THE GREEN LEAP FORWARD….In the current issue of the Monthly, Christina Larson reports that people who worry about whether China will agree to caps on greenhouse gases are missing the point. China’s government, she says, genuinely wants to tackle its horrific pollution problem. The problem is that it can’t:

The dilemma is enforcement. The central government’s decision to open up the country’s economy has simultaneously undermined its ability to impose its will on far-flung provinces. Since 1980, China’s economic strategy has been one of decentralization. State-owned enterprises have been partially privatized; provincial governments have been given more authority; entire sectors of the economy have been deregulated.

In economic terms, this strategy has been wildly successful. But it has also diminished the central government’s reach….Although laws are promulgated in the capital, provincial authorities are responsible for implementing them. But provincial governments depend on tax revenue from local industries, so shutting down polluters often runs counter to their interests.

….To deal with this predicament, Beijing has invited help from an unexpected corner: civil society. Citizen groups can help spread information, provide oversight, and put some pressure on local authorities. The government granted legal status to NGOs in 1994, and green groups were the first to flood into this new space. Initially, they focused on innocuous campaigns like environmental education and trash pickup. In 2003 and 2004, however, environmental activists gained a major wedge in the door of the public policy process with the passage of a series of laws and accompanying regulations. One law, for instance, required environmental-impact assessments to be conducted before construction projects could be approved, articulating for the first time the principle that the public has a right to participate in the process. Another gave members of the public the right to request a hearing when an administrative ruling — for instance, one that granted a license for a construction project — would impact them substantially and directly. Given the Communist Party’s long-standing preference for secrecy, these measures represented a fairly dramatic departure from the past.

Corruption is so endemic in China’s provinces, and central government authority so weak, that environmental whistleblowers are now welcome. A dramatic departure indeed.