Understanding Climate Change: Powerpoint and Propaganda

[A version of this article was originally published in The Mantle]

Read Part 1 & Part 3

By Chris Eberhardt

BEIJING – When asked what Chinese youth think of when they hear the words climate change (气候变化), common answers included rising temperatures and sea levels, the disappearance of island nations, or that the winters in his or her hometown were getting warmer. In response to an online Chinese language survey I conducted in 2011, Chinese youth to varying extents checked twenty different sources of information. The most common ways that Chinese youth learned about (宋体) climate change were through television, physical experience, and newspapers, followed by class lessons, the radio and magazines. Yet in addition to the messages for the masses like television and required environmental education, as Chinese youth face and prepare to face social issues found in the US and Europe, they are learning about climate change through small spaces like club meetings, and at times are being told to change their behavior without climate change ever being mentioned.

The release of the 2007 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was significant in changing the coverage of climate change in the media, as a relationship between human activity and climate change was more explicitly made. Yet the coverage is hampered by journalists who often struggle with both scientific and national identity challenges. Journalists do not have a background in climate studies nor do they always feel comfortable with the international pressure on their homeland amid international call for China to do more towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  In interviews, it was clear that Chinese youth were aware of the international pressure, having viewed and listened to the coverage of the annual UN Conference of Parties (COP) by state and private media, including one of the world’s largest social networks QQ. When one is not viewing or listening to the news, there are resources available for the curious mind. Browsing through the multi-story Xidan bookstore near Tiananmen Square, Chinese readers had the ability to learn about the science of climate change and what one could change in his or her life.

In addition to television and physical experience, schooling was the most mentioned source of information during the follow-up interviews. Through the online survey, approximately 82 percent cited that they had learned about climate change as part of class lessons. Since 2003, those Chinese citizens who follow international currents had environmental education as part of their coursework starting in middle school. In addition, within China are organizations like China’s Green Camp and international organizations such as Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots. They offer additional resources, yet face pressure from students and parents who are more focused on high school and college entrance exams. While students need not study environmental education for entrance exams, repeatedly during interviews, interviewees explained that they did something to protect the environment because of past lessons from his or her teacher.

What also became evident is that it was not only the requirement to study environmental education that has had an impact, but also the national requirement that all Chinese learn English starting in primary or middle school. For example, college students reported learning about climate change through reading English news like washingtonpost.com as part of their homework for their English public speaking class. Environmental studies majors also read academic articles and textbooks in English. Interviewees who had graduated from college similarly learned about climate change as they listened to CNN or other English language programming.

MESSAGE FOR THE MASSES On the Streets Quite often the message on the streets is not one of climate change, but rather one of carbon. The propaganda (宣传)/public service announcements’ (PSAs) (公益宣传) machine that is used to instruct citizens on how to cross the street, ride the trains during the holidays and use public toilets in a civilized way (文明), has also been retooled to address climate change. The message is one of living the “low carbon life&rdquo” (低碳生活)— quite often the characters for climate change are absent. Chinese youth are told in subway restrooms that saving paper reduces carbon. Television commercials using celebrities cite the carbon-cutting benefits of using less plastic bags in a grocery store, and community sign-boards instruct one to live the low-carbon life by using a fan instead of air conditioning and using an energy efficient rice cooker. The private sector joins the government and non-government bodies by encouraging one to buy their efficient products and by using “live the low carbon life” as a placeholder when selling advertising space in public spaces.  

Like a node in the route map of an airline, Beijing is the intersection of multiple networks of activists, governmental and non-governmental, Chinese and foreign. Not all nodes within these networks are open to the public, but many are. They serve as a way for Chinese youth to learn about climate change through powerpoint and play.

Within Beijing, is Beijing Energy and Environment Roundtable (BEER) where one can learn about China’s five year goals for renewable energy production, a chapter meeting of the China Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN), and the green fashion shows of Greening the Beige. Yet these spaces are not for the masses and were not mentioned in the follow-up interviews, aside from noting a friend or two that had participated in efforts by organizations like Greenpeace. These spaces are opportunities for the youth that did not exist thirty or forty years ago. They enable Chinese to openly join others and to imagine an alternative reality, following the patterns of social change from the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe to the rise of Communism in China. It is within these small spaces that the message and desired action for the masses is debated. 

How did you learn about these environmental issues? (excerpt of survey)


air pollution

climate change

water pollution

Physical experience





WARMER WINTERS The comments I heard among young Chinese urbanites about warmer winters were similar to refrains I heard among suburbanites living in Chicago ten years ago. For the 50 percent of China’s population that remains rural, you can hear similar comments that the weather is changing. Unlike the rural farmer, the vast majority of young urbanites I interviewed which were not from Beijing, are also being exposed to the science of climate change from multiple sources. They dream about the suburban life across China, unlike their American suburban counterparts over the past several decades, and are being told directly and indirectly to think twice about the life they live.  As China’s young generations think about their children’s future and the car that might be needed for the daily commute to school, one’s impact on the environment is a big part of the discussion. The question then becomes, conscious of climate change both through physical experience and multiple forms of media, whose responsibility is it to address this issue?



Chris Eberhardt holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from The New School for Social Research. He was also a 2008 India China Institute Student Fellow.

Part 1: Understanding Climate Change: Through the Eyes of Chinese Youth

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