LONDON – China’s massive pollution problems have given rise to a new force of environmental campaigners, different politically from middle-class activists in the West and potentially more effective in tackling climate change, according to new research.
In Europe, financial crisis has knocked environmental policy down the political agenda and populist movements see environmentalism as a hobby of European elites. In the United States, meanwhile, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks pushed energy security to the top of the political agenda.
But in China, 64 percent of citizens identify themselves as environmentalists, more than double the rate in Europe and the United States, a report published Wednesday by Dutch research agency Motivaction says. Motivaction interviewed more than 48,000 consumers in 20 countries about their values and behavior.
Not only do many more people in China describe themselves as environmentalists, they also have a very different profile from climate champions in the West. The report finds they tend to be socially conservative, devoted to family and traditional values, and believe strongly in the role of technology to solve global problems.
In contrast, the United States and Europe have developed a “cosmopolitan environmentalism,” a movement supported frequently by liberal, highly-educated and politically active groups.
Chinese-style environmentalists have a much greater sense of urgency as they experience, for example, the choking pollution of Beijing, and the new report concludes that multinational companies need to understand how to harness their potential. China is already the biggest investor in green technology, which the report says can give it a competitive advantage, as innovative companies tend to thrive.
Premier Li Keqiang “declared war” on pollution in March after an official state report dubbed Beijing “barely suitable” for habitat due to toxic smog. China pledged to spend $1.65 billion to combat air pollution and $330 billion to fight water shortages.
There is still a big challenge to persuade China to sign up for a new global deal on tackling climate change, which could come out of a U.N. summit in 2015. However, when spurred by its own growing population of environmentalists threatening social unrest over levels of pollution, it can act more decisively than Western coalitions.
“When the Chinese government decides to do something, they do it,” said Kathryn Sheridan, CEO of a Brussels-based consultancy. “It’s not the talking shop that we see in Europe.”
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