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date: 23 November 2017

Climate Change Communication in China

Summary and Keywords

As one of the most serious challenges facing humankind during the 21st century, climate change not only relates to many fields such as science, culture, economics, and politics, but also affects the survival and future development of human beings. In China, climate change communication research specifically first began to be conducted quite late, as the significance of climate change issues came to the fore in the international arena. The year 2007 is known as China’s “first year of climate change communication research.” Climate change coverage up to 2007 can be divided into two periods: In the early period, the number of reports was small, the reporting agenda was simple, and public’s attention was limited, whereas in the late period coverage changed visibly: the amount of coverage experienced a sharp increase, the topics covered were diverse, and reporting gradually reached an advanced level of sophistication. Research on climate change is not only limited to the analysis of science reporters from the professional field, but also includes studies conducted by the government, academia, NGOs, enterprises, and the like, and it has already reached certain research conclusions. Media coverage of climate issues and research on climat communication complement each other—the former promoting the latter and the latter enriching the former—and they jointly advance the dissemination of climate issues in China. This article hopes to sort out the research on media reports on climate change and climate change communication research to gain an overall and comprehensive understanding of climate change communication in China

Keywords: climate change, news report, communication, China


Since the 21st century, as one of the most serious issues, climate change is not only related to many topics such as science, culture, economic, and politics, but also affects the survival and future development of mankind. The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) pointed out that, over the past 30 years, anthropogenic warming has impacted many natural and biological systems on a global scale; needless to say, the fact of climate system warming is beyond dispute, and it is predicted that global greenhouse gas emissions will continue to increase over the next few decades (Guang Ming Daily, 2007). It could be said that many country or individual has found it difficult to avoid the threat of climate change. Climate change has led to the frequency of extreme weather events, changes in phenomenological characteristics, continuous flood disasters, glacier and Arctic ice melting, sea level rising, biodiversity reduction, and the like, which are all issues closely related to human survival and development (Chen, 2011).

In developed countries such as Britain and the United States, issues about climate change first started to be covered since the end of the 1980s and experienced a few climax of reporting from 1988 to 2006. The main content of researches that have been done on climate change included the factors affecting the way climate change came about, discourse related to climate change in the domains of science, media, and government, how to interact with the climate change discourse in different fields, and how to disseminate information in public about climate change (Wang & Li, 2011). However, as a developing country, China did not follow the same track. Before 2006, the amount of reporting on climate change was sparse, and the content was mainly presented in a political frame. As a result, research on climate communication was quite rare and was mainly provided by science journalists such as Jia Hepeng (Jia, 2007, 2008), who later would focus part of his research interest on problems and deficiencies of climate change coverage in China. Aside from this, Chinese environmental NGOs conducted some research into climate change on a small scale, while academic research was quite lacking.

This situation changed starting in 2006. After 2007, reports on climate change experienced a breakthrough in terms of sheer numbers, while coverage frames had diversified and the media agenda expanded. By this time, we can see that quite a lot of media coverage was led not simply by the government but by multiple sources. Meanwhile, more researchers from fields other than science journalists joined in climate change research, including a growing number of Chinese NGO and business circles. The signal for educational circles to begin research on climate communication systems arrived when China’s climate change communication project was set up jointly by the Research Center for Journalism and Social Development and Oxfam Hong Kong, which has since made considerable achievements. At this point, China’s climate change reporting and research has reached a relatively stable stage.

This article first begins by reviewing the main phases of Chinese climate policy. Second, it discusses the evolution of climate change research and climate change coverage before 2007. Special focus will be put on climate change communication resulting from the Paris conference in 2015. And finally, the article will discuss the roles of different stakeholders affecting climate change communication development, offering a few conclusions.

Main Phases of Chinese Climate Policy and Its Coverage in the Chinese Media

China is confronted with the dual task of developing its national economy and protecting its ecological environment. Since the 1980s, China’s policies on environmental protection and sustainable development have experienced five changes: (1) progression from the adoption of environmental protection as a basic state policy to the adoption of sustainable development strategy, (2) changing the focus from pollution control to ecological conservation equally, (3) shifting from end-of-pipe treatment to source control, (4) moving from point source treatment to regional environmental governance, and (5) transitioning from administrative management-based approaches towards an approach based on legal means and economic instruments (Zhu & Ru, 2008). During the five stages, there were many related policies made by governments. However, the fact is that the reactive approaches and instruments of the past will not be sufficient to address the coming challenges China faces. The problem has grown to become a key factor harming public health and restricting economic growth and social stabilization. Thus, to protect their environmental interests, the Chinese public actively participated in environmental protection activities. Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992) states that “environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level” and calls on the governments to facilitate public participation. The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA Law) explicitly requires public participation in environmental impact assessment. Surveys and public meetings are the two most popularly adopted means, although they have been criticized as insufficient (Ho & Edmonds, 2008). Article 5 of the EIA Law requires the government to invite experts and the public to participate in EIA, and Article 11 prescribes public hearings as a desirable form of participation. Above all, public participation in environmental protection is endorsed by laws and regulations (Li, Liu, & Li, 2012).

Environmental policy varied over time and was closely tied to politics, the economy, and people’s lives. As part of environmental policy, climate policy also went through different stages. On May 29, 1998, China signed the “Kyoto Protocol,” which it went on to formally approve on August 30, 2002. However, at the initial stage of the Kyoto agenda, there was no indication that China’s environmental policy would focus on taking active and effective environmental protection measures. Over the years, China adopted a relatively stubborn policy at the International Climate Conference aiming to reject any attempt to set specific emission reduction targets, claiming that China needed to promote economic development. However, after the United Nations Climate Change meeting held in Bali in 2007, there was a sign that China’s negotiating position had loosened up and that it no longer categorically denied the fact that China had played an increasingly active role in climate protection. China even made a commitment to reduce emissions. In June 2007, the country adopted “China’s National Program to Address Climate Change,” including many adaptation measures. China’s “Eleventh Five-Year Plan” (2006–2010) and the National Development and Reform Commission in September 2007 adopted the “renewable energy medium- and long-term development plan,” which not only enhanced China’s energy security, but also played a catalytic role in global environmental protection activities. The “Twelfth Five-Year” period (2011–2015), marked a new era for China’s climate action. “China’s ‘Twelfth Five-Year’ Climate Change Policy Implementation Assessment Report” comprehensively evaluated emission reduction measures and climate change actions since 2011, showing that China’s climate policy had shifted from formulating macroeconomic goals or determining the priority areas of development to the progressive establishment of a climate policy framework containing concrete emission reduction measures.

The Chinese media is strongly affected by Chinese political system. Policies made by the government profoundly influence the media in many aspects, and they directly determine the media development environment and competitive environment. In general, the China media has enjoyed rapid development, and efficiency of information dissemination continued to increase ever since 1990s. With the accelerated reform of the cultural system, the media policy began to loosen up, and the market-oriented process greatly accelerated. With the rise of network media, traditional boundaries were gradually breached, in terms of diverse media coverage, reporting territory, types of media, and so on; diversification of social value, intensified competition among the media, and certain drawbacks of media commercialization began to come into sight.

Within such a context, one can conclude that the main phases of Chinese climate policy to be covered in this article strictly follow the steps of the development of regulation and policies on climate change issues. The breakthrough of quantity and quality of media coverage on climate change appeared when Chinese climate policy started to enter new phases.

Evolution of Climate Change Communication

Climate Change Communication Research

Climate Change Communication Research Before 2007

Since the 1980s, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology has launched a series of major studies on climate change from different perspectives. Until the 1990s, few major research works related to climate change had been disseminated nationwide, such as Climate, No. 5, Blue Book of Science and Technology of China, International Assessment Report on Climate Change, and Strategies for Coping With Climate Change. In spite of the advancements in climate change research, few studies have been conducted in the field of journalism and communication. Before 2006, direct research on climate change communication was a rarity in academic circles in China. Major articles related to climate change in the area of journalism and communication merely focused on experiences of reporting climate change and how to report weather issues, such as Research on China’s Meteorological News. It should be said that studies on climate change did not yet form a coherent system of thought and theories at that time (Li, 2011), most of them mainly focused on the environmental policy.

During that time, despite the severity and widespread existence of climate problems, climate change did not attract public attention. Reports and studies concerning climate were basically concentrated in the professional field, explaining the causes, consequences, and impact of climate change from a professional point of view, and were published in scientific journals, such as China Meteorological News and Science and Technology Daily. The Kyoto Protocol signed by China in 1998 did not stipulate a quantitative obligation for the country to reduce its own emissions; China only needed to report its emissions, indicating its actions taken or planned for the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. According to the policy, most climate change coverage was centered on emission data, adaptation measures, and similar issues. Beyond that, these reports were quite cautious about the exact definition of climate change and how it should be approached, for the government was sensitive to the issue. In 2005, under President Hu Jintao, it was found that the reports on climate change issues mainly concentrated on the climate meeting, governance goals, and air pollution, while in the early days, the political frame, environmental frame, and action frame were given almost equal attention, indicating that reporting on environment issues was entirely directed by the government, with little influence by outside parties. In any case, before 2006, climate change reports varied according to the government’s prevailing climate policy and environmental priorities.

Jia Hepeng (2007) pointed out that during this time, coverage on climate change was lacking in depth and detailed analysis, few controversial reports surfaced, and the voice and research of Chinese scientists were ignored. The lack of reports on climate change in China, resulted from a lack of clear communication with scientists and research institutes on the part of journalists and the media. In addition, science communication about climate change was still a one-way process, which manifested in the fact that almost all the content of the reports was drawn from the relevant information presented by government departments in press briefings; less was reported from the perspective of people’s personal lives, nor was there consideration of the relationship between global warming and the public. However, as the climate change issue became a hot topic, journalists started paying increasing attention to all of these issues, and the reporting moved in a more comprehensive and deeper direction (Jia, 2007).

During this period, little research was conducted on climate change. In terms of government, since the Chinese government sent a delegation to participate to negotiations at the United Nations on climate change issues in 1990, related domestic policy was intensively disseminated. In October 2003, the National Coordination Committee on Climate Change was established, which is the interdepartmental coordination organization dealing with climate change and whose main duty is to discuss important issues in the field of climate change, coordinate different departments to develop policies and activities concerning climate change, organize negotiations with foreign countries, and make decisions related to general interdepartmental issues on climate change. In 2006, it released the National Assessment Report on Climate Change, which concerned China’s contribution to global climate change and its impact. In addition to the research done by the authorities, science journalists, represented by Jia Hepeng (the British science and development network’s Chinese Regional Coordinator and executive director of the World Federation of Science Journalists), were also active in climate change. They called on science reporters and environmental journalists, through both online and offline communication exchange activities, such as “scientific salons,” to analyze and put forward the countermeasures for reporting the current status of and any existing problems in Chinese coverage on climate change from the perspective of journalism and communication. Their works include Path for Climate Change Coverage, Global Warming, Science Communication and Public Participation in Science and Technology: Analysis of the Spread of Climate Change Technology in China, which promoted the media industry and academia’s focus on climate change to a certain extent. Furthermore, although NGOs in China were outside the mainstream strength for advocating climate change issues, they were also active in making their own voices heard. In 2007, seven nongovernmental organizations, including Friends of Nature, Global Village of Beijing, Green Earth Volunteers, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, Greenpeace, and Action Aid, organized a Chinese citizens community panel aimed at discussing the issues and gathering the opinions surrounding climate change in order to agree on future action strategies based on local community needs. In the same year, the team released the report Warming in China: Thinking and Doing in Civil Society and published the first edition of Chinese Civil Society Addressing Climate Change during the Bali international climate negotiations. The two works, for the first time, systematically presented Chinese civil society’s response to and positions on climate change, and called on developed and developing countries to jointly explore global low-carbon and sustainable development (China News Service, 2009). Chinese NGOs occupied a pivotal position in the study of climate change and gradually led the public awareness towards climate change.

Climate Change Communication Research After 2007

In November 2006, Qin Dahe, director of China Meteorological Administration, stressed that the central government was concerned about global warming and its impact on China. The media, with a keen sense, was immediately aware of the shift in national climate change policy. In January 2007, the Chinese Academy of Sciences issued the National Assessment Report on Climate Change. In the same year, the IPCC released four sets of work reports and held the thirteenth conference of the parties of UNFCCC on the island of Bali. These events directly led to changes in the way Chinese media reported climate change. Since then, the impact of global warming on China and the relationship between China’s greenhouse gas emissions and climate change were no longer sensitive areas for media reports. “The Climate Crisis,” published in the February 2007 issue of the magazine Financial, confronted the impacts of global warming on China and the country’s response to it. This could be considered as a strong indication of the transformation of Chinese media’s climate change reports. 2007 was also the year when China began to take center stage at international negotiations on climate change, and it indicated a new start for Chinese media on providing coverages on issues of climate change, and foreign media also paid due attention to China’s relationship with climate change.

Reports on climate change were no longer exclusive to the party newspaper and professional newspapers; market newspapers also gradually came to focus on the issue. Climate change reporting was no longer limited to environmental or development issues, but now also concerned many other aspects, including the economy, science, and environment. More and more organizations and individuals joined the discussion on climate change for a variety of reasons. Reflecting on the news, reports on climate change from various newspaper outlets since 2007 have flowed out in an almost endless stream. Compared to the years prior to 2006, climate change achieved a sharp increase in terms of the number of news stories, agenda, and frame. In addition to the qualitative change in news reports on climate change, research on climate issues has also considered to proceed. For example, science journalist Jia Hepeng launched a “Chinese climate change club” in 2008; China Climate Change Communication was jointly set up by the press, the Center for Social Development of People’s University, and Oxfam Hong Kong in 2009; enterprises established “C-Team” in 2015; and so on. The above not only shows the climate problem gradually obtaining domestic media attention, but also provided a window for us, by examining domestic media reports, to observe the disputes and consensus reached in promoting global cooperation on climate change.

It is necessary to mention that the Chinese media environment was in a relatively closed state for a long time; market competition and the elements of the old communist legacy of state control were the two main factors guiding media production, and the media industry was seeking a balance between these two factors. In a background of dramatic social transformation in China, the rise of the Internet has become a new form of media revolution; specifically, the perspective of citizens, which was lacking in the traditional media environment, can be expressed with the help of Internet, and civil society activities can be conducted through it. Media communication in China is gradually stripping itself of the one-dimensional, homogenous, hierarchical, and vertical characteristics, and acquiring more multidimensional, heterogeneous, nonhierarchical, and horizontal features (Eide, Kunelius, & Kumpu, 2010). The characteristics of the communication environment and the change within the media environment became the background for studying media environment changes and climate change, contributing to our understanding of what kinds of change have taken place and the reason for this change in media reports on climate issues.

The Evolution of Attention and Themes/Frames of Coverage

In 2008, due to an unprecedented number of natural disasters such as the Wenchuan earthquake, presenting disasters against the background of global warming became a new perspective when reporting on climate change. But another development was that the international financial crisis and Beijing Olympic Games also dispersed media interest in climate change. Therefore, in terms of aggregate reporting numbers, compared to the year 2007, the year 2008 actually had less reporting. The year 2008 was characterized by reporting on freezing rain and snow disasters occurring at the beginning of the year in the south. After this, whether at home or abroad, when extreme weather events, climate anomalies, or other disasters occurred, the media would discuss the relationship between the incident and climate change. In the coverage, two points of view could be detected, one linking climate change as the cause of the disaster and an opposing view against such a claim. Events debated included the heavy rain in the south in 2009, severe drought in southwest China in 2010, and Russian forest fires in 2010.

In 2007, China made its debut on the international stage for climate change. At the time, with the image of a developing country, as compared with the mature governance and research experience in other countries, China was still in its infancy. Therefore, in general, from the year 2007 to 2008, China’s media reports on climate change mainly showed the voice of a small number of people. First of all, as mentioned earlier, climate issues were linked to national politics, so there is no doubt that climate reporting represented the voices of various politicians (government officials), whereas voices from NGOs and individuals were less prevalent, and the voices of business actors were negligible. Of these, the voices of foreign politicians and NGOs were given more attention than those of their domestic counterparts. It was found that the information sources of most climate change reports were from Western media institutions, whereas the views of domestic climate scientists and experts were hardly ever cited in the relevant reports.

After the year 2009, with the rapid development of domestic climate change reporting, the voices of domestic scientists, experts, and NGOs, rather than foreign voices, frequently appeared in Chinese reports on climate issues, showing that the political game at the climate summit was no longer the sole focus of media reports. From the 2009 to 2015, China’s climate change media reports and research became increasingly mature.

In 2009, “climate change” was undoubtedly the most popular media phrase in the media. At the end of the year, the Copenhagen world climate conference held by the UN was the world’s largest climate negotiation in history (Zheng & Li, 2011). At the meeting, some political figures and media from Western countries blamed China for failing to achieve positive results, and Western media’s negative opinion seriously affected China’s image. This, coupled with Chinese media’s failure to effectively deal with and resolve the crisis of public opinion, resulted in a collective aphonia. At this point, climate change became the focus of attention and study. In addition, the “carbon complex” discourse emerged as a new trend in the media coverage of climate change. Among the terms characteristic of this discourse, “low-carbon” was introduced into the media in stories concerning the issue. There is no doubt that the low-carbon discourse was one of the main driving factors for the climax of climate change reporting in 2009. If Chinese media could not fit the perspective of people’s livelihoods into climate change coverage in the past, “low-carbon” undoubtedly provided the opportunity to report on climate change from the perspective of politics and science, extending to the fields of economy, society, art, fashion, and culture. Zheng Baowei, professor of the Chinese People’s University, believed that the climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 should be regarded as the real beginning of Chinese climate change communication. Accordingly, setting the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change as the beginning of a new era, the climate of Chinese communication research could be divided into the “prehistoric” and “current history” stages.

In 2010, domestic media continued the previous year’s enthusiasm and tried to report climate change in different ways. Media reports on the issue reached a climax and truly fulfilled the four functions of news media: disseminator of knowledge of climate change, climate change supervisor, setter of the climate change agenda, and communicator to address climate change (Zheng & Gong, 2012). Due to the climate change conference held in Cancún, Mexico in November of that year failing to achieve effective results, people turned their hope towards the Durban climate conference. By 2011, the media’s enthusiasm for climate change gradually decreased, and the number of related reports decreased. However, while the news media became periodic on climate change, academia and NGOs in China and other research organizations continued carrying out their research and activities nonstop. For example, “the climate project group” held “Climate Conference of The BASIC Countries and Mexico” in December 2010 in Cancún, promoting the development of the climate propagation, and made the public and media understand better the BASIC Countries affected by the impact of climate change. In March 2011, they launched a new project—“Walking to South Africa—On Climate Communication Strategy”—effectively showing the efforts of China’s scientific research institutions on climate change. In September of the same year, they once again hosted “The Road to South Africa, Climate Change and International Symposium on Climate Communication” to investigate national climate communication strategy and achieve the goal of tripartite cooperation between the government, media, and NGOs, marking the point when climate communication research in China began the process of international cooperation. Climate Communication Practice and Theory was subsequently published and was the first work in China to discuss climate communication theory and practice, and as the first of such kind of work in a developing country, the perspective and methods in the work has been praised by the international community (National Development and Reform Commission, 2012).

From 2012 to 2014, number of domestic media reports on climate change fluctuated, but overall, the number of reports climaxed in 2010. Since then, the number has been decreasing (Fernández-Reyes, Piñuel-Raigada, & Vicente-Mariño, 2015). The major reason for this drop in Chinese media reporting on climate change was the large volatility caused, to a large extent, by a kind of event-driven reporting mode (Chen Jiazhi, 2011). During times when the United Nations held a climate change conference, news reports on climate change would increase dramatically, such as during the Doha Climate Change Conference in 2012, the Warsaw Climate Change Conference in 2013, and the Lima Climate Change Conference in 2014. In addition, when national climate change policy changes appeared, such as when the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published the annual Climate Change Green Book in 2012, 2013, and 2014, the media reported accordingly; the occurrence of natural disasters and extreme weather events such as drought, flood, and so on would also attract the interest of the media. The periodic reporting model reflected the limitations of climate change as a representation of environmental issues with news value, and it also led to the difficulties in climate communication and deficiency in public awareness of it. For this reason, the China National Climate Project Group turned their research interests away from climate communication and practice and towards public interest, carrying out the national survey of public’s cognition of climate communication, organizing activities such as how climate issues spread into the community, the enterprise, the campus, the rural areas, and so on, and actively promoting public participation in action on climate change. In addition, ever since domestic climate change was integrated into national climate governance in 2011, China’s environmental NGOs have played a huge role, acting as a bridge to boost the internalization process domestically, positively responding to climate change with practical action and participating in the design of climate governance norms on the national level. In actual work, NGOs selected appropriate perspectives and worked in response to climate change guided by their particular visions—conducting pilot work to carry out new ways to cope with the experience and to share the experience with other parties, raising public awareness, carrying out policy research and advocacy, and so forth. Chinese enterprises, as the main force for dealing with climate change, also began to play an important role in energy saving, emission reduction, environmental protection, and response to climate change, and they explored ways to cope with the new development path (Zheng & Wang, 2013).

In 2015, the Paris climate change conference was held. On the premise of the Kyoto Protocol expiring soon and it having failed to entice many countries to solve climate issues, “the goal of the conference [became] to reach binding measures to solve the problem of climate change [and] to curb global warming”; therefore, from the preparation of the conference to its start, it was met with great anticipation. In this context, the domestic media put a lot of effort into covering all parts of the meeting—before, during, and after—resulting in attention from all walks of life on climate issues, and the overall effect was significant. From 2009 (when it suffered a setback) to 2015, China’s media, after several years of effort, had made great progress in climate change reporting, manifested in an increase in reporting perspectives and in skillful news reports, gradually transitioning into a stable number of reports on climate change. Climate change communication also matured, and scholars have been exploring new fields on the basis of theory and new evidence. Zheng Baowei, in regards to “[t]he construction of the discourse system of external communication on climate change in China,” put forward that:

[. . .] we need to construct a frame for action to guide the behavior of five subjects, including the government, the media, NGOs, the private and the public. Among them, the government is the leader, the media is the guide, the NGO is the promoter, the enterprise assumes the responsibility, and the public is the participant.

(Zheng, 2014)

It is really important to mobilize enterprises and increase public participation and enthusiasm, since public awareness helps strengthen the sense of responsibility of the enterprise, which will then guide and direct both industry and public awareness towards energy saving, emission reduction, environmental protection, response to climate change, and the maintenance of an eco-friendly civilization. Targeting enterprises and encouraging them to actively assume responsibility was one of the main issues to be addressed. As part of this focus on enterprise, fruitful efforts were embarked upon. C-Team, established in 2015, was the first domestic new entrepreneurial union leaders’ response to global climate change, consolidating the strength of Chinese enterprises. Centering on the themes of “Clean,Climate,Champions, Changes,” it pushed to accelerate enterprise adoption of carbon emission reduction and clean energy policies and to achieve green sustainable development. In order to promote the understanding of enterprises and the public on the climate crisis and enhance the international influence and mobility of Chinese entrepreneurs in dealing with climate change, a considerable amount of exploration and other efforts have been carried out (Central Plains Network, 2016).

A Change of Agenda

As mentioned before, China’s media reports on climate change were more driven by events, and how impact of climate change relates to the cycle of news events. But after the year 2007, due to the hybridization and broadening of the scope and definition of climate issues leading to the increase of the subjects involving the issue, “climate change” became the general all-encompassing topic. Therefore, media coverage of climate change had not rigidly adhered to issues and a specific frame from the past, but rather kept constantly changing in the process of interacting between a multitude of factors such as politics, economy, science, and the public. Additionally, because of the existence of different types of newspapers such as party, professional, and market-oriented publications, which, due to their difference in nature, all have different perspectives and points of emphasis when reporting on the related issues.

Let us take the party newspaper People’s Daily as an example. Prior to 2007, the agenda of their coverage on climate change mainly concentrated on climate conferences, environmental hazards, and air pollution. After 2007, reports on air pollution were dramatically reduced, while the topics of climate conferences, emissions reduction strategies, and governance objectives were still at the forefront of reporting. Comparing these topics, “governance objectives” always featured in the top three when reporting climate change issues; this comparison also revealed that People’s Daily focused on the policy of “Climate Governance” all the time. As one of the “organs” of the Chinese Communist Party, People’s Daily paid more attention to setting objectives and creating solutions within the context of Chinese leadership (Li, 2012). After 2007, “emission reduction strategies” became the agenda they focused on, which is a result of “emission reduction” being the key implementation strategy of national climate governance. The reduction in reports under the agenda of “air pollution,” indicated that People’s Daily has jumped out of the frame of informing the public about the ruined state of their natural environment, because nowadays, continued reports on “air pollution” have had difficulty raising additional public interest. The paper has turned to reports that emphasize “how to manage,” which indicates their wish to lead the people from a level of “passive acceptance” to “initiative action,” from “ignorance” to “awakening.” In terms of the reporting frame, it transitioned from the previous environmental frame into the action frame. This differentiation was the result of a late trend in the framing: The strength of the environmental frame was consistent all the way on, whereas the strength of the action frame was constantly rising and eventually overtook the environmental frame. It not only reflected a change of value for People’s Daily as a news outlet, but also mirrored the change of the Chinese government’s focus on climate change management.

As a newspaper in the meteorological industry, China Meteorological News is not only the official media outlet of the Central Weather Bureau with the general characteristics of being an “organ” newspaper, but also the “exclusive bloc” in domestic climate change reporting; it actively learns and introduces new ideas and new scientific and technological achievements from related foreign field research. Early on, when reporting the news related to climate change, coverage from China Meteorological News was more from the perspective of scientific professionals, with the reporting agenda concentrating on “global warming,” “air pollution,” “environment hazards,” and so on; these agenda topics were mainly concentrated within the highly frequent environmental news, climate change science, and technology news. These were also the themes of the reports that the newspaper was most concerned with, and they occupied very important positions in the content of the newspaper. Analyzing and reporting from a professional point of view, due to its specialization, has had difficulty swaying the public into action. After 2007, the China Meteorological News continued its focus on climate change, increasing the number of reports from year to year, while also continuing its focus on “hard news.” The study found that “environmental news” reports in the “China Meteorological newspaper” occupied the largest proportion when compared with all of the other reporting agendas it set, and the proportion of the other agendas such as “politics,” “economy,” and “social news” was shrinking, making it clear that the importance of climate change had been boosted, so that professional newspapers gave it a high degree of concern. But it is worth noting that within the climate change coverage by China Meteorological News, hard news was in the majority, due to the tendency to use official sources from government institutions, government organizations and officials, or experts and scholars, leading to a lack of vividness in their reports. With that said, nonobjective conditions also exist in their coverage; for example, when reporting on the human factors of climate change, it rarely involved the influence of natural factors.

When Copenhagen held the climate conference in 2009, in addition to the official media reports, market-oriented newspapers also began reporting on the news from the conference. This was the signal sent by popular media with “strong market orientation” to note the strengthening of climate change issues, marking communication with the public as the main theme began to play a more effective role in climate change issues (Li & Cai, 2013). Through the study, we found that, just like party and professional newspapers, market-oriented newspapers were also periodic in their reporting on climate change. The reported peak concentrated from June to July, and November to December each year; the former period is the time when the state releases climate-related policies, while the latter is when the annual climate change conference is held. Outside these two special periods in the year, the relatively few news reports in the market-oriented media on the issue of climate change were mainly related to the theme of economic development. As in the conventional sense, climate change was mainly regarded as an issue associated with the economy. Due to the market-oriented media serving the public in most cases, the reporting agenda on climate change issues was more diverse, usually including environmental science, environmental protection, and similar issues. On the whole, the reporting agenda on climate change issues was more diverse, but during the periods when the International Conference on Climate Change was held and the national climate policy was announced, they were still aligned with the party newspaper, setting a more political climate agenda. It should be pointed out that, when the market-oriented media reported on climate change issues, it also exposed some problems, such as using just a single source, possible bias within the source selection process, and more choices available for domestic government agencies and officials compared with the other types of organizations.

Apart from the change in agenda, the framing of reports changed as well. Entman (1993) defined framing as an “act” to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a piece of communication text, in an effort to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or solution recommendation for the issue described. Generally speaking, the frame is often evident in the title of each story. As Xu Peixi pointed out, frames used by Chinese media to report on climate change issues included “consequences,” “blame,” and “division.” Through studying the climate change related reports from the Xinhua Daily Telegraph (which serves the public and the party) and the Global Times (which serves the market), from the Bali climate agreement in 2007 to the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, the “consequences” frame was used frequently in reports, and a heavy emphasis was on reasons, results, and solutions, such as in the report “Damage of wetlands speeds up global warming.” In addition to the consequences frame, another type of framing is that of “divisions,” which includes two levels: The first kind of division is between developed countries and developing countries, rich and poor countries, industrialized and nonindustrialized countries, such as in the article “Developed countries should take the historical responsibility,” “While taking the lead in greatly cutting emission, developed countries should also help developing countries respond to climate change,” and so on. The second level is the “EU vs. U.S. division.” This division frame results from that, for a long time, the climate change debate was widely regarded in Chinese reports as the fight between EU and the United States. The EU was described as an active sponsor pushing the climate summit, but obviously with consideration for its own interests, while the United States was depicted as the major obstacle in striking the deal (Eide et al., 2010). Peixi Xu said, “this report reflects the Chinese attitude of sitting on top of the mountain to watch the tigers fight.” It is easy to understand that from 2007 to 2009 China had just entered international arena of climate change, and that domestic and foreign media were paying too much attention to China.

However, due to the accelerated development of Chinese industrialization, at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, some Western countries began to accuse China of an act of omission. The accusations were based on this logic—though Chinese is a developing country, due to its development, it has become one of the major countries contributing to climate change—blaming China on failure to reach an agreement. Since then, domestic reporting on climate change issues began to change again. The consequences frame has been drastically reduced, while the division frame changed from the previous “EU vs. U.S.” to “China vs. U.S.,” “China vs. EU, India, Brazil, Russia” and so on. From 2009 to 2012, the division frame mainly focused on “China vs. U.S.,” while at the same time, the blame frame was also widely used, mainly reflecting the feeling that, as a new player in the global forum, China was being bullied and suppressed by the Western powers, whereas the United States was the one who should be condemned. From 2012 till now, the blame frame has gradually been reduced, while the division frame still exists, but within a “cooperation” frame, such as the articles “Sino-American Joint Declaration on Climate” and “Heads of China and U.S. meeting in Beijing reached consensus and achievements.” In addition to these frames, a “refutation” frame was injected into news stories after 2009, from the standpoint of China being blamed in the climate conference, a domestic media frame began to be used when reporting the issue of climate change, such as in the articles “China refutes the condemnation of British Prime Minister,” “Minister of Foreign affairs of China refutes the rumor that China did not consult small island countries,” and so on. In addition to the refutation frame, “self-congratulatory” and “effort-oriented” frames were put under the spotlight frequently after 2009, with the aim to emphasize that China has been making efforts to address climate change issues, such as in the article “International community praises Chinese response to climate change.” When being condemned by international media, a self-congratulatory frame was used hand in hand with a refutation frame.

With the preceding discussion, based on different types of newspapers, we analyzed the change in reporting agenda and existing problems of party, professional, and market-oriented newspapers in their coverage on climate change after the year 2007. It could be easily seen that, after 2007, the reporting agenda of every type of newspaper greatly changed. This kind of drastic shift in the reporting agenda not only shows that a different focus was used by the newspapers at different times, but that in the large field of public opinion related to climate change there is a continuous game being played between the fields of politics, economic, and science, as well as the complex interaction process between the government, experts, scholars, and NGOs.

Role of Different Stakeholders Affecting Climate Change Reporting

The Political Environment

The locus of the media coverage on climate change did not follow the cycle of scientific development on climate change, but is closely related to the development of climate change policy. Prior to 2007, domestic coverage on climate change mainly concentrated on the climate conference or air pollution, with few reports on global warming. The reason for this imbalance mainly stems from the sensitive nature of climate issues. In 2006, President Hu Jintao stressed that the climate issue was also an issue of economic development, and climate change consequently became the core political agenda. Moreover, due to China’s media environment, reports on climate change were stuck in a certain “safe” range during the time prior to this. The media, as the disseminator of climate change knowledge, was just acting in the role of the “informer” of climate change to the public in the past. Therefore, during this period, the government dominated the coverage, agenda, and frame selection of climate change reports. As the first year of an era for “climate change” in China, 2007 marks the beginning of China entrance into the political arena of international climate change. Through to the year 2009, the Chinese government participated in high-profile global climate negotiations. During this period, reports on climate change suddenly multiplied, and a “harmonious” tone was often set in most of the reports. It is inevitable for political correctness to maintain harmony between media reports and the policies and positions of the government on climate change. With the increase in reporting numbers on climate issues, the deepening of issue exploration, and the diversification of reporting agenda, ideas about climate change are no longer limited to being just the interest of the government. More and more voices, such as those of experts, the public, and NGOs, are stepping into the discussion of climate change. It is clear that politics is no longer the only factor dominating the coverage of newspapers. When considering factors influencing climate change, the media began to redirect its focus on other agendas such as the economy, science, culture, and humanistic ethics. Reports on climate change seem to have become a game, which also led to a change in domestic media coverage on climate change after 2007. It could be seen that, during the daily routine of media organizations and the news discipline, official sources with close ties to the media have became the “primary definer” of climate change issues. Political discourse still plays an important and commanding role in defining the climate change issue. Consequently, it is still official government organizations and various kinds of officials who constitute the main source of climate information, a fact that is reflected in all of the analysis presented up to this point.

The political factors mentioned above mainly refer to the impact of the domestic political environment on the climate change reports and climate communication, but it cannot be denied that the international political environment also has a certain effect on how climate change gets reported. Climate issues, initially a development problem, became a key topic in China, and also because it is an issue concerning all mankind, it became a long-lasting global topic for international debate, which is reflected during the increasingly important biennial climate change conference. Although all countries hold the same philosophy towards global climate change, that is, that a concerted effort to manage climate issues is needed in order to achieve the long-term survival and development of mankind, climate issues are closely related to politics and economic development, so any change in the international political environment has also changed the direction of climate governance and reporting in different countries. Taking China as an example, this is clearly reflected in its media content and frame of climate change coverage. Prior to 2007, China never set foot on the international climate change discussion stage, so foreign climate change policies and voices were rarely seen or heard in the domestic coverage related to climate change; in fact, no research on climate communication had even been conducted yet. From 2007 to 2009, as “the newcomer” developing country, China was lacking in discourse within the international arena about climate issues; to enhance mutual understanding and learn from foreign experience in climate change developments and governance, domestic media began large-scale reporting on foreign climate governance. Through these reports, the Chinese public heard more points of view and voices on climate issues from abroad. At the same time, domestic researchers and scholars started theoretical research. After 2009, as a now principle member with some experience, China began to occupy a place at the negotiating table. While the international community unexpectedly blamed climate change on the failure to reach an agreement, with the gradual maturation of the domestic reporting environment on climate change, the Chinese media began to move the spotlight towards the domestic situation. Refutation of the Western powers led by the United States was added into the framing of the coverage; additionally, affirmation of Chinese efforts also continued within the coverage. Since 2012, China has been a positive force in its contribution to the climate agreement at all times, and this positive image prevails in the international political environment. Consequently, domestic reports began to emphasize the achievements China has made on climate governance and the active role it has played in tackling the global climate problem. During this period, domestic scholars have carried out in-depth and comprehensive research on domestic climate communication and have obtained fruitful and mature results. They also began to consider how to successfully conduct China’s climate communication abroad. All in all, the international political environment plays not only a direct role in the domestic media and related research, but also an indirect part in media reports and communication research by affecting the domestic political environment. Only by recognizing the joint forces of domestic and international political factors can we develop a better understanding on domestic climate change issues.

Support from NGOs

China’s environmental NGOs were concerned with climate issues early on. In 2007, seven nongovernmental organizations including Friends of Nature, Global Village of Beijing, Green Earth Volunteers, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, Greenpeace, and Action Aid, banded together to form a “Chinese citizens’ community to address climate change panels,” releasing the report “Warming of China: Thinking and Doing in Civil Society” in the same year. They also published the first edition of Chinese Civil Society Addressing of Climate Change during the Bali international climate negotiations. Then through the Internet, newspapers, and other media opening up to the public and nongovernmental organizations, they collected information to draw up a picture of the position held by Chinese civil society in regards to climate change and organized a series of discussions between these nongovernmental organizations. This subsequently led to Responding to Climate Change Stance in China Civil Society in 2009, which was jointly published after nearly forty institutions actively participated in the discussion and revision process. On climate issues, China’s environmental NGOs have done a great deal of work. For the purpose of being a voice for the public, they gathered the opinions among the public and helped express the will of the public in a space parallel to the official discourse; in addition, they were also positive about providing advice for setting domestic policies regarding climate issues. But because of the problem of the legitimacy of these organizations, it had been very difficult for these NGOs to get attention for a long time. In 2008, the Chinese government announced that it would cooperate with NGOs on climate change issues; so far, activities of NGOs have been advocated more frequently, playing a significant part in the discussion and development of climate change issues among the people. After 2009, cooperation between Chinese delegation and NGOs was smoother, and the mode of operation has gradually transformed from the routine of holding press conferences during the Copenhagen climate conference into a more flexible and proactive way of carrying out a variety of interactions and cooperation efforts. Zheng Baowei, professor at Renmin University of China, pointed out that as the three key parts in climate communication, government, the media, and NGOs have their differing and critical roles, all contributing on the stage of the international climate negotiations. In addition to the “Chinese citizens’ community to address climate change panels,” the most active NGO is Oxfam. In 2009, Oxfam Hong Kong and Renmin University of China Journalism and Social Development Center set up the Project of Climate China: Climate Change Communication. In addition to the aforementioned Zheng Baowei, the main members of the project team include Wang Binbin, who is a member from Oxfam. The research purpose of the project includes (1) taking the lead in putting forward and defining the concept of “climate communication” in China; (2) mainly viewing the three parts—government, media, and NGO—as the main figures of climate communication activities, and analyzing climate communication strategies and tactics of the three; (3) exploring the status and experience in the climate communication of developing countries including China; (4) investigating the climate communication practice of government representatives who once participated in international climate negotiations, journalists, and NGO staff, and then writing papers related to how “climate change issues were communicated in China”; and (5) training the journalists and related staff who will participate in the UN climate conference. Studying the climate change reports after 2007, we can find that, as mentioned, the government is not the only dominant factor when reporting climate change; NGOs have also affected the reporting and have gradually risen to become one of the dominant factors. There are both direct and indirect effects: Their direct effect is reflected in more and more news sources of media coverage and from NGOs, while their indirect effect is reflected in how the NGOs are influencing the media agenda by affecting public opinion on climate issues.

Participation of Enterprises

As for the market-oriented media, these are usually rooted in the market, so it is inevitable for them to interact with a variety of economic forces during its course of business (Zheng & Wang, 2012). The most direct embodiment comes from advertising, for advertisers can influence the media to some extent. Limiting greenhouse gas emissions is covered in climate governance policy, and limiting greenhouse gas emissions undoubtedly has an impact on fields related to industry. Therefore, in some cases, fossil fuel companies are bound to prevent the media from reporting on human-induced climate issues by providing a media company with considerable advertising fees it needs to ensure the company’s normal operation. If the market-oriented media accepts the conditions set by their sponsoring enterprises, this will no doubt affect the reports pertaining to climate change issues. Ross Gelbspan (2005), a senior American environmental journalist, had once mentioned in a commentary that a television network in the United States received the threat of having their advertising endorsements withdrawn by certain oil and automotive companies because the network suggested the relationship between floods, climate change, and these companies in their reports (Gelbspan, 2005). In addition to this kind of negative impact, the economic factor also has a positive effect on promoting reports on climate issues. Figuring out how to deal with the problems caused by climate change has become a trend worldwide. The potential damage the climate could bring to the enterprise is direct and far-reaching, and suppressing the issue is not a useful solution, as mentioned. Accordingly, it has become a better choice for enterprises to team up to discuss how to deal with the challenges climate change brings and to seek opportunities for development. On May 8, 2008, “high-level forum for enterprises responding to climate change opportunities and challenges” was held in Beijing. Many Chinese enterprises and industry associations attended the meeting to explore how to take action to meet the opportunities and challenges of enterprise amidst global climate change. On August 5, 2010, the first session of the Green Economy and Climate Change Conference on International Cooperation was sponsored by the Chinese state think-tank China Center for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE) in Beijing. The goal of the meeting was mainly to encourage the Copenhagen Accord into practical action and propel the Cancún Climate Conference in Mexico to make substantial progress. After a lapse of six years, under the major background of the “U.S.-China Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change” and the Treaty of Paris, the second session of the Green Economy and Climate Change Conference on international cooperation was ceremoniously held at the Beijing International Hotel on in June 13–14, 2016. The theme of the conference was “low carbon innovation and green future—the force of models,” which aimed to promote international exchange between the government, the enterprise, and the think tank, to analyze national low-carbon innovation policies and business opportunities, and to promote to jointly cope with the challenge of climate change between government and nongovernmental forces. These meetings and activities exploring the issue of climate change from an economic point of view not only set their reporting agenda as the content of coverage, but through carrying out activities, also enhanced the public awareness on climate issues, which played a role in stimulating the agenda-setting process and in expanding reports by the media on climate issues to a deeper level. In recent years, the reporting agenda has become increasingly diversified. This kind of change was not only affected by the impact of government and public welfare organizations; enterprises were also playing their role. Although this impact has been relatively small, in the foreseeable future enterprises will play a greater role, resulting from more Chinese entrepreneurs willing to undertake more responsibility to respond to the mission of solving the problem of global climate change.

National Mood

Apart from the impact of the government, NGOs, and enterprises, Xu Peixi also proposed a fresh idea. Through the analysis of framing in the media coverage, he concluded that the national mood is also an important factor when considering the effectiveness of the reports. He pointed out the existence of a historically emotional mechanism of a feeling that arises from the experience of being victimized and humiliated by Western powers over the past two centuries. The memories of the Opium Wars and the invasion of the Eight-Power Allied Forces remain alive and well among the Chinese, citizens holding the belief that history mirrors the present (Eide et al., 2010). In the background, the Chinese newspaper industry has a mission to fight against the Western powers. Such feelings do exist, but we think that only in some of the frames mentioned above, such as the division frame and the self-congratulatory frame, does emotion play a small part, but this does not affect the media reporting on the issue of climate change. The factors that determine the media coverage are a combination of the government, business, the public, and many others.

The analysis presented detailed the impact of the government, public service organizations, and enterprises on media coverage, but it is not limited to these. Science experts, such as science journalists represented by Jia Hepeng and some experts researching climate and the environment, have conducted the discussion related to climate issues in their respective fields and spread their knowledge across the field of communication. However, due to the narrow channel and few resources, they have failed to achieve a major effect on the reporting agenda of media coverage. Apart from this, the vast majority of the public, after nearly ten years of absorbing knowledge about the climate, now has a deeper understanding on the issue, and gradually the audience is also starting to influence the media, though due to the difficulty of achieving the right of access to media, their influence on traditional media is still minimal. However, nowadays, with technological empowerment thanks to the popularity of the Internet, the majority of the public are able to actually make an impact through new media, but we shall leave this discussion for a future time.


By sorting out the coverage of Chinese media on climate change and the various kinds of research on climate communication, we found that climate change reporting in China and research on climate change communication have undergone a process of starting from scratch and slowly growing to maturity. In this process, the government, the media, academia, enterprises, NGOs, and the public are all playing a significant role, but their respective powers are not balanced. They are going through a transformation from being dominated by one party to multiple parties, namely from being led by only the government, to today’s interaction between the government and NGOs. The situation led to bias in media reports on climate change, as indicated in the analysis presented. Moreover, because our country entered into climate change issues relatively late, the media did less in the area of promoting China’s positions internationally. The analysis pointed out that the international mainstream media authority paid little attention to China’s environmental report. The basic rate of reporting on China’s environmental issues was below 1%, which is quite common for an environmental issues and most foreign media outlets considered China’s environmental problems to be very bad (Ju, 2014). Under the circumstances of the West being stronger than the East in regards to international public opinion, how does one begin to change the image of China’s climate environment governance? It may need the media to make up for this lack of presence. Finally, the role of individual citizens in response to climate change has not been highly valued for many years. The reasons for the neglect, according to Li, Liu, & Li (2012), was that public participation in practice was contested and negotiated; in the end it depended on whether the public had the desire and capacity to gain the access needed to participate. Subsequent research will discuss what kind of role the public plays in environmental activism and whether the participation leads to environmental policymaking. Apart from this, reporting the public attitude and participation about climate change also deserves further consideration. In a word, although our country’s climate communication has become increasingly mature, many problems still exist. The advent of the Internet era provides more possibilities for climate change communication and changes the way traditional media reports on climate change as well. However, this article focuses on traditional media, and we hope through this introduction that we can provide an overall understanding of China’s climate change communication for readers.


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