Speaker discusses China’s environmental problems

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Professor Shapiro gestures to the audience as she delivers a talk at the Nott Memorial on Thursday, Jan. 21. (Sarah Chang | Concordiensis)

Every year, the Environmental Science, Policy and Engineering (ESPE) program hosts a Winter Seminar Series pertaining to a unique theme. This year’s theme was “Lifting the Veil on China’s Environmental Challenges.”

On Thursday, Jan. 21, Professor Judith Shapiro kicked off the 2016 Winter Seminar Series with a talk entitled, “China’s Environmental Challenges.”

Shapiro is on the faculty at American University’s Global Environmental Politics program.

Her research focuses on the politics of environmental degradation and the future of sustainable development, in China and the world.

Shapiro is the author or co-author of multiple books on China, including ‘Mao’s War against Nature,’ ‘China’s Environmental Challenges’ and ‘Son of the Revolution.’

In her talk, Shapiro sought to connect China’s environmental trends with its political and social history of the past four decades. Shapiro discussed the underlying reasons for China’s environmental degradation and its implications for civil society and governance.

When she first arrived in China in 1979, Shapiro experienced a time when the country was still very much sealed from the outside world and had just recovered from a tumultuous two decades of revolutions and counterrevolutions.

Shapiro was one of just 40 Americans admitted to China at the time for purposes of teaching English, later becoming the sole in-country foreign specialist at the Hunan University.

Shapiro reminisced of the backwater Hunan province, relatively free from developmental pressures during the years she spent as a young adult in China. Using photos she took from the 1970s and of her former hometown, she lamented how the places she once called home had become almost unrecognizable, as modern glitzy towers carved away at rice paddies and terraces that were once characteristic of the landscape.

She attributed China’s environmental pollution to the demands of a burgeoning middle class.

Environmental issues have been propelled to the forefront of the domestic agenda, pushed by public clamor that resource pressures and pollution problems have far exceeded what is tolerable.

Though later censored from websites, the initial release of the popular documentary film, “Under the Dome” has contributed to elevated public concerns and a rise of an environmental movement in China. It has exposed the magnitude of environmental degradation and the inability of the government to act against big state-owned factories and coal companies.

Although China’s environmental problems have provoked some rather drastic responses from the country’s leaders, policies are inconsistent and the societal climate hampers effective implementation. Without strong civil society engagement and support, China’s environmental laws would continue to be treated not as laws, but rather as mere guidelines, according to Shapiro.

Shapiro also examined China’s prospects for sustainable development from the angle of the work of China’s non-profit environmental organizations. NGO’s in China operate under a harsh political climate, making it difficult for them as well as prospective members to connect with each other and engage in big-item tasks that would make a meaningful difference without being shut down by the government.

Despite the challenges the NGO’s face, Shapiro sees evidence of growing civil strength, as citizens mount public interest lawsuits and expose big polluters through publicity ads as a means to ensure accountability in the government’s response to the concerns.

China’s global impact will continue to be a hot topic for discussion amidst a changing civil society, higher expectations for development and concerns about meeting its vast resource needs.

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