Are Pollution Stories Anti-Chinese? Sometimes, yes.

James Fallows notes, but does not really respond to, a criticism of his persistent posts on bad air quality days in China. A reader recounts the thoughts of a Chinese friend, who “pointed out that the focus on pollution before the Olympics is a phenomenon of the typical inability of the Western press to focus on more than one idea at a time, when they’re thinking of China (if at all).” Where are the stories about Beijing’s efforts to replace coal heat with electric installations?

Let me start by pointing out what Fallows didn’t bring up: It’s simply not an accurate representation of “Western” news coverage to say they only focus on the environment. Thousands of stories come up in Google News searches on China and human rights, or China and Darfur. The U.S. press is preoccupied much of the time with a possible economic and military threat from China. The way I see it, at least the English-language news world focuses on several major story-lines with China, and the environment is one. It may be more prominent because the environment (thankfully) is a major story overall, and China plays an important role in the global environment.

That said, it is not unreasonable to criticize a large number of North American and European press reports for a failure to put China’s present environmental problems in perspective, especially when it comes to air quality in the cities. I happened to have a brief conversation yesterday with a man who was at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in the late ’60s. He remembered burning coal for heat—the stoves glowing red in some cases because of the high burning temperature of coal. And he remembered façades blackened from centuries of coal smoke.

In Beijing, I told him, some neighborhoods have seen their streets dug up repeatedly over the last weeks in preparation for heating season as the city installed brand new electric heating systems to replace coal-powered radiators. This year, the hutong apartment I live in is heated by electricity for the first time (aside from space-heaters), and coal is no longer the primary source of heat here. Before the systems turned on this week, some neighbors were burning coal to keep warm on cold nights. No more.

The new heaters have timers. Mine is programmed to come on at 10 p.m. and stay on until 6 a.m. My landlord tells me we’re doing this because electricity is cheaper at night. But the key here is that I can turn mine off when I leave town. I can also turn it off if I’m warm enough under a good blanket and don’t need the leftover heat in the morning. (Now to better seal my windows before the deep freeze…)

The English-language press is not devoid of stories recognizing the efforts by Chinese authorities to improve the environment. It’s also not terribly rare to read an article that notes London’s blackened history. People in the United States need only to visit steel country and take a good look at the University of Pittsburgh’s iconic tower to see some old U.S. industrial gunk. (They might have cleaned it up, but you could see it when I was there for a wedding a few years ago.)

When Chinese state media stories argue that developed countries who have already gotten rich at a cost to the environment should be responsible for tightening their belts more than those still developing, it’s hard to argue. But just try to get that sort of thinking through the U.S. Congress, and notice how far the Kyoto Protocol got with that ethic partially enshrined.

A sense of responsibility for past emissions needs to accompany pressures on emerging emitters. Richer countries with cleaner environments should work with poorer countries in the process of development to slow environmental degradation. The air in Beijing is indeed quite striking when you come from the United States—especially for me, from a background in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. But as the same Rhodes Scholar told me when I mentioned that I balked at jogging in Beijing air, “get over it.” Whether or not it’s the only focus of the “Western” press, and even though I don’t believe Fallows intends to be demeaning or contribute to a paternalistic narrative, putting across the message that “holy moly these people have dirty cities” does not create the understanding we’ll need to put together real solutions in the future. And dirty or not, we all keep going through life here.

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