This blog was originally posted on The Metric. It was co-written with Amy Weinfurter, MEM’15 at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Which countries have the reputation for being the most ‘environmentally-friendly,’ and does the perception match the reality? Two recent articles in Foreign Policy (“A map of China by stereotype”, March 4) and The Atlantic (“‘Why is Pennsylvania so haunted?’: The U.S. according to autocomplete’) have revealed interesting insights on national stereotypes in the United States and China using Google and Baidu’s autocomplete functions. What if we used the same method to look globally at how Google users view countries’ environment, compared to how countries actually perform on environmental protection?
To determine ‘reality,’ we used the 2014 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) – a biennial ranking of how well countries perform on high-priority environmental issues. The EPI measures environmental issues like air and water quality, climate change and energy, forests, fisheries, and biodiversity and habitat protection.
The results are pretty interesting. In some cases, perceptions are not too surprising. For example, the word ‘bad’ appears in relation to China’s environment, although relatively speaking, China was not the world’s worst environmental performer, appearing at 118th of 178 countries on the 2014 EPI. Other results align with the EPI’s findings. Despite recent gains in biodiversity and water management, for instance, Madagascar’s environment is indeed fragile. The country ranked 127th out of 178 countries on biodiversity and habitat protection, which is worrisome considering that in the last decade scientists have discovered600 new species on the less than 600,000 sq. km island. For other nations, the EPI’s data runs counter to some widespread misconceptions. Despite ranking24th out of 178 countries, Canada is nonetheless seen as “one of the worst abusers of the environment.”
Similarly, despite its associations with deforestation – “why is Brazil losing so much forest?” – Brazil emerged as one of the top performers in this area. Through a combination of surveillance technology and increased environmental law enforcement, deforestation levels fell 50 percent between 2003-2004 and 2010-2011. Protecting the Amazon remains a challenge, and droughts in 2005 and 2010, along with a recent spike in deforestation, have conservationists particularly worried. Still, for other countries struggling to reverse trends in forest loss, Brazil’s policies may offer a roadmap to sustainability. Comparing environmental indicators to common assumptions helps highlight these kinds of unexpected successes.
The map was created using Google Chrome’s incognito mode, to avoid biasing the results with previous search histories (we are environmental researchers, after all) or location data. To get the autocomplete suggestions, the phrase “why is [this country’s] environment” was entered into Google’s search box. For instance, typing “why is China’s environment” produced the result below.
If a search did not generate autocomplete results, the word “environment” was replaced with keywords from the EPI’s issue categories of water, air, climate change, forests, fisheries, and biodiversity. This is how we gleaned auto-complete results for Brazil.
If a search with these terms still did not generate any autocomplete results, the phrase “why is” and the country’s name went into the search bar, and the top environmentally-related term or search term was selected. For example, just typing in ‘why is Mexico’s’, two references to the country’s water come up as common search terms.
While using auto-complete as a “scientific method” has its caveats (e.g., we searched in English, which could be biasing the results with data from primarily English speakers), the autocomplete results highlight potential reputational challenges countries may face when striving to improve environmental performance. Individual buy-in is necessary to tackle many environmental challenges. For governments to reduce climate emissions, individual behavioral changes, such as choosing public transportation over driving a SUV, can make an impact in the aggregate. However, if citizens feel that environmental conditions are out of line with what data might show, governments could find it challenging to reverse the loss of trust or negative the reputational impacts that may result. We’ve seen first-hand evidence of this in China, for example, where netizens have expressed suspicions in official air quality statistics that have led to the government taking substantial measures, including a $277 billion plan, to tackle air pollution.