Richter Scale, Globalist Perspective

Environment and American Leadership: Two Worlds Collide

What does the differing coverage of environmental issues in the Chinese and U.S. media say about these countries’ changing leadership roles?

Demonstrators at Copenhagen's UN Climate Change Conference in 2010. Photo by Irina Korshunova /


  • Growing up in the West, we have been conditioned to believe that it is the Chinese who are the ideologues, while the Americans are the pragmatists.
  • China's approach to the environment shows that it helps to have leaders who are engineers by training -- and are therefore interested in measurable results -- rather than lawyers, as in the U.S. case.
  • U.S. equivocation on climate change triggers doubts about the country's capability as a society to manage complexity.

Surfing the cable channels one recent evening, the main news is about the government’s new plan to rigorously tackle environmental pollution and reducing the energy-intensity of the economy. The young TV anchorman quizzes experts on the sincerity of the government’s intentions and the probability of eventual success. Charts are shown on what needs to be cut back, where those cuts will be made, and what the impact will be on the overall economy.

The audience gets a refreshing, in-depth briefing and comes away with the clear sense of having learned something about the challenges of the environment after this 10-minute, commercial-free lead item on the nightly news.

Later on that same evening, in a preview of the next day’s newspaper headlines, I read announcements about the government refusing to approve a plan for a fund that would channel money pledged by developed countries to help developing countries fight climate change.

Confused? You shouldn’t be, not yet. I was “globo-surfing” and had bumped into the major stories on the environment in two different countries. One is the United States, the other is China. Now, here is the moment when you do have reason to be confused: The first scene describes the evening news on CCTV, China’s official broadcaster. The second scene captures what’s going on — or rather not going on — in the United States.

In the United States, the Obama Administration continues that same old American song and dance. Having begun its term in office with big announcements, the Administration has backed off from one promise after another. Now caving in on yet another initiative, it has chosen to side with the forces of environmental neglect, officially because presidential elections are coming up next year. And if it’s not elections that stand in the way of taking a principled stance, then it’s the recession or lobbying interests of large corporations doling out nice campaign contributions and threatening to withhold them.

What’s so strange about this picture is that, growing up in the Western world, we have been conditioned to believe that it is the Chinese who are the ideologues, while the Americans are the pragmatists. In fact, the announcement of China’s CCTV to give its English-language TV channel far more of a global presence has caused worries in the United States that the Chinese are launching another ideologically rooted charm offensive.

The only problem is that these days, on the environment at least, the roles are actually reversed. Yes, the Chinese still have major environmental hurdles to overcome. But they acknowledge that and prefer to put their engineering thinking caps on. In the United States, political patterns are determined by ideological blinders and tactical political considerations.

The case of China underscores that it helps to have leaders who are engineers by training — and are therefore interested in measurable results — rather than lawyers, as in the U.S. case. The latter tend to produce little more than artistic displays of verbose, but fundamentally dishonest equivocation.

It is, in fact, highly embarrassing that a state broadcaster in officially still Communist China engages in the real debate, while in U.S. and (most) UK newspapers we are at the same time treated to a lot of meaningless puffery about some scientists in East Anglia having difficulty with their scientific findings. That is held out to be as the conclusive proof that climate change is a hoax.

One wonders whether this kind of thinking isn’t an all-too-telling reflection of the naïveté of the American conservative mind. It appears quite capable of grasping at any straw and turning it into “conclusive” and “irrefutable” evidence for the deep prejudices that are embraced by those who, in the early 21st century, still question the phenomenon of evolution.

Mind you, we’re not talking about people living in the few areas that may still be out of radio’s reach and therefore still depend on faith healers for information about “science” and the world at large. No, we are talking about the United States of America, the epicenter of modernity.

The broader question this triggers is doubts about the capability of the United States as a society to manage complexity. The environment certainly is a complex phenomenon and there surely are still many unanswered questions. Still, negating the existence of the problem of climate change, as is the fashion virtually among all Republicans in the U.S. Congress, is hardly a pathway to promoting American leadership in the world of tomorrow.

Rather, it is a one-way ticket to American ignorance — and ceding policy leadership to the Chinese government. Who would have ever thought that putting their collective heads into the sand was the plan by which Republicans sought to make America great again?

It certainly wasn’t this spirit of denialism and profound technology pessimism that made the United States the country that it has become. When the Erie Canal was built, for example, there was nothing but a rather vague vision about connecting New York City to towns such as Cleveland and Chicago in the Midwest. To make this idea a reality required an almost biblical effort of moving mountains. Over the canal’s 363 miles, it had to traverse an elevation differential of 565 feet, no small feat when construction began in 1817.

But eight years later the deed was done. What was mockingly called Clinton’s Folly — after New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, who goaded the state legislature into putting up $7 million to build the project — became an early symbol of the transformative power of those American upstarts, people who simply believed in the power of can-doism.

That spirit, sadly, seems to be on rare display these days. Worse, if the current wave of fundamentalist opposition remains hardwired into the conservative American character, it is in danger of becoming not only an endangered, but a soon-to-be extinct national trait.

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About Stephan Richter

Director of the Global Ideas Center, a global network of authors and analysts, and Editor-in-Chief of The Globalist.

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