chinese media. But is that linked with the way the Chinese media reports on climate change?

The reason there is almost no trace of climate change scepticism in the Chinese media (is)…the place climate change has on the media’s agenda; the particular relationship between the Chinese media and science; and the actual impact climate change has had on Chinese society.

It isn’t that the Chinese media or Chinese journalists are better at science and so understand that the scientific consensus on climate change allows for no doubt. It is because to question something would require those who produce the reports to commit a certain amount of time, attention and energy.

Clearly, Chinese journalists only pay attention when certain external events are taking place, and so have not reached this level of interest.

This is related to how content is produced by the Chinese media. Chinese reporters do not tend to be sceptical.

Scepticism is a way to add drama to scientific and environmental reporting, to attract readers. In the West climate change sceptics use the media’s need for drama and balancing points of view to get their opinions across.

But in China, it’s not the norm for the media to introduce scepticism and differing points of view into their reporting. So far, the Western habit of having a third party evaluating scientific progress is not the rule in China.

A question of style

The low levels of climate change reporting in China are also linked to how science is reported here.

Numerous investigations into reporting trends have shown that science news comes primarily from the government (i.e. the science and technology authorities) rather than, as in the West, universities or research institutes. One of the most common complaints of Chinese reporters is the difficulty of finding scientists to interview.

Regardless of whether science news comes from government or research institutes, the information provided is designed to praise China’s scientific advances. This is why news producers do not seek third party evaluation.

When it comes to climate change, Chinese media reports consist either of government-led reporting on climate change events; Chinese efforts to respond to climate change; or rewriting overseas news reports on science developments, as the majority of climate scientific findings are made abroad.

It is unlikely that information from these sources will include any scepticism on climate change (because in the West climate scepticism is transmitted through media efforts to provide balanced points of view, or the comment pages of the conservative media – neither of which are sources of climate reporting in China).

In comparison to other scientific/environmental topics, given the importance of climate change for humanity and how climate change has in a short time become a major topic of research in China, climate scientists are often more enthusiastic about talking to reporters, as there is little (political) risk in expressing the gravity of climate change and the urgency of the response. There is a clear contrast here when compared with the more cautious approach taken to scientists commenting on smog.

This means that scientists (who want to communicate on climate change) find journalists, who normally struggle to find scientists willing to contribute, and so get plenty of column inches.

It is rare for Chinese scientists to disagree with the science of climate change (in the West sceptical scientists are mostly not top-tier climate scientists), so the only ones heard are those in agreement with mainstream scientific opinion.

There is another important factor to note, the role of environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Although NGOs are not generally a major source of information for the Chinese media, when it comes to the environment (and climate change is both a scientific and an environmental issue) the voice of NGOs cannot be ignored.

Unlike in many other fields, where NGOs call government methods into question, when it comes to climate change NGOs are in agreement with the government and scientists on its gravity and urgency. If there are disagreements, it is that NGOs think the government’s actions do not go far enough, fast enough.

A socio-economic transition

We also need to look at the political, social and economic aspects of climate change. Research has shown that the widespread climate scepticism in the West is linked to the social impact of climate change.

In the West, particularly in the US, encouraging high-carbon lifestyles is the norm. Clothes are dried in a dryer rather than hung up to dry, for example. Many of those who have fallen into high-carbon lifestyles have, unwittingly or otherwise, become spokespeople for climate scepticism.

Naomi Oreskes, a science historian, has found that many climate change deniers are also conspiracy theorists who denied that cigarettes cause cancer, that acid rain existed, that DDT (an organochlorine insecticide) was toxic, or that there was a hole in the ozone layer.

Researchers have found that over the last 40 years Americans who identify as conservative have reported a significant lessening of trust in science – and that includes the science on climate change.

Economic factors also affect our attitudes towards energy-saving and emissions-reduction.

In the US the public generally support government measures encouraging businesses to reduce emissions or adopt new energy technology. But the vast majority oppose a carbon tax or increased energy prices as a means to saving energy. The situation in the UK is similar.

Unlike in the mature economies of the West, the overall impact of climate change on Chinese society has actually been positive, particularly while China has not taken on actual emissions reduction commitments.

As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China is under huge international pressure to act but so far it has not committed to actually reduce emissions.

This means that the country has not suffered negative social or economic consequences arising from having to meet binding climate change obligations, and society has not yet felt the impact of a carbon tax. So there is no social foundation for media reports opposing climate change science.

Also, the Chinese government has been effectively guiding the conversation. For example, the government’s international commitments have been to reduce carbon intensity – that is, to release less carbon for a given amount of gross domestic product (GDP). But as China’s economy is growing rapidly, this still means more overall carbon emissions.

However, in the media, including the official media, China is often described as having achieved reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. That description is not accurate. What China has done is cut additional CO2 emissions, or reduced growth in CO2 emissions.

This kind of language makes it look like China has, faced with international pressure, hit emissions reduction targets that developed nations struggle to reach (when in fact it has reduced additional emissions). So the public think climate change has had no negative impact on them, but rather had positive outcomes.

China’s response to climate change has been tied up with many positive changes in Chinese society. For example, in the clean energy sector China is the largest manufacturer of solar power cells and wind turbines and is a world leader in clean technology and clean energy production.

China’s economy has seen many benefits from the response to climate change. Nor can the impact of climate change on low-carbon development be ignored. Take the expansion of China’s public transportation network (although domestically this is described more as being aimed at spurring domestic consumption).

In the West, the traditional high-carbon lobbies, particularly in energy generation, are seen as being responsible for climate scepticism. But in China the same industries have no effect on the media’s stance on climate change.

China does have large oil, gas and coal sectors – but these are state-owned and tightly linked to government. Those firms do not have the incentive to declare that they have differing interests to those of government.

Even if the high-carbon industries do have such interests, there is no need for them to call upon the media. For example, when global oil prices fell last year, the National Development and Reform Commission delayed and declined to reduce domestic fuel prices, in order to protect the state-owned oil firms.

Unlike in the mature economies of the West, the overall impact of climate change on Chinese society has actually been positive, particularly while China has not taken on actual emissions reduction commitments.

Similarly, when electricity use fell (or, in some regions, growth in electricity use slowed) during the economic slowdown, hydropower generation in the south-west was cut to ensure demand for coal-fired power and maintain employment in the coal mining sector (the Three Gorges Dam employs only several hundred front-line workers, while any mid-sized coal-fired power plant employs many more).

There was no need for the coal sector to bring the media round to its point of view. The Chinese government already regards employment and stability as a key task.

And in fact, even if the oil, coal and power sectors wanted to influence the media, they don’t necessarily have the capability.

These sectors are dominated by large state-owned firms and would need to tweak accounting rules even to employ a public relations (PR) firm (perhaps classing it as research spending, rather than an actual purchase of services). These companies are used to having the media republish press releases on their successes, rather than treating the media as a lobbying tool. So in China we do not see, as we do in the United States and the West, certain interest groups influencing the media’s reporting on the climate.

As there is little attention paid to climate change by the Chinese public, and the impacts of climate change have been positive, even potential sceptics will wonder if it’s worth making any effort to be heard more.

This is not like the controversy over genetically-modified organisms, that attracted huge public attention, allowing some well-known personalities to demonstrate their concern for the public’s welfare and boost their influence.

These opinion leaders would get much less reward if they tried the same approach over climate change.

Jia Hepeng is an experienced science journalist and a researcher at Sun Yat-sen University’s School of Communication and Design. This story was originally published by chinadialogue under a Creative Commons’ License and was republished with permission.

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