Name: Erica Keen Thomas

Position: Environment, science, technology and health counselor, U.S. Embassy, Beijing, Department of State

Best known for: Noxious, choking air pollution has smothered Beijing and other major Chinese cities for years, making it difficult for people to breathe and causing an estimated 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010 alone. Until recently, the Chinese government routinely dismissed the public health risk. But Erica Thomas and colleagues from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing have been monitoring the air pollution and publishing that information on Twitter for Americans living there. The move has resulted not only in Americans using the data to try to reduce exposure but has informed Chinese citizens and other foreign residents about the extent of the problem. Prominent users of China’s hybrid version of Twitter and Facebook, with millions of followers, have regularly reposted the State Department’s air quality data.

The access to U.S. advisories generated enough public pressure for the Chinese government to announce it will adopt improved measurement standards beginning in 2016, and for the city of Beijing and 73 other municipal authorities to begin reporting more accurate daily readings as of last year. In January 2013, when some Chinese cities experienced record-breaking air pollution levels, the Chinese government urged residents to take precautions, representing a significant shift in policy.

“I’ve never seen an initiative of the U.S. government have such an immediate, dramatic impact in a country,” U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke said. “The response by the Chinese people and government on the environment has been unprecedented.”

An internal debate is occurring in China over tougher pollution controls, but obstacles remain. Nonetheless, Thomas and her team have helped move that debate forward.

Government service: After two years at the Environmental Protection Agency, Thomas moved to the Department of State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs in 1992. She has since served in various capacities at the State Department in Washington and in Beijing and Taiwan.

Motivation for service: Thomas joined the government because she wanted to have an impact on policy changes that might help to address some of the world’s most pressing environmental problems.

Biggest challenge: The greatest difficulty for Thomas is living abroad far from family and friends and worrying that her efforts to mitigate her family’s exposure to severe environmental pollution are not enough and that they may suffer long-term consequences from being in China for so long.

Quote: “I feel incredibly lucky to be able to work on enhancing cooperation between the world’s two largest economies, the two largest users of energy and the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases on policies aimed at promoting new and cleaner energy sources and reducing air, water and soil pollution.”

— From the Partnership for Public Service

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