Chinese Amherst Students Hit Rio+20 with Big Plans for Environmental Change

Submitted on Thursday, 6/14/2012, at 3:32 PM
Three students originally from China, who met on the Amherst College campus and became united in their concern for the environment, hope to make waves over the next couple of weeks in Rio de Janeiro,Brazil, at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, a major United Nations conference attended by many countries’ political leaders.
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Ji An (Julian) Wang ’13, Xiangyu (Shane) Zhao ’14E and Yunpeng (George) Du ’14

Ji An (Julian) Wang ’13, Xiangyu (Shane) Zhao ’14E and Yunpeng (George) Du ’14 are organizing two major events at the Summit, including a US-China Youth Voice forum at which U.S. and Chinese youth delegates will gather to draft a U.S.-China Joint Statement of Cooperation. Throughout their time in Rio, they’ll also be posting to a blog hosted by the China Youth Climate Action Network (an organization of which Zhao is an executive board member) and SustainUS. The three students are receiving funding for their work through the Center for Community Engagement’s internship program, as well as Amherst’s Environmental Studies program.

Although Du had already departed for Rio last week, he provided some thoughts to the CCE’s Jennifer Morgan before he left. Wang and Zhao stopped by the college's Office of Public Affairs for an interview to discuss the summit, environmentalism in China and their hope to unite U.S. and Chinese youth in their concern about climate change. An edited transcript of the conversation follows below.

Interview by Peter Rooney

Q: What is Rio+20, and what will you be doing there?

Wang: Rio +20 Earth Summit, or the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, is a platform that brings together national leaders, civil society and passionate advocates to work out how to strive for a greener future across national lines. There are several components to this, and we will be drawn directly into the informal portion of it, which are the civil society interactions. Many student delegations from universities and other advocacy organizations, such as 350 and Greenpeace, will be there. We will be organizing an official “Side Event” to make our imprint on the delegates there.

From [June] 20th until the 22nd, there will be formal negotiations between the nations. They will be divided mostly along the lines of developed, developing and undeveloped countries, and when that comes around, our job shifts from organizing events and increasing awareness for Chinese and U.S. audiences to mainly updating and reporting on the progress and nuances of the negotiations, essentially giving a frontline review of what we think about the achievements and what is left undone.

Zhao: The main outcome of the first Rio summit, in 1992, was that the attending nations signed a document which was the foundation of subsequent United Nations climate negotiations. The framework set at Rio in 1992 gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009; that all started from the 1992 Rio Summit.

Wang: That’s why this conference is so high-profile: it’s basically a 20-year checkup on the original Earth Summit.

Q: How can people from Amherst community follow your efforts?

Wang: We will be frequently updating our US China Youth Voice @ Rio+20 Blog. There will be pictures, interviews and articles. We also will be posting whatever we can on the China Youth Climate Action Network Facebook Page.

Du: For those 12 days in Rio, we are going to write at least 10 articles that we’ll post on our blog and promote our thinking. I think this time the real change is that we’re not only going to promote an idea—we’re going to broadcast the ideas of these meetings and provide young people with the opportunity to reflect on their lives and their environment. We’ll give these ideas a chance to become real, solid, in such a way they can be made into actions.

Q: All three of you are members of the China Youth Climate Action Network [CYCAN]. Can you describe that organization and its goals?

Zhao: I helped found the organization in 2008, and today the China Youth Climate Action Network is the first and largest youth climate-change organization in China. We aim to solve climate-change problems through both domestic programs and international approaches. Domestically, our focus is on on-campus energy-saving and youth mobilization; meanwhile, we bring the voice of Chinese youth to international stages and promote the cooperation and understanding between Chinese youth and their international counterparts.

In 2009, we organized a Chinese Youth Climate Action Day involving more than 300 college student environmental organizations across about 50 cities. That same year, we took a delegation of 38 Chinese youth to the Copenhagen Climate Summit, the first time that a Chinese youth delegation attended a U.N. conference. Before then, many youth activists were from the U.S. or from developed countries. With China being the largest emitter of pollutants, we felt it was important to get Chinese students involved, both domestically and internationally.

Q: How did you all get interested in environmental issues?

Zhao: My hometown city of Heilongjiang is a coal-mining city, and when I grew up, I heard a lot of stories about coal mining and social disparities and troubles. Some people use coal mining as a way to generate profits, but at the same time, people suffered from air pollution.

I moved to Tianjin City, near Beijing, in fifth grade. It has its own environmental problems, especially sandstorms. How I really got involved was, after graduating high school, I met a Fulbright Scholar, John Romankiewicz. He was learning the Chinese language and noticed that U.S. media coverage of the environment in China was mostly biased. We decided to start a video blog called China’s Green Beat. We made 10 videos about Chinese environmental issues, on topics such as recycling, biogas and transportation. We tried to focus on positive aspects of these topics, showcasing local environmental problems and solutions across a dozen regions in China.

Wang: I was born in Beijing, and the deepest childhood memory I have is smog, specifically monolithic blocks of buildings shrouded in grey. I left China for Singapore when I was 7, then came to the U.S., Los Angeles, when I was 12. I remember, in 2008, a number of Olympic marathon runners refused to go to Beijing, because they thought their health would be severely impaired by the Beijing smog. Part of that really stings, but it’s also partially true. China really needs to step it up, as does the U.S. Throughout high school, I was involved with Youth Advocates for the Environment. When I came to Amherst, I met Shane, and we clicked. He showed me a booklet about Copenhagen, and I saw the dedication and sacrifice that these Chinese youth put into it, and I really wanted to help out.

Du: My caring about the environment didn't start until last year, when I paid a visit to my uncle who works as a secretary for the department of environmental issues. He knows a lot of the details about Chinese environmental protection and he knows how horribly our industry has damaged the environment in a lot of places. Those tragedies aren't [covered] in the news. I was totally shocked by what's actually happening in our country. So I started thinking about what I can do for this. This year, Shane invited me to join the CYCAN, and I fortunately got a chance to use my own actions to start caring about the environment of my country.

Q: How would you compare environmental activism in the U.S. and China?

Wang: In terms of policy, China is still solidly in the camp of the developing countries. You can expect it to make the case that China should not pay the price for something that the Western world and U.S. have been doing for 150 years before calling on other countries to handicap their development in the name of the environment.

Zhao: However, the Chinese government realizes they can’t ignore environmental problems, and they have been investing in clean energies and are now largest manufacturer of solar panels in the world. My experience is more on the environmental activism side. When I was working with U.S. youth activists, I saw that they want to push the government. In China, they tend to be more collaborative with the government. It’s really rare to see a Chinese youth stand up against the government. When U.S. and Chinese youth get together, the Chinese feel there is a way to work with the government and that the top-down method is still effective there. My American friends believe in a bottom-up, grassroots approach.

Du: The Chinese won’t fully realize the importance of environmental issues until we are fully developed. On environmental issues and environmental protection, the U.S. is very advanced compared to China. We’re just a toddler starting to walk. One good thing about the cooperation between American and Chinese environmental specialists and youth is that we can learn how these things are carried out in America and incorporate these ways into our own ways of making changes.

Q: Are there any plans to keep the momentum building after Rio+20 is over?

Wang: The Department of Environmental Studies at Amherst is partially sponsoring the forum we’re organizing, which means we can help establish a global reputation for Amherst as an institution dedicated to solving environmental problems. I feel that will start to bring us up to par with student delegations we’ll meet at Rio from schools like Yale, Princeton and Columbia. Having Amherst’s voice heard on the international stage is definitely one of our goals.

Zhao: After we come back from the Rio Summit, we hope we can engage students at Amherst on sustainable development, climate-change issues and the importance of U.S.-China collaboration.

Du: I want to start an organization at Amherst that is dedicated to sustainable development and make more and more Amherst College students care about these big issues and how these issues relate to their lives.