In addition to implementing U.S. foreign policy and expanding diplomatic relations, the State Department plays another very important role as a trusted resource that American citizens abroad depend on for guidance when it comes to handling safety concerns. Foreign Service Officers who focus on the environment can sometimes find themselves in tricky situations when there is a conflict between promoting safety from environmental hazards and other goals of equal importance. In these instances, creative solutions go a long way toward meeting all of the objectives in a diplomatic mission.
Such was the case in 2012, when Beijing’s air pollution problem magnified into a full-blown “air-pocalypse”—after outdoor air pollution soared to all-time high hazardous levels that had never been surmounted before. The U.S. embassy took bold action by regularly posting data on air-quality levels via social media—to the dismay of the Chinese government—to help safeguard the well-being of Americans living and working in Beijing. These posts were the result of a culmination of efforts made, over the span of five years, to develop a “one-of-a-kind” air-quality monitoring system. The embassy air-quality monitor yielded publicly-accessible data that showed just how severe the pollution was and how air quality fluctuated over time. This served as the impetus for both the U.S. Embassy and Chinese agencies to start implementing practices designed to mitigate negative health impacts. In collaboration with the EPA, demand for air-quality monitoring systems ultimately went global.
In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” Jock Whittlesey, who served as Deputy of the Environment and Science Section in Beijing, provides a firsthand account of how the bilateral U.S.–China relationship fared throughout the development of this collective effort to address environmental issues. Throughout his career as a Foreign Service Officer, Whittlesey worked on many other environmental issues, including wildlife trafficking, climate change, forestry, and desertification. In addition to three assignments in China, Whittlesey served in Greece, Jamaica, the U.K., and Jordan.
John “Jock” Whittlesey’s interview was conducted by Mark Tauber on October 30, 2019.
Read John’s full oral history HERE.
For another Moment on Environmental Diplomacy click HERE.
Drafted by Sarah Sheikh
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“It started in a very modest way. I think sometimes folks don’t realize how incremental diplomacy is, but this was a classic piece of incremental diplomacy.”
Pollution as diplomacy:
There was a real sense that, as there almost always is in China, that this was a very challenging and interesting time with a lot of opportunities ahead of it. Nobody quite knew how that was all going to work out, but China was getting more powerful by the day, and for a lot of us that was not a threat so much as an opportunity to really turn this relationship into something very positive and bring China into a global relationship that was going to be stable and positive and really make a contribution and move away from their more authoritarian past and become in the phrase, “a member of the global community.”
We also felt, particularly in the Environment and Science Section, that this was seen as a real area of opportunity for us.
China had big problems in those areas, they wanted our help in those areas, and we had established through the science and technology agreement between the two countries, a long track record of working together. So everything was very exciting.
We also were in the Obama administration, so this was the first of our big issues that we were working on over the course of years, and started to really come to a head, and that was climate change. We can talk about that in a little bit more detail. As I mentioned earlier, Erica’s work on air pollution reporting was just an absolute pivotal part of not just the environment relationship, but our entire political relationship. Air pollution reporting was a huge breakthrough, in my opinion, a key piece of the whole relationship. So the air pollution reporting was important….
Let’s talk about the air pollution issue in some depth because this was really—I’m groping for the right word—the centerpiece issue for the Environment Section. It started in a very modest way. I think sometimes folks don’t realize how incremental diplomacy is, but this was a classic piece of incremental diplomacy. I can guarantee you that the people who started out with the first steps of that (air pollution reporting project) had absolutely no idea the way it was going to end up. They just had a short-term, small question in their minds that they wanted to solve, and that led to one thing, and that in turn led to other things, and over the course of years it mushroomed out.
The air pollution issue was started with a very basic question that ran smack up against the Chinese political culture, and that is, keeping information away from people. Everybody knew that Beijing had horrendous air pollution. There was…somebody who came over there who had some scientific training and a scientific approach to issues and worked in our Science Section, who came up with the question, “Well, what is the air quality here?” Nobody really knew….The air pollution issue, in terms of its role in diplomacy and foreign affairs, had not really taken hold. The United States had been dealing with air pollution domestically for decades but the thought that this was an opportunity for diplomacy I don’t think took off until the Beijing air quality monitor really took root.
“What are you talking about? Danger comes from bullets, not from little bits of stuff floating around in the air.”
Unearthing the issue at hand:
[We] got a monitor; it was $10-15,000, something like that. They set it up at Embassy Beijing and started checking the air quality. Once they had this information coming in—I don’t know at what point they decided to start publicizing this, but let’s give folks the benefit of the doubt and say, yes, they had thought that once they had the air quality information, they would publicize it. Because it was on the grounds that we have an obligation to inform our citizens living in Beijing of this health issue. So that was the first step; getting the air quality monitor and publicizing the data as a way to inform our citizens. This was the diplomatic foundation stone of the whole process. It was not done as a way to embarrass the Chinese by blowing the whistle on how terrible their air is. I don’t think that was really the genus behind this idea. It was, “Let’s find out what it was and tell you.” So pretty straightforward.
In diplomatic terms I think that’s an absolutely defensible position. We have an obligation to protect U.S. citizens. Everybody can understand that. We started, I think, with a very basic approach to this and putting information out by email or by Twitter at the beginning, and this caught on a little bit. All of a sudden this was—I think it’s worth noting that the political atmosphere in China, while it may have been authoritarian, hadn’t started really pulling in the social media toolkit that they have now where they have this gigantic security operation to monitor and squash anything they don’t like. These two developments grew up together, the air quality monitoring and putting it on social media. Nobody really had a sense of how this was going to play out, but the basic fact that we reported air quality on a regular basis took hold, and it was certainly done by Twitter. There started to be people within the Chinese community who said, “Hold on a second! Why is the United States—?” They were positive about it, “Why do we have to depend on the U.S. embassy to hear about air quality data in our Chinese city?” So it was the government people who were unhappy….It became clear that this was an issue that had some traction with the Chinese public, and for very good reasons, for the same reasons that it has traction with us.
This went along for a while and frequently the Chinese complained about the air quality monitor. They asked us to stop. This went right to the top of the State Department and secretaries of state were involved with this, and stuck with us, and said, “No we’re going to keep doing this. We are not going to stop, even if you ask us.” That took some backbone and it was appreciated. I think it was a major step in our relationship and I’m glad we didn’t fold under pressure because the Chinese government was clearly unhappy about it.
One of the major incidents of the whole process happened in a typically accidental way. This whole air quality monitoring and hooking it up to social media and tweeting the results every hour was very much an ad hoc process. It just hadn’t been done before. It’s also something the State Department as an organization is not particularly good at, even on a good day! Maintaining technical equipment is just not something that we do! It was all done in a, relatively speaking, very casual and ad hoc way by people who were figuring it out as they went along. It was a one-of-a-kind situation. I’m sure we were pressing people into service who were pretty new at what they were being asked to do, but they did their best. So you had this patchwork thing that developed over time…. It started, I think, in 2007-2008 and gradually developed over time. We had established protocols for managing the system, having it repaired, and recording the information. Over time we had raised our game a little bit and gotten more organized about it, but it was still essentially a one-of-a-kind system. And I think, too, as sometimes happens with these issues, there is a part of the Chinese government that found this completely outrageous and they were furious and wanted it to stop. But there was also the part of the Chinese government where they said, “These guys have got something here. This is something we should be doing.” The Chinese Environmental Ministry, which was not even a ministry when we began this process, but more the equivalent of a bureau, they started to build their own network, so this was a positive outcome….
This was just completely new and because the air pollution in Beijing was so intense, it really was something qualitatively different from the air pollution in the United States. We would say that just for purposes of giving people an understanding of what it was like in Beijing, if you take the worst air quality in the United States, the average air quality in Beijing was multiple times as bad as it was in the worst place in the United States. People just weren’t used to thinking about air quality like this. This is a classic example of why this international discussion on these issues is so important, because conditions outside the United States are often radically different than they are internally. These are conditions that you simply won’t find in the United States but are easily found in other places. All of a sudden the medical people, who hadn’t really been thinking about this, they were only there for a couple of years, and nobody told them to worry about it. I can’t speak in any detail, but they finally grasped that this is something that is affecting the health of our people. Not just the U.S. citizens who lived there, who are a much more diffuse group and we don’t have any immediate medical responsibility for, but when you’re talking about diplomatic people, now all of a sudden it’s “Hold on a second!” You’re taking somebody who maybe has asthma, or bronchial problems…or lung problems, or COPD and you’re putting them in an area with intense pollution. Let’s just talk about this for a little bit. There were folks within the medical (staff), the inward-looking part of State MED who did start looking at this and got involved with the air pollution and took it on in a serious and institutional way. I’m sure we look at that with much more care and detail than even 20 years ago, where that would have been like, “What are you talking about? Danger comes from bullets, not from little bits of stuff floating around in the air.”
…[I]n the context of diplomatic engagement on air pollution, you had in effect a perfect set of circumstances in Beijing because the U.S. embassy there gets a lot of attention. It’s big, it’s well funded, we had a lot of good reasons, both health-wise and for political purposes, for really taking on the air pollution issue. So in terms of how the embassy, and of course with our U.S. legal system, you can’t put your employees, just from a human resources management perspective, into what amounts to an unsafe workplace. So they had some serious issues to work on.
All of that meant the U.S. embassy was capable of mounting a real response to the air pollution issue. It took a while to get there, and one of the key events here happened—I got there in 2014. I think it was in 2012 or 2013 and they had bad air pollution, which in Beijing tends to take place in the winter when you have people burning coal. Parts of China even now are still quite poor and use coal, or they have poor-quality fuel. They don’t operate their air-filtration equipment on their scrubbers, their big smoke stacks, and so on and so forth. So the air pollution in the winter is when it’s really bad. They had incidents, I think it was probably in January or February 2012. It could have been in 2013 where they had a very, very bad, not just a few hours, but several days’ worth of just horrible air quality. You get the “beyond index” where it’s so bad that EPA hadn’t even come up with the terminology or the rules for reporting on it. This was a bonafide crisis where it brought people, not only the Chinese, but the folks at the U.S. embassy into very clear awareness that they were at risk in some very serious ways for health damage.
“You would check the air pollution the way you would check the weather.”
…[T]he State Department, to its credit, tried and I think successfully expanded the use of air quality monitors. We began with the other parts of Mission China, the consulates, so Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Chengdu, and eventually Wuhan. So, yes, there was an effort to expand the air quality monitor program. We were working with EPA on this because they really are the air quality professionals. We’re just diplomats. We’ll do what we’re supposed to do here, just tell us how to handle this.
But the idea was that this would go beyond that and become a global thing. So another program now that’s embedded within the State Department is the air quality monitoring systems. There were some interesting discussions about where we need air quality monitoring. These things are not trivial to manage. They’re not super expensive, but there are some costs. They require maintenance, and people have to manage the information, etc…. There’s a bunch of criteria that came up. I think if you go to the EPA air monitoring website you can find the international sites and our U.S. embassies at this point. As far as I’m aware, those are the official ones that the pollution information is displayed on the EPA’s website.
Of course this was a tremendous point of pride for us, and this goes back to the work that Erica Thomas had done to develop all of the, not the technical standards, but just the management that these things need, the reporting on how it’s done, and to make sure that it can hold up under the political pressure that we were seeing in China…. Embassy Beijing and Erica had really broken ground on this, and it was a completely new way. It was a huge diplomatic win for us, in addition to being a real help for people who were concerned about their health. We’re talking about the embassy’s reaction to having the terrible week or two of really bad air quality. This began to raise questions like, “What about wearing face masks? Is this something we should do?” This is just simply something people hadn’t thought about before in terms of providing guidance. “Well, what do we do? Does the embassy provide face masks? Should you bother? At what time? Who should wear them?” It gets quite complicated…. So a lot of strange things start happening. You would check the air pollution the way you would check the weather. [You] look at it in the morning with the embassy’s hourly distribution of the air quality information. This got modernized and put onto air quality apps that you could get on your phone. You’d just pull it up and see what it was like. You would check, “Oh, the air quality is 225 this morning. Let’s put on masks when we go out.”
It’s just one of those new conditions, like the weather, whether it’s raining or not. Now you’re dealing with the air pollution. We would tell folks who were coming to be prepared for air quality issues. Because you live there, you get used to it a little bit, but somebody who’s coming, it’s a real shock to their system. They might be feeling dizzy or something like that. I don’t recall any specific incidents where people got off the plane really and felt terrible, but different people have different reactions. You could hear people even around the embassy, “Well, the air has a particular smell today.” Or they taste something in the back of their mouth, these types of things, so it was clearly evident.
The Chinese government, to their credit, the different camps within the Chinese government—there was certainly the environmental camp who said, “Hey we’ve got to start dealing with this in a responsible, mature way.” They started building up their system of air quality monitors. I think this encapsulates the U.S.-China relationship. The working-level folks were very interested in talking to the EPA. “How do you do this? How do the systems work? What do you do with the data? What do you store? What do you throw away?” Of course at the top level they were unwilling to show any kind of enthusiasm for working with us. Frustrating. I think that the pendulum has now swung in the direction of disengagement, which is a shame, but at the time there was, at a minimum, “Hey, we need to work with these guys because they know what they’re doing. They’ve been doing this for 40 years. They’ve got a lot of it figured out. We’ve got to do in three years what took them 40. Let’s get on with it. Let’s bring the folks over and let’s have a discussion.”
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA in Economics and Political Science, University of Pennsylvania 1976–1978
MA in Geography, University of Maryland 1989
Joined the Foreign Service 1992
Guangzhou, China—Economic Officer 1999–2001
Beijing, China—Natural Resources Officer, Science, Technology and Health 2001–2004
Amman, Jordan—Regional Environmental Hub Officer 2004–2007
Beijing, China—Deputy of the Environment and Science Section 2014–2016