Authoritarian regimes generally have little time for civil society and tend to keep a tight rein on it. But there are defining times in a nation's affairs when it can make a difference. China provides two cases in point - last year's Sichuan earthquake disaster and the scandal of the tainted milk powder that killed six children and made hundreds of thousands ill, leaving a dark stain on the country's image. State-controlled media and registered non-governmental organisations could not have prevented the earthquake but, freed for a time from official restraints, they were pivotal to mobilising a national humanitarian response to the rescue effort. In the case of the tainted milk, it is arguable that they could have prompted a product recall much earlier, preventing the tragedy getting out of control, were they not discouraged from an inquiry and speaking out of turn about the concerns of parents and health workers by the rigid centralisation of power and authority. But there is little evidence that either lesson has been absorbed or done much to raise the visibility of civil society. It is another crisis - one that is global and will not go away - that is more likely to do that. Global warming, along with growing public awareness of the issues surrounding climate change, has galvanised the NGO movement. Domestically, it has raised the profile of environmental groups and even led to some being allowed to present policy recommendations to the government. At the current Copenhagen climate summit, at least 20 NGOs are represented. Several mainland NGOs and overseas foundations have also sponsored a delegation of 50 youth leaders to the conference. Beijing's desire to present a united front in carbon emissions negotiations has thus enhanced the visibility of NGOs already identified with public concerns about air and water pollution. Public opinion is on their side. A recent poll of 20,000 people under 35 showed most agreed China had already suffered from the impact of global warming, that their lifestyles had contributed to it and that they should do something about reducing carbon emissions, like buying green products and generating less waste. According to official figures, there are more than 410,000 government-sanctioned NGOs. However, while grass-roots environmental campaigns are gaining more support, they lack co-ordination and professionalism. Because climate change is multi-faceted rather than a single environmental topic like air quality, they face a struggle in harnessing public support across a range of issues. That said, global warming and China's need to be seen to be doing something about carbon emissions remain an opportunity for China's NGOs to try to make a difference. At the same time, it is to be hoped this would encourage the authorities to allow groups not affiliated with the government to flourish. NGOs are the logical building blocks for a civil society, but they have struggled to make an impact in the face of severe official restrictions on their activities. The reconciliation of action on carbon emissions with China's growth targets adds to the social challenges facing the government. It should spark a reappraisal of how best to strike a balance between allowing these groups to develop and maintaining official control. The role of NGOs will become more important as society changes, and expectations and welfare priorities grow. As China's middle class continues to expand, a vibrant civil society should be seen as a safety valve for social harmony and stability, not a threat.