Raising awareness about challenges like climate change can be just as important as making laws

Scholars enjoyed the blue Brisbane skies during the McDonnell International Scholars Academy.
Scholars enjoyed the blue Brisbane skies during the McDonnell International Scholars Academy.

By Lei Chen, McDonnell Scholar in The Graduate School: DBBS-Human & Statistical Genetics (PhD)

I was in my fourth year of college when Beijing hosted the 22nd APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) CEO Summit in November 2014. The air environment was terrible through the year, but during APEC, citizens in Beijing inhaled fresh air without “smog” (an air pollution mix of smoke and fog that is very common in the biggest Chinese cities in recent years), and the whole city was embraced by an edgeless blue sky, which was called as “APEC blue.”

Unfortunately, right after the event, depressing air pollution came back quickly and became even more severe. The reason: the government shut down all factories within or near the city for several months in order to prepare for the Summit, and after APEC those factories returned to work and increased daily production to compensate the economic loss during APEC.

In the Vulnerable and in Crisis Panel Session of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy Symposium, Prof. Xin Yang from Fudan addressed the impact of climate change on China, and proposed three priorities in future: reduction of GHG emissions, more interdisciplinary research, and climate change adaptation.

He also emphasized that there should be a transition from “top-down” management to a social learning process. This point stuck with me and made me think of the vulnerable “APEC blue” sky.

Rather than just making laws and demands for organizations and individuals to make changes, the leaders of developing countries might have a more crucial task — to enhance the public awareness of the environmental crisis the world is facing, and to provide alternative solutions for industry, so the factories will be much more supportive about changes and policy, without unbearable sacrifice of profits.

Although it is not directly related to my research area, it’s personally a great inspiration that, in the context of today’s society, where there’s both rapid changes and higher demands of democracy and human rights, big decisions like those related to climate change and the environment could and should start with a negotiation with the people with the aim of becoming a common desire for the people.

Read more from the McDonnell Scholars.