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Media Coverage of Pollution in China and the U.S.

Sieren Ernst's picture
Ethics & Environment

Sieren Ernst is the co-founder and CEO of the Climate Cost Project, a data and documentary non-profit focused on bringing to light the immediate costs of climate change to American communities....

  • Member since 2018
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  • Jun 8, 2013

But I hear someone exclaiming that the concealment of wickedness is often difficult; to which I answer, nothing great is easy. Nevertheless, the argument indicates this—if we would be happy—to be the path along which we should proceed. With a view to concealment we will establish secret brotherhoods and political clubs. There are professors of rhetoric who teach the art of persuading courts and assemblies; and so, partly by persuasion and partly by force, I shall make unlawful gains and not be punished.” –From Plato’s Republic, “The Ring of Gyges”

Ever since Beijing’s air pollution, as measured by the U.S. Embassy’s air quality monitor, went above 800 on its AQI last January, the Western press has been inundated with stories about how China’s ‘historic’ pollution has pushed public rage to a tipping point. In January, The New York Times reported “The surge in pollution, which is happening across northern China, has angered residents and led the state news media to report more openly on air quality problems.”   

But in addition to land rights and labor, the blighted environment has long been a pillar of China’s frequent and strident protests; neither the deadly smog nor environmental protests are new. The attention these issues are getting both from the international press and the Chinese middle class is new, however. It is not that the pollution has reached a level of harm that can no longer be ignored, but rather that is no longer being ignored, and so its extent is, at last, clear.   

China’s pollution has been terrible for decades. Good data on air pollution in China only started to be available in 2008 when the U.S. Embassy installed an air pollution monitor on its roof just as Beijing’s smoggy air started making headlines in the run-up to the Olympics games. Before that time, there was no reliable air quality monitoring in China.  

Governments use Air Quality Indices (AQI) to report composite thresholds of various criteria pollutants. AQI’s vary by country in terms of both the pollutants that they report, and the thresholds at which they consider those pollutants to be damaging to human health. For example, China’s AQI has always differed from the United States in that it uses WHO interim guidelines for developing countries (i.e., higher number of concentration of pollutants to hit a threshold) to determine if its pollution levels are harmful to human health. The United States AQI includes carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and suspended particles. Suspended particles are measured in two categories: particles with a diameter> 2.5 and ≤ 10 microns (PM 10), and particles with a diameter ≤ 2.5 microns (PM 2.5). PM 2.5 is the most dangerous of particulate matter because its small size allows it to pass through the lungs and into the human blood stream. China’s official Air Quality Index (AQI) did not start tracking PM 2.5 until January of this year. Before that time Chinese, air pollution readings were based on PM 10. The index gave no measurements above 500, even if the actual pollution level exceeded that number. Further, the Chinese government has become more transparent about its AQI (or API as it used to be called) algorithms in recent years, but before-2008 it was difficult to know the actual situation. During that period it was not uncommon in Beijing to look out the window and see the smog-darkened landscape, only to find by the end of the day that it qualified a ‘Blue Sky Day’ (defined as a measure of less than 100 on the API). It is difficult to say for certain if and how the numbers were fudged. But China’s statistical irregularities are common knowledge. Further, China’s municipal officials are graded on their pollution performance, (i.e., number of ‘Blue Sky Days’ per year). China’s statistical reputation not withstanding, the history of high-level hard performance targets imposed on mid-level officials resulting in cooked numbers from standardized test scores, to pollution statistics, is hardly just a Chinese problem. Therefore, it is difficult to know if the highs experienced in January were a record, or simply a local maximum. Compared to the 1990s, Beijing has more cars on the road, but it is also burning less coal with in the city limits. There is no good data on how these factors balance out.    

In the Greek fable, the Ring of Gyges, Gyges the shepherd discovered a golden ring in a mountainside cave that rendered him invisible when turned on his finger. He used his power to seduce the queen, help her murder her husband, and steal his kingdom. Plato used the story to illustrate this question: if the crime is invisible and public censure therefore impossible, is there any reason to behave?

Air quality monitors on the roofs of U.S. consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu, quickly followed the 2008 monitor installation on the Beijing U.S. Embassy. The air quality monitors did not merely measure the quality of the air, but tweeted it by the hour and released a mobile application that made checking the air quality as simple as checking the time. The official Chinese reaction was telling. The spokesperson of the foreign ministry, Liu Weimin, as reported by Reuters, said, “If the foreign embassies want to collect this kind of information for their own staff and diplomats, I think it’s no problem. They can’t release this information to the outside world.” The U.S. Embassy cheekily responded that it was issuing the information for the health and safety of resident U.S. nationals. But of course U.S. nationals can register at the embassy, and subscribe to its regular email notifications. Twitter and mobile applications are the open-access information technologies of public participation and mass dissemination.

In general, environment stories and protests can be difficult for the press to cover within China. Neither international nor local reporters are encouraged to take up these issues. For those who do, hard data is hard to come by. The U.S. embassy monitor was a game changer in providing transparent, reliable data on the terrible state of the Chinese environment that was not just merely accessible to the foreign press, but broadcast on the Internet. It is not a coincidence that after the installation of the U.S. monitors, one of the major breakthroughs in Chinese public pressure for information disclosure in recent years has been the Chinese government’s release of data on PM 2.5 at the beginning of this year. The Chinese government has further announced new measures to reduce the concentrate of PM 2.5, and Beijing’s government announced a hard cap on coal consumption.

Of course Beijing residents knew that air quality was bad before the monitoring. They had long complained about the smog. The New York Times reported that pollution had ‘surged to record levels’, causing concern among urban parents for the health and livelihood of their children. Everyone knew it, but there is a powerful difference between knowing that something is polluted and having hard data to show just how much. The air quality monitors motivated wealthy urban residents to demand greater transparency from their own government. In showing his support for urban resident’s agitation that PM 2.5 readings be made public, now Premier Li Keqiang said, “So what if we do publish? It’s an era of online information sharing; if you don’t publish the public will get the information from somewhere else. You’ll fool nobody.”   

The U.S. air quality monitors and broadcasts gave both cause and cover to urban residents and Chinese newspapers reporting on the issue, but this was hardly the first time pollution has become an issue. 

Between 1978 and 2000, China moved heavy industry outside of its cities. Despite the higher population density, Chinese urban dwellers have been spared the impacts of Chinese pollution’s worst excesses, such as toxic run off from factories that have caused extremely high rates of cancer in towns in rural China. The Chinese rural citizens have not taken the polluting lying down. Documentation of Chinese rural environmental protests from years ago can be found here and here. But in their long fight, rural protestors have had neither the advantage of hard data, nor an allegiance with the middle class, whose ire is often so critical in driving social change. While the pollution was obvious, hard proof of the degree of its impact has remained invisible to the Chinese and the outside world.  

But the invisibility of pollution is not strictly a Chinese concern. Indeed, the comparatively advanced state of industrial development in the United States has allowed for the proliferation of invisible pollutants in our environment. In the late 1960s and 1970s the burning rivers and blackened city skies catalyzed the environmental movement in the United States and spurred the passage of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. The impetus for change is largely diminished along with visible pollution in the United States. But dangerous pollution remains. 

Since 1976, twenty-two thousand chemicals, of which the EPA has little information of their health or environmental effects, have been released into the American environment. For a handful of those chemicals, such as BPA, flame retardant, and Teflon, we are well aware of their carcinogenic and hormone disrupting potential, but have been unsuccessful in their regulation. Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich describes the diffusion of toxic chemicals into the environment, as “A vast chemical experiment in which we are the lab rats.”  Like the Chinese in their polluted cities, Americans are vaguely aware of the dangers of chemical trespass in their bodies, but they don’t know what, how much, or how they are affected by what they are absorbing. Unfortunately, unlike with air pollution, there is not yet a killer application to incite a public reaction to this problem.

In a recent editorial, Lead Wars authors David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz rightly stated that the issue could only be dealt with through a broad-based grassroots movement. Biologist, activist, and cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber has made a bet that between her life and her children’s, an environmental human rights movement will start to emerge.

Such a movement has long existed in China. The link between environmentalism and human health is easier for the public to make when the devastation is easily detected. But for the movement to be effective and reach scale in both China and the United States, the non-expert population must be empowered to draw a line between the health effects that they experience or are at risk for, and the pollutants to which they are exposed. The example of the Beijing air monitor shows the potential of transparency, monitoring, and mobile to take from pollution the power of invisibility and expose it to the public outrage that it deserves.

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