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January 17, 2022

Responding To: Georgetown Students Share Thoughts on Exchange with Peking University

A Tourist in Ant Forest

Devon Colmer

Of the three discussions my small group had as part of the U.S.-China Student-to-Student Dialogues, our third conversation, focused on climate change and climate governance, was the most interactive and enlightening. The Georgetown and Peking University students clearly felt a sense of responsibility for near-term climate action and shared a cautious optimism in the difference our generation could make. Within that agreement, however, there were reflections of our different national governance systems and how they impact our vision for change. These differences between the young people of the world's largest emitters highlight a growing concern about the balance between bottom-up and top-down climate action.

Our conversation was framed by notes sent by the Chinese side defining the levels at which they believed climate change action could take place. Interestingly, these notes made little mention of the role of industry as an independent actor, a view that was reiterated at the start of our discussion. The Peking students spoke of climate action primarily from the perspective of individual action, while acknowledging an important but remote role for the national government and international bodies. Upon reflection, it is entirely natural that my Chinese peers would place an emphasis on individual action. This not only reflects the limits of external influence on the Chinese government, but also is suited to a country where, as the Peking students pointed out, the level of individual awareness and action is still nascent.

To my ear, however, this focus on individual action felt reductive and risked absolving corporations and policymakers from taking more consequential actions. In response to these concerns, the Chinese students raised the example of Ant Forest, a massive reforestation initiative lead by the Chinese fintech firm Alipay. This program incentivizes Alipay users to live a lower carbon lifestyle by providing in-app rewards and planting real-life trees and greenery in China’s arid northwest. Like many things in China, the scale of the initiative is shocking. Over 500 million people have participated in Alipay Ant Forest and over 100 million trees have been planted because of their actions. This combination of corporate and individual action at scale gave me a greater appreciation for the possibilities envisioned by my Chinese peers. Our group agreed that this program and others like it can meaningfully shift the culture, paving the way for more impactful changes.

On the Georgetown side, there appeared to be an underlying assumption that this form of bottom-up culture-shifting is valuable because it leads to policy advocacy and activism, which can bring more consequential national-level actions. However, as my Chinese colleagues intimated, this pathway is largely closed in their system. Certainly, when the Chinese government chooses to act, it can bring to bear a peerless level of cohesion and effort, but these actions are less likely to be inspired by grassroots initiatives. Therefore, our conversation led me to the conclusion that, while young people in the U.S. and China share a similar perspective on our climate crisis, our governments need to be motivated by different conditions to enact meaningful top-down climate action.

Devon Colmer (MSFS'22) is pursuing a master's degree in the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service with concentrations in science and technology in international affairs and Asian studies.

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