For most of her young life, nine-year-old Gao Ximan dreamed of becoming a policewoman. But after attending an eight-week online workshop about climate change this summer, she decided being a conservationist was a more important ambition. “Siberian tigers and snow leopards are so cute, but they are dying out,” said Gao, a fourth-grade student at one of the top public schools in Beijing. She stopped using the air conditioner in her bedroom and insisted her family use public transport instead of their car for weekend outings.
Gao’s interest in the environment is something the Chinese government is trying to cultivate in young students as it pursues wide-ranging reforms to eliminate its net emissions of carbon dioxide by 2060. But the nation’s state-led approach to climate change is less tolerant of public debate over how it’s going to get there. In other words, the authorities want children like Gao to support its green campaigns, but would prefer their activism stop at lowering their own carbon footprints.
In school, Gao learned the basic facts: human activities have damaged the environment and greenhouse gas emissions are harmful because they trap heat and accelerate global warming. The lessons revolved around President Xi Jinping’s campaign to make China an “eco-civilization,” a concept that’s led to a range of policies including mandated recycling sorting, building green cities, and banning single-use plastic straws. But the conversation stops there. There’s no discussion of China’s net-zero goal, or the outsized influence the world’s biggest polluter has on the planet’s climate trajectory.
“China’s climate education emphasizes that responsibility lies with the individual and they can make a difference by living a low-carbon life, but they are not the ones that should influence policy making,” said Yao Zhe, who specializes in climate communications and has worked with various green organizations in China.
“We basically just read prepared notes, often about air pollution and what China has done to make the air better,” said Wang, a third-grade teacher at an elementary school in the northeastern city of Tianjin, who asked to be identified only by her last name. The environmental lessons, which are incorporated into the curriculum for China’s nine years of compulsory education, don’t include any debate or research assignments, even for the older students.
Wang said her school encouraged teachers to take lots of photos to show engagement. “It’s kind of a decoration to show that we care about the environment,” she said. “There are no exams to test kids about what climate change is and why it matters; it’s too complicated to explain.” The education ministry did not respond to a fax seeking comment on its policies.