Chinese Citizens Conflate Climate Change with Air Pollution

With the new year comes scary expectations of future climate change events.  Recent occurrences, like the winter wildfires in Colorado, have shown, climate change is far from going away.


It’s important to understand how people perceive climate change in order to develop policies to effectively tackle it. In a recent study published in the journal Earth’s Future, researchers surveyed around 40 million people in six different Chinese cities to see how these individuals viewed climate change. China is one of the top carbon polluters in the world, as many of its private companies have a greater impact on the warming ecosystem than most countries. While China has promised to cap its carbon emissions in 2030, how its citizens perceive climate change can give a rather different story to what’s actually going on.


In this study, researchers from the University of Nanjing traveled to the cities of Dongguan, Guyuan, Hangzhou, Yancheng, Yangzhou, and Suzhou to better understand how climate change is viewed by the general population. These cities ranged in urban, climate, and environmental quality levels, representing individuals from a wide range of backgrounds. The researchers worked with local guides to recruit survey volunteers. To make the survey effective, the researchers asked the volunteers one open-ended question; “What are the first three images or concepts that come to your mind when hearing ‘climate change?'” The team then coded each of the answers into a quantitative piece of data which they later analyzed. After traveling around China, the team collected around 40 million data points.

From their analysis, the scientists found that a majority of the volunteer answers focused on air pollution and seasonal weather change, showing that “climate change” was often conflated with these events. The researchers did admit that they wished their data pool included more climate change skeptics, for balance, but of the ones they did have, these individuals inputted answers that were more abstract, like “cause.” Shockingly, the researchers found that though much of the data revolved around terms like “mitigation” and “emissions,” the volunteers had a difficult time identifying the responsible party for meeting mitigation goals. The researchers suggested that Chinese individuals did not fully understand the relationship between their individual lifestyle changes and government regulations.


China is not the only country where individuals don’t realize the relationship between behavior changes and regulations placed by the government. Places within western countries like the U.S. also show a similar result. This result carries the implication that the Chinese government (and other governments) may not be able to be held accountable for meeting climate change mitigation goals by their own citizens. This is important for governing bodies to understand when developing environmental policy.

Conflating ideas like “climate change” with global events like “air pollution” or “weather” is not new. As climate change is rather an abstract concept, putting concrete images to it makes it more relatable and has an emotional hold for many individuals. These concrete images can often be correlated with home environments. As many Chinese cities suffer from horrific air pollution, it’s no surprise that their citizens would think of “air pollution” for “climate change.” It is important to use these perceptions, not only for internal regulations but global environmental policies, which are working to make the world a better place.

Kenna Castleberry is a staff writer at the Debrief and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). She focuses on deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology. You can find more of her work at her website: