The Convenient Disappearance of Climate Change Denial in China

From Western plot to party line, how China embraced climate science to become a green-energy powerhouse.

Illustration by Eddie Guy

In December 2009, climate-watchers the world over were trying to make sense of how the most promising attempt to date at preventing a global climate disaster went so horribly wrong. The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference had just come to a close, and the summit, which had brought together 192 countries, was meant to create the world’s first legally binding treaty on global warming. But in its final days, during negotiations between China and the United States, talks had sputtered, teetered, and ultimately collapsed. To observers eager for good news, the result came as a stunning and disheartening anticlimax.

To most of the West, it appeared that China had come intent on playing the spoiler. The country’s coal consumption had been growing steadily for decades as the government pushed industrialization. In the four years preceding Copenhagen, the country added 500 new 600-megawatt coal plants; it was responsible for more than 40 percent of global coal consumption in 2009. From the outside, the rationale for China’s alleged resistance was rather simple. It just wasn’t in China’s interest to put the brakes on its rapid growth for environmental considerations. What could the country possibly gain by capping emissions?

Back in Beijing, however, there was no doubt about the threat of climate change. Behind closed doors, officials were telling a different story about the failed negotiations in Copenhagen.

“It was unprecedented for a conference negotiating process to be so complicated, for the arguments to be so intense, for the disputes to be so wide and for progress to be so slow,” observed an internal report commissioned by the Environment Ministry for the minister, vice minister, and various other subordinates in the immediate aftermath, and obtained by the Guardian in February 2010. The report’s authors concluded that the plan pushed by the United States, which proposed cuts on all countries instead of just developed ones, had been “a conspiracy by developed nations to divide the camp of developing nations.” The report also lauded China’s decision to oppose a legally binding climate treaty, trumpeting, “The overall interests of developing countries have been defended.” Far from being the destructors of a progressive plan for climate change policy, the view from within China was that its delegates had possibly faced down a vast Western plot.

It was a strong reaction but one mostly rooted in diplomatic objections — a rejection of a deal that could be seen as asking China and India to pay for the sins of countries that had grown rich and modern by their bad behavior. But just over a month later, the idea of the Western plot took a strange, sharp turn. While speaking at a diplomatic event in New Delhi, Xie Zhenhua, China’s top climate change negotiator — as well as vice minister of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s economic planning agency — surprised an audience of foreign environment ministers by saying that “we need to adopt an open attitude” about whether humans or natural atmospheric changes were to blame for the climate’s warming. It was a shot against the very foundation of climate science.

Though the remark flummoxed the diplomats in the crowd, it could have been written off as a negotiating ploy. Chinese leaders had been cagey about the politics of global warming and had assented to sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, Copenhagen’s predecessor, on the condition they not be forced to limit emissions. It was known that there were still powerful forces in the government that were antagonistic toward any plan that could curtail the country’s freedom to burn fossil fuels. But this was something new. Back in China, the public backlash against Copenhagen — and climate science in general — had already begun.

On Jan. 17, 2010, a highly popular — and provocative — television host named Larry Hsien Ping Lang devoted an entire episode of his current affairs talk show, Larry’s Eyes on Finance, to the “great swindle” of global warming. Lang, a University of Pennsylvania-educated economist who was once described as China’s version of Larry King, told his millions of viewers that the goal of Europe and the United States at the Copenhagen negotiations was to prevent China from being a global leader.

“The Western countries manufactured the climate myth without any scientific integrity,” and they have proceeded to “demonize and constrain China in the name of climate,” Lang said. Clips of the episode were viewed tens of millions of times on Youku, China’s YouTube.

Lang’s worldview seemed to resonate. “[The weather] is obviously getting colder and colder, but they are still lying through their teeth. These disgusting Westerners never stop trying to topple China,” argued one online commenter in response to Lang’s show. “These foreign bastards are so worried that China will rise and surpass the United States. Because they are jealous of China, they even made up lies about China … the scientists are all puppets controlled by politics,” read another. The commenter continued: “Copenhagen liars! American liars!”

Over the next year, more than a half-dozen books on the West’s climate conspiracy were published in China. Social media posts theorizing an American conspiracy proliferated.

Then something strange happened. After 2011, no more climate skeptic books were published. China’s state leaders stopped their skeptical statements, and the intense online discussions diminished. Just as it was gaining steam, the conspiracy theory seemed to disappear. And along with it, any public mention of climate change denial. As climate skeptics were gaining a steady foothold in U.S. politics, why did China’s suddenly vanish?

Larry Hsien Ping Lang, a professor of economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, attends an economic summit on July 16, 2016, in Zhongshan, China. (Photo credit: YE ZHIWEN/Southern Metropolis Daily/VCG/Getty Images)

The origins of climate change skepticism in China can be traced to a scientist named Coching Chu. A pioneering meteorologist in the 1920s and 1930s, Chu later became vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and attained national fame after authorities decided to teach his life story in school textbooks. In the early 1970s, toward the tail end of his career, he drew from historical Chinese records to hypothesize that global temperatures had risen and fallen by several degrees Celsius during the past 5,000 years — due to natural fluctuations. It was a different conclusion from that reached by researchers in the United States and Europe, some of whom speculated that the planet was cooling. Others were already finding links between human activity and the steady rise in global temperatures. And though to most, Chu’s work on cooling was a footnote at the end of his career, China’s climate skeptics latched on — less for the particulars of his conclusions than for the fact that he’d reached them independently of the West.

It is hard to overstate how critical that distinction would become in validating Chu’s work in his native country. The conviction that Western powers are trying to control and humiliate the country is a recurring theme of China’s modern political development — and closely linked to its wave of climate skepticism.

This sense of aggrieved nationalism has a legitimate historical basis. China was often treated like a lesser power by Europe and Japan in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Even as the Communists opened China to globalization in the 1970s and 1980s, wounded national pride remained a potent undercurrent of political life. It would eventually give rise to an intellectual movement that started in the late 1990s loosely known as the “New Left.” Members of this cadre believed China had too firmly embraced Western-style capitalism, and that to address widening inequality the state must take more control over economic life.

In 2006, after decades of unchecked industrial growth, China’s cities were choked with smog and the country was poised to surpass the United States as the top emitter of greenhouse gases — a superlative it would claim the following year. The Communist government responded by enacting the Renewable Energy Law that same year, which ordered that 15 percent of the country’s electricity needs be met by alternatives to fossil fuels. It created some paradoxical numbers. In 2009, air pollution was so bad that China spent an estimated $110 billion dealing with the health impacts, according to the World Bank. At the same time, it had quickly become the biggest global investor in clean energy, spending nearly $35 billion in 2009 alone, compared with about $19 billion in the United States. There was a strong economic rationale for doing so. Former President Hu Jintao argued that China must “seize preemptive opportunities in the new round of the global energy revolution.”

These competing forces of distrust of the West, a nascent but promising commitment to clean energy, and a willful belief in the country’s right to develop came to a head in Copenhagen as negotiations stalled over the disagreement about who should bear the burden for cutting emissions. Though China was at least theoretically primed to support action against climate change, the particulars of the deal — and even the negotiations — were equally set to derail an agreement. “It was a very frenetic, emotional, high-pressure time,” said Mark Lynas, a U.K. writer and environmentalist who was in Copenhagen as an advisor to Mohamed Nasheed, then president of the Maldives.

At one point during the talks, Lynas found himself in a room with then-President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and two dozen other heads of state. Posted against a wall, Lynas was shocked by what he witnessed. First, China’s delegation snubbed the meeting by sending a lower-level diplomat in the place of the premier Wen Jiabao. Then it opposed targets such as a peak in worldwide emissions by 2020 and a long-term emissions drop of 50 percent. Merkel appeared to be furious, Lynas later recalled, and at one point then-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd banged his microphone in annoyance. In Lynas’s opinion China was “torpedoing” hopes of an effective climate treaty to ensure its access to cheap supplies of coal. He recounted the meeting in a Guardian article: “China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful ‘deal.’”

Wen said his name was never included on invitations to the meeting Lynas attended. And China Daily, a government-run English language paper, later argued that China “played a vital role” in salvaging the talks by convening a last-minute meeting with Brazil, India, and South Africa.

In the immediate aftermath of Copenhagen, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu accused Britain of demonizing and isolating China on the world stage. “We urge them to correct mistakes, fulfill their obligations to developing countries in an earnest way, and stay away from activities that hinder the international community’s cooperation in coping with climate change,” she said. It reinforced the narrative that the Communist leadership had been teaching for decades in China’s schools: The West was conspiring against them. Some far-left nationalists took it further. They began to argue that global warming is a hoax.

President Barack Obama speaks with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and other leaders during the COP15 U.N. Climate Change Conference on Dec. 18, 2009. (Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

John Chung-En Liu first stumbled upon China’s particular brand of climate denial in 2013, when he walked into a bookshop in Beijing and saw Low-Carbon Plot: The Life and Death Battle Between China and the West displayed prominently on a shelf featuring a host of similar tomes. Written in 2010 by a then-relatively unknown Chinese writer named Gou Hongyang, it argues that Europe and the United States invented the idea of climate change as a way to exercise control over China. “Behind the back of the demonizing of ‘carbon,’ we must recognize that it is the sinister intention of the Developed Countries to attempt to use ‘carbon’ to block the living space of the Developing Countries,” he wrote. In another section, he argued, “We can see it clearly from the Copenhagen Summit that the struggle between [the] two camps has intensified.”

Liu had never seen anything like it. He bought as many of the books as he could find.

Later, as a sociologist at Occidental College in Los Angeles, he did an exhaustive search for conversations about climate change denial on Weibo, a popular Chinese social networking site, and sifted through decades’ worth of issues of China Daily. Liu has published his findings on climate-skeptic literature in a 2015 journal article titled: “Low-Carbon Plot: Climate Change Skepticism With Chinese Characteristics.” Before long, he was considered the foremost expert on China’s denier community.

When I met him earlier this spring at the university, he was dressed in a button-down shirt, slacks, and glasses — the typical outfit of academia. In his small, tidy office, he produced a stack of eight oversize paperback books that, after years of research, he has concluded are the most influential and widely read skeptic books published in China. “[They] all came out right after Copenhagen,” he said.

With titles like In the Names of CO2, whose cover depicts a flaming dollar sign hurtling toward Earth, and The Global Struggle Behind the Low-Carbon Hoax, Liu believes the books are crucial to understanding the worldview of China’s climate skeptics: Science isn’t neutral, and whichever country produces it controls the world. “The Europeans have made great effort on climate science for so many years,” In the Names of CO2 argues. “They have tons of publications and an enormous amount of data to back up their claim.” This, it explains, gives the West “discursive power” — a Chinese buzzword used to describe Western domination of global conversation.

Here, the skeptics Liu studied do have something of a point. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced its fourth assessment report in 2007, only 28 Chinese scientists participated in the review, representing less than 2 percent of the report’s contributors. Three years later, the deputy director general of China’s National Climate Center, Xuedu Lu, said: “The majority of the IPCC’s references came from Europe and North America. Developing countries also want their voices to be heard in the drafting stage.” Only two of the climate skeptic books that Liu studied were written by scientists. Their aim was to make technical critiques of the IPCC consensus. One argued that global “temperature change is different from what the IPCC [predicted],” Liu said.

Most of the authors in Liu’s collection, though, focused on the geopolitical implications of climate science. They argued that the West leveraged its scientific authority to impose restrictive policies on China. This position is central to a 2011 book by Deng Guangchi titled Low Carbon War: The Transformation of the 4th Industrial Revolution. “The United States uses [climate policies] as camouflage to force developing countries, China in particular, to lower carbon emissions and halt their industrialization processes,” it reads. Liu disagrees, but he can see where this line of thinking originates. “For such a long time China has had this antagonistic relationship with the U.S.,” he said. “This is not about the science. It’s about who can emit how much, and it’s about the West trying to contain China’s development.”

This argument is being driven by a wider distrust of the capitalist system that China has been embracing over the past decades. One of its most outspoken critics is the populist and conspiracy theorist Song Hongbing, who wrote the 2007 best-selling (in China) book Currency Wars. It argues that Western financial elites, such as the Rothschild family, are trying to dominate the world under the guise of open borders and free trade. The book’s 2011 sequel claims that the adoption of financial markets for greenhouse gases — in the form, say, of a cap and trade system — is part of this plot. “Who would spend so much time and money spreading the idea about carbon emissions?” Song says. “How can we believe that things like carbon currencies, carbon trading, and carbon tariffs are not driven by a strong economic incentive?”

Low Carbon War raises similar concerns about shifting to renewable energy. “Because developing countries do not have leading new energy technology, in the end, they have to spend an enormous amount of money to purchase it from the European Union,” it reads.

But as Liu points out, underneath all the vitriol and paranoia, the core of this climate change movement was less about science and more about power politics. As the author of The Empire of Carbon Brokers: Carbon Capitalism and Our Bible — whose cover displays a big red grenade in the shape of Earth with a smoking factory on top — writes: “The key is that China should not argue whether climate change is real or not with the West, but be part of the game.” In the end, “many of them are agnostic,” Liu says. “It doesn’t really matter if climate change happens or not. It’s really about this huge power play.”

And if China has to compete against the West, it might as well win.

A person walks through heavy smog in Beijing's Forbidden City on Nov. 4, 2016. (Photo credit: WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2012, with assistance from Yale University, Beijing’s Renmin University of China conducted a rare national climate survey that resulted in some seemingly contradictory findings. On the one hand, it suggested that 93 percent of Chinese people think climate change is happening and the majority of respondents believe it “will harm themselves and their own family.” (For comparison, a Yale survey of Americans taken around the same time found that only 70 percent believe in climate change, and a far smaller portion says it will affect them.) Yet the Renmin study found that just 55 percent of Chinese people think humans are the primary cause of global warming, a percentage roughly comparable with the United States.

The numbers were surprising, says Binbin Wang, co-founder of the Beijing-based China Center for Climate Change Communication, who helped design the survey. She had anticipated high rates of belief, but the response she found was off the charts. Though the months and years following Copenhagen marked a high point for China’s climate skeptics, internally the Communist leadership was coming to a consensus that global warming warranted serious action, quietly but decisively pushing out nonbelievers. Without a big announcement of change, the subtle but steady shift in messaging had gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. “The leaders needed to rethink where China should go,” Wang said. One of their main considerations was China’s slowing economic growth and whether green technology had the potential to reverse it.

The survey revealed that most of the public did not agree with the skeptics. Climate change denial was no longer an acceptable opinion. Indeed, this seems to be the moment that China’s climate skeptics vanished. The authors Liu studied stopped writing books about global warming; no new titles were published after 2011. The pockets of intense online discussion they’d inspired appeared to subside. A new perspective had taken hold.

By the time China adopted its 12th Five-Year Plan in 2011, a green strategy had begun to crystalize. The plan proposed to turn low-carbon industries into a major driver of the economy. China aimed to spend $761 billion by 2020 transitioning off fossil fuels. “It is a historical moment,” Beijing-based economist Hu Angang wrote at the time, “the point at which China launches — and joins — the global green revolution and adopts a concrete plan of action for responding to climate change.” Leaders in China also saw global warming as a looming threat to domestic stability. “In China’s thousands of years of civilization, the conflict between humanity and nature has never been as serious as it is today,” Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian said.

China’s new climate policies were accompanied by extensive state outreach, Wang says. It appears many Chinese people were receptive to the message — and the messenger. Renmin’s 2012 climate survey found that 86 percent of respondents trust the central government as a source of information about global warming. Similarly high percentages trust scientific institutes and China’s news media, which are largely controlled by the state. This helps explain why so many of the people Wang surveyed accept global warming.

As for the 45 percent of respondents who aren’t sure if humans are to blame? Wang says it’s lack of education. The 4,200 Chinese adults she and other researchers contacted came from affluent urban centers along with poorer and less-educated rural regions, whose dwellers can plainly see that droughts and extreme weather are becoming more common — even if they’re unsure exactly why. “Many Chinese have at least heard about climate change because most of them experience it,” she said.

Liu has tried to find out what happened to his once-buzzing hive of deniers. “I tried to hire a student to look into ‘Do we have any new things coming in from this camp?’ and so far nothing really,” he said.

There’s the possibility of a de facto censorship. Although “we can assume that the Chinese government does not actively suppress such skepticism,” Liu said in a 2015 academic article, it certainly does not provide the conditions that would allow for the kind of climate denial you see in Western countries to flourish: a large network of anti-government think tanks heavily supported by oil, gas, and coal companies. ExxonMobil, for one, has spent $33 million since 1998 funding organizations like the Heartland Institute, which questions the link between humans and climate change, according to research from the publication DeSmogBlog. And Greenpeace estimates that Koch Industries has spent $100 million over a similar period. “In the United States, casting doubt on the human cause of climate change has been one of the major strategies of industry,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale program on Climate Change Communication, who helped provide academic assistance for Wang’s study. “There’s been a very concerted disinformation campaign.”

It’s possible the Chinese skeptics played a similar, if truncated, role during a period of internal debate in the government, with fossil fuel-friendly interests in the government helping to get the books published.

In China, when the party line cohered around the greener path in 2012, the space for that debate disappeared. The leadership in the state-run energy companies was largely purged during a recent anti-corruption campaign and now they would have very clear incentives not to promote denial, even if state-owned fossil fuel companies like Sinopec and China National Offshore Oil Corp. wanted to question the existence of climate change. “Top [oil and gas] executives have always been very much aware of the fact that their promotion depends on the Party,” a report from the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies stated.

In the years leading up to the 2015 climate change negotiations in Paris, China’s government made low-carbon growth one of its top priorities. “It’s a totally different situation in China than the U.S.,” Wang said.

Another reason China’s skepticism receded is that climate change stopped serving the same ideological purpose. In Copenhagen, China felt attacked and humiliated by the United States and Europe. But in Paris, China worked closely with the United States to negotiate the world’s first comprehensive climate agreement. Obama phoned Chinese President Xi Jinping shortly after the talks “to express appreciation for the important role China played,” the White House said in December 2015. Climate change no longer made China look weak. It was now a story of China’s strength. “The current leadership is really setting its sight on having China be the preeminent global power of our time,” said Victor Shih, an associate professor at the University of California at San Diego and a well-known commentator on China. “[Fighting climate change] does give China the opportunity to do so.”

But it doesn’t mean climate skepticism in China has disappeared — not completely. When Liu and his colleague Bo Zhao, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, did an extensive search of all the Weibo posts mentioning climate change in the months before and after the Paris negotiations, they found contrarian opinions. A U.S.-educated physics researcher named Wan Weigang speculated in one of the more popular climate denier posts that, “Maybe in five years, the global warming theory will be cited as a joke.” They found other statements that could have been lifted right out of the skeptic books in Liu’s office: “Climate replaces guns, cannons, and warships in old times to become the weapon to constrain, oppress, and exploit poor countries.”

But nobody in China’s government is publicly echoing those opinions. In the media and academia, they have also all but disappeared. “It’s really fringe,” Liu said. “It’s not mainstream.” It seems likely to stay that way, too.

If climate change has been a piece of the larger game that China was playing with the West, it’s possible that, almost a decade after the collapse at Copenhagen, Beijing is finally — and decisively — winning.

Shortly after Donald Trump won the presidency, Xi told him in a call that China will continue fighting climate change “whatever the circumstances.” Though the new U.S. president has staffed his administration with skeptics such as Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, China released data suggesting it could meet its 2030 Paris targets a decade early. “The financial elites I talk with,” Shih said, “they think that the fact that the Trump presidency has so obviously withdrawn from any global effort to try to limit greenhouse gases provides China with an opportunity to take leadership.”

The paths both countries are taking couldn’t be more divergent. While Trump rescinded Obama’s Clean Power Plan with a promise to end America’s “war on coal,” China aims to close 800 million tons of coal capacity by 2020. The U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy is facing a budget cut of more than 50 percent when China is pouring over $361 billion into renewable energy. All this “is likely to widen China’s global leadership in industries of the future,” concluded a recent report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Yet the United States is still the most important global actor on climate change. “All the rest of the world, including China, we are looking at Trump — what will he do?” Wang said. But no matter what happens, she added, “the green transformation for China and the world is a reality.”

During the U.S. presidential campaign, reporters dredged up a 2012 tweet that sounded as if it might as well have been drafted by one of Liu’s writers. “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” Trump wrote. But perpetuating hoaxes and plots won’t win the coming fight against climate change. It’ll be the ability — and the willingness — to adapt. And while China has seized onto climate change as the issue on which it could be both a technological and moral leader, the United States has taken a great leap back.

In November, the world will come together again in Bonn, Germany, for the latest United Nations conference on climate change. We’ll have to wait and see who the spoiler will be this time.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of FP magazine. 

Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change, out in August. (@GeoffDembicki)