Political Ambiguity in Chinese Climate Change Discourses

By Lo, Alex Y. | Environmental Values, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Political Ambiguity in Chinese Climate Change Discourses


Lo, Alex Y., Environmental Values


ABSTRACT

China'spolitical environment offers limited space for critical debates on domestic politics. In such a constrained environment, people tend to represent and articulate climate change issues without explicitly addressing their political aspects. The aim of this paper is to examine this political ambiguity in climate change discourses. Q methodology was employed to elicit the subjective positions of forty-five young and educated Chinese individuals. Three discourses were extracted: namely, prosaic environmentalism, co-operative economic optimism and actor scepticism. These discourses do not indicate critical intent and deep engagement in the political arguments regarding climate change. This raises concern about the growth of climate citizenship within the country.

KEYWORDS

Climate change, political activism, discourse, Q methodology, youth environmentalism, China

INTRODUCTION

Political traditions and norms influence the ways in which aspects of climate change are understood, represented and debated by elites and the general public. In the past, the climate was seen as an object to be conquered and domesticated, and manifested as a site of ideological and cultural conflicts in the narratives of Victorian imperialism, American capitalism and, later, Soviet communism (Hulme, 2009). Contemporary discourses (1) that are influential in public debates have been described as climate change alarmism and scepticism (Hobson and Niemeyer, 2013). These discourses are often intertwined with concerns about continuing economic growth and social development (Hulme, 2009), and public trust or distrust in politicians or climate scientists (Beck, 1992; Thompson and Rayner, 1998). Both in the past and present, such discourses encapsulate the prevailing or recognised ways of understanding nature, politics and society.

The social-constructivist perspective implies that contemporary climate change 'believers' and sceptics are likely to hold distinctive, if not competing, political and social preferences. This might explain why public opinions continue to split despite the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change growing stronger (Leiserowitz, 2005; McCright and Dunlap, 2011b; Whitmarsh, 2011). The Anglo-American world, in particular, has in recent years seen divisive debates on climate change issues and encountered considerable legislative hurdles in processing related policies. Dryzek argues that the impasse arises from their adversarial political systems, which have encouraged partisan confrontation and removed incentives for co-operation between major parties (Dryzek and Lo, 2015; Dryzek and Stevenson, 2011). Motivated electorates respond to climate change issues according to their existing political bias. For example, conservative voters in the United Kingdom and the United States are more likely to downplay the risks of climate change than the rest of the public (McCright and Dunlap, 2011a; Poortinga et al., 2011). Certain aspects of political belief, and the highly competitive political environment, have influenced the formation of diverging climate change discourses that reinforce each other.

The notion that climate change discourses are influenced by the political environment begs the question about the political activity of those discourses developed in an authoritarian context. In China, for instance, dissident political activism against the ruling party is prohibited, and the civil society has refrained for the most part from confronting the state. National elections are far from truly competitive, and formal channels for mass public participation remain sporadic. Consequently, the political space essential to nurturing domestic climate citizenship is severely constrained (Lo, 2010). This has great implications for the formation of climate change discourses within the society.

One possible outcome is an absence of critical political intent or, at least, an ambiguity in political stance among assemblages of the public's perspectives on climate change. …

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