“But the biggest reason China is so filthy isn’t a lack of environmental legislation. It’s rampant corner-cutting by unaccountable politicians and managers at state-owned enterprises trying to meet product quotas. Statism always wrecks the environment.
“That’s a lesson you might have thought Western liberals would have learned following the collapse of the Soviet Union and all the environmental rot it exposed.” Bret Stephens
Why did Western liberals think China was a model for environmentalism?
Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2013, p. A 15
“China is pulling ahead on the environment,” was the title of a 2009 column in Forbes. “China is pushing ahead on renewable technologies with the fervor of a new space race,” Peter Ford reported in the Christian Science Monitor the same year. “Green Giant” was the title of a 7,000-word thumb-sucker by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker, which spelled out the scale of the Chinese government’s investment in green tech.
And there was this: “Being in China right now,” wrote Tom Friedman of the New York Times in January 2010, “I am more convinced than ever that when historians look back at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, they will say that the most important thing to happen was not the Great Recession, but China’s Green Leap Forward. The Beijing leadership understands that the E.T.—Energy Technology—revolution is both a necessity and an opportunity, and they do not intend to miss it.”
Well, all of us columnists have off days.
The heady optimism of four years ago has now given way to more sober views, thanks to the accretion of facts. Facts like 16,000 dead pigs floating down Shanghai’s Whampoa river in March. Or the worst air pollution on record in Beijing in January, with levels of tiny particulate matter reaching levels 25 times higher than the standard in the U.S. Or 80% of the East China Sea lost to fishing because of the pollution, according to Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations. Or 1.2 million premature deaths due to air pollution, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study.
Another nugget: “A recent social media campaign led by locals and international activists shed light on the growing phenomena of ‘cancer villages’—areas where water pollution is so bad that it has led to a sharp rise in diseases like stomach cancer,” wrote Thomas Thompson last month in Foreign Affairs. “The China Geological Survey now estimates that 90% of China’s cities depend on polluted groundwater supplies. Water that has been purified at treatment plants is often recontaminated en route to homes.”
Think about that one as you plan your family holiday in the Middle Kingdom. But think also about how the minters of conventional wisdom managed to get it so totally wrong about China’s environmental prospects, even as the reality of China’s environment burns into your lungs the moment you step outside the airport terminal.
One explanation is that the media’s China boosterism was really Obama boosterism in disguise, following the rule that the best way to promote statism at home is to point to (alleged) successes of statism abroad.
“The Obama administration is busy repairing the energy legacy of its predecessor,” wrote Mr. Osnos. “The stimulus package passed in February  puts more than $38 billion into the Department of Energy for renewable energy projects. . . . Obama vowed to return America’s investment in research and development to a level not seen since the space race. ‘The nation that leads the world in the 21st century clean energy will be the nation that leads in the 21st century global economy,’ [Mr. Obama] said recently.”
It’s hard to say, in the midst of the shale revolution, whether it’s Mr. Obama or his media ventriloquists who sound sillier. But an even sillier mistake was to conflate “green energy” and other supposedly environment-friendly investments with the interests of the environment itself. “Green,” in other words, should not be confused with green.
So it is with China, which is installing wind turbines and producing solar panels at world-beating rates. But as the Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce keeps pointing out, renewables will never substitute for traditional fuels. Had China invested the money and time it wasted on renewables into developing its shale resources and seeking to substitute coal with gas it would be on its way to a greener future. That’s something the Sierra Club might consider in its fervid opposition to fracking, given that Chinese contaminants account for most of the pollution in California’s Lake Tahoe.
Finally, there is the little matter of corruption. Western liberals adore the China model because they think being “China for one day” can force the kind of sweeping environmental legislation that democratic, interest-group driven politics prevents.
But the biggest reason China is so filthy isn’t a lack of environmental legislation. It’s rampant corner-cutting by unaccountable politicians and managers at state-owned enterprises trying to meet production quotas. Statism always wrecks the environment.
That’s a lesson you might have thought Western liberals would have learned following the collapse of the Soviet Union and all the environmental rot it exposed. Instead, it didn’t even occur to them that enthusing about a “Green Leap Forward” didn’t exactly hark back to an auspicious historical precedent.
But then, the left never learns. Let’s just hope the current Leap Forward doesn’t prove as catastrophic as the last one.
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A version of this article appeared May 21, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: China Eco-Boosterism, Revisited.