Posted by Danwei on Friday, March 11, 2011 at 6:56 PM
This opinion piece is by Zhenni Zhang, who is studying environmental policy for her Master's in Environmental Management student at Duke University.
If they know the truth, they can do something
On 16 July 2010, in the northeastern port city of Dalian, China, two pipelines exploded, sending flames hundreds of feet into the air and burning for over 15 hours. The damaged pipes released thousands of gallons of oil, which flowed into the nearby harbor and the Yellow Sea.
When it happened, it was called China’s worst ever oil spill, but it seems to have long been forgotten.
The State Oceanic Administration of China, an administrative agency for the supervision of sea area uses and marine environmental protection, will release the Annual Bulletin of Yellow Sea Environmental Quality in March. With the publication of the Bulletin just six months after the spill, the disaster is likely to reappear in public view.
Government officials should take the opportunity to provide candid coverage of the spill, including the full and accurate assessment of the ecological damage of the area affected. If the public know the truth, they can do something. They have the ultimate power of bringing about changes to some of the most severe environmental problems society faces.
The Chinese government has placed a greater concern on environmental issues since the early 21st century. In order to promote public involvement in environmental governance, China’s Measures on Open Environmental Information (for Trial Implementation) , similar to the Toxics Release Inventory in the United States, went into effect on May 1st, 2008. The measures require environment agencies to disclose 17 different kinds of environmental information, including regional environmental quality, amounts of discharge and the records of polluters in various regions.
Despite these efforts, the public remain disconnected from environmental issues. The enforcement of “The Measures” is problematic. My hometown, although only a hundred miles from the beach nearest the polluted sea area, remains apathetic. People rarely talk about the spill there. After all, this one did not produce deaths like an earthquake or mudslide. Oil spills, to them, are isolated, accidental events that can be avoided by government institutions maintaining policies and regulations.
Why are they apathetic? Were they born less concerned about our home than people from other countries? Of course not. Chinese citizens are often not well informed or aware of the implementation of environmental policies or the severity of environmental problems. How could they participate in solving the problems? The public needs to be informed so that their energy can be harnessed.
The Chinese government has the duty to make environmental information public. Governments in the U.S. or other industrialized countries have passive roles in most environmental issues. They react to public opinion. Credible information is provided by NGOs or other independent research institutes. But in China, environmental NGOs are still weak and most media agencies are state-owned. The government is the only source of real environmental information. To effectively engage public participation, the government needs to take a leading role.
The Annual Bulletin of Yellow Sea Environmental Quality, which will be released next month, is an opportunity for the government to be honest about the accident and to provide candid coverage.
An oil spill happens for a reason. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Dalian to the numerous coal mine accidents, it is tragically obvious that economic development built upon fossil fuels is unsustainable and comes at a high price.
By informing the public about the connections between their daily life and ecological disaster, more people could potentially change their consumption habit. If everyone in the country could think about how bad an oil spill like this could be each time they drive a car, turn on a light, or use a computer, the country's energy conservation targets may be met by the ability of citizens to respond.
The authorities cannot solve all of China’s environmental problems, nor can we trust corporations to be socially responsible. To improve China’s environment, we need to empower the public. The key is for the government to make more environmental information available so as to catalyze public participation.
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