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China will have to completely reorient its coal-dominated economy to meet climate targets. Photo: AP

Climate change: children in China learn Beijing’s version of the story

  • Authorities want students to support green campaigns, but for their activism to stop at lowering their carbon footprints
  • Scripted lessons and censorship mean broad acceptance of the dangers of climate change and little impetus to push for more aggressive policies
For most of her young life, nine-year-old Gao Ximan dreamed of becoming a policewoman. But after attending an eight-week online workshop about climate change over the summer, she decided being a conservationist was a more important ambition.

“Siberian tigers and snow leopards are so cute, but they are dying out,” said the fourth-grade student at one of Beijing’s top public schools. She stopped using the air conditioner in her bedroom and insisted her family used public transport instead of their car for weekend outings.

Gao’s interest in the environment is something the Chinese government is trying to cultivate in young people as it pursues wide-ranging reforms to eliminate its net emissions of carbon dioxide by 2060. But the nation’s state-led approach to climate change is less tolerant of public debate over how it is going to get there. In other words, the authorities want children like Gao to support its green campaigns, but would prefer their activism stop at lowering their own carbon footprints.

An iceberg floats past Bylot Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. In Chinese schools, there is no discussion of the outsize influence China – the world’s biggest polluter – has on the planet’s climate trajectory. Photo: AP
In school, Gao learned the basic facts: human activities have damaged the environment and greenhouse gas emissions are harmful because they trap heat and accelerate global warming. The lessons revolved around President Xi Jinping’s campaign to make China an “eco-civilisation”, a concept that has led to a range of policies including mandated recycling sorting, building green cities, and banning single-use plastic straws. But the conversation stops there. There is no discussion of China’s net-zero goal, or the outsize influence the world’s biggest polluter has on the planet’s climate trajectory. 

“China’s climate education emphasises that responsibility lies with the individual and they can make a difference by living a low-carbon life, but they are not the ones that should influence policymaking,” said Yao Zhe, who specialises in climate communications and has worked with various green organisations in China. 

It’s kind of a decoration to show that we care about the environment. There are no exams to test kids about what climate change is and why it matters
Wang, teacher in Tianjin

Yet individual action is not what will keep the Earth from warming less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the level scientists say is needed to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Getting there will require governments and companies to undertake large-scale changes. In China’s case, it will have to completely reorient its coal-dominated economy at the cost of trillions of dollars. There are huge questions about how best to do this, and how to mitigate further pollution, yet none of those are covered in the classroom. 


China to reduce carbon emissions by over 65 per cent, Xi Jinping says

China to reduce carbon emissions by over 65 per cent, Xi Jinping says

“We basically just read prepared notes, often about air pollution and what China has done to make the air better,” said Wang, a third-grade teacher at a junior school in Tianjin, who asked to be identified only by her last name. The environmental lessons, which are incorporated into the curriculum for China’s nine years of compulsory education, do not include any debate or research assignments, even for the older students.

Wang said her school encouraged teachers to take lots of photos to show engagement. “It’s kind of a decoration to show that we care about the environment,” she said. “There are no exams to test kids about what climate change is and why it matters; it’s too complicated to explain.”

The education ministry did not respond to a fax seeking comment on its policies. 

In school, teachers explain that China has a “right to develop”, reinforcing a stance the country’s political leaders have used to push back against international demands for them to cut emissions more quickly. 

Now that China’s economic might has grown, students are told the country has become a “responsible major power”, though textbooks are scant about what that responsibility actually entails when it comes to slowing global warming.  


Chinese scientists cover melting glacier with quilts to slow loss linked to climate change

Chinese scientists cover melting glacier with quilts to slow loss linked to climate change

Alternate narratives are hard to find. Room for civil society has shrunk further under Xi. A state-media journalist who asked not to be identified said reporters had been discouraged, if not banned, from writing about topics like the threat of rising sea levels to coastal cities such as Shanghai.

Non-governmental organisations that would typically push officials to take stronger climate action are in China mostly focused on raising awareness and building support for government campaigns. A 2017 law requires all foreign NGOs to partner with a local group, leading to increased self-censorship. Activists and academics who have privately criticised China’s climate policies are reluctant to express those views publicly for fear of being targeted.

How China’s coal power glut is clouding its carbon zero ambitions

For China’s youth, the scripted lessons and strict censorship mean there is broad acceptance of the dangers of climate change, but little impetus to push for more aggressive policies. 

The global school strike movement inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has faced strong backlash on social media, spurred on by false reports and conspiracy theories in state media that frame her as a puppet of Western powers seeking to halt China’s economic rise. The Beijing News, a local newspaper run by the government, published a profile of Thunberg in 2019 that described the rallies as “performative” and “radical”. Is it possible, the author asked, that her calls for countries to cut emissions more quickly are merely a tactic by the West to “deprive” emerging economies like China of the same progress they enjoyed? 

It is a theory that resonates strongly with a growing chorus of young nationalist voices online. As China has become more isolated on the international stage, Xi’s administration has responded by stoking hostility and suspicion towards Western nations.

Young voices in China’s environmental wilderness – and why they struggle to be heard

The rare student who tried to emulate Thunberg was derided by her peers. Two years ago, Howey Ou took to the streets to advocate for climate action in her hometown of Guilin.

“China has had environmental policies and non-governmental organisations for decades, but they don’t work,” Ou said.

“Companies are still polluting our environment in the name of GDP growth. Students should learn that protesting for climate change works, it has created a lot of space for public debate.”

Instead of inspiring others to join her, she was given a warning by local authorities and barred from school.


Climate change threatens the global food supply, UN warns

Climate change threatens the global food supply, UN warns

For most young people, activism is more likely to take the form of volunteering with government-linked groups.

“I just don’t think street protesting works the best with Chinese culture and society,” said 25-year-old Hu Jingwei, a communications officer at China Youth Climate Action Network.

“Young people are not used to expressing their opinions and chanting the slogans in public.”

Young environmentalists like Hu see their mission as facilitating government policy, rather than challenging it. Their hope is that getting kids to understand the risks of unchecked global warming will bear fruit when they are in positions to take action, however piecemeal.

That is what 35-year-old Li Yedan was betting on when she started 3 Herissons (French for “three hedgehogs”), the non-profit that conducted the climate workshop which inspired nine-year-old Gao. She said several junior schools had expressed interest in boosting climate education resources in their classrooms after Xi announced the 2060 pledge.

“The hope is in the next generation,” she said. “I can’t stop all factories from polluting, but maybe one or two who learn from our projects would take over their parents’ businesses one day and make a difference.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Pupils learn about climate change – from Beijing’s view