REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

How to Shift Public Attitudes and Win the Global Climate Battle

The world is making progress in decarbonizing economies, but not nearly fast enough, says the former U.S. chief climate negotiator. Here he spells out what forces must come together to marshal the public and political will needed to tackle climate change.

Climate change is on the front pages again. In the space of three weeks, Florida and North Carolina were battered by severe hurricanes whose destructive power was surely intensified by hotter ocean waters and a warmer atmosphere, which holds more moisture. Between those two violent storms, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered a four-alarm warning about the profound dangers of holding global warming even to an increase of 2 degrees Celsius, which not long ago was considered a safe zone. Meanwhile, climate negotiators are currently wrangling with each other to finalize the guidelines and procedures needed to turn the Paris Agreement into an operational regime, a struggle made harder by the absence of U.S. leadership.

These developments serve as a reminder that we are in a race against time. We are making dramatic progress in decarbonizing our economies, but dangerous climate impacts are also coming at us faster than predicted. We need concerted action now, in all major economies, to accelerate the transformation of a world that currently relies on fossil fuels for more than 80 percent of its primary energy and will have to reach net-zero emissions in the next 50 years or less to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

From the perspective of innovation, policy, and cost, we know what to do and can do it. Clean-tech innovation is in full bloom, with an unmatched innovation culture in the United States and progress happening all over the world. We know how to set policy standards, provide incentives, introduce carbon pricing, stoke up research and development. And a clean-energy transformation at full speed and scale would likely be cheaper than continuing our dependence on fossil fuels, even before counting the projected costs of disruptive climate damage.

Major shifts in attitude and behavior have occurred time and again in the social and economic spheres.

But the key ingredients that are in short supply are the human factors: political will and the rapidly evolving norms and attitudes about climate change that can generate that will.

Some may look at the scope of the climate challenge and the obstructive power of the fossil fuel incumbency — with its deeply embedded infrastructure and its political clout around the world — and conclude that a change in people’s thinking won’t be enough. But changing norms and attitudes can move mountains. They are about a sense of what is acceptable, what is right, what is important, what we expect.

Major shifts in attitude and behavior have occurred time and again in the social and economic spheres. Think, for example, of the transformation that occurred with respect to cigarettes, as near-universal social acceptance gave way to smokers being relegated to sidewalks or cordoned-off smoking rooms. Consider the rapid shift in thinking we have seen on same-sex marriage or about what is happening right now in regard to sexual harassment and the #Me Too movement. These are different kinds of issues, to be sure, and decarbonizing the global economy is clearly a challenge on a vastly larger scale. Still, all these issues come down to human attitudes. And when norms change, they can change decisively and drive political action with them. Recall that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both opposed same-sex marriage in their 2008 primary battle. A few years later, that would have been unthinkable, because attitudes and expectations had changed.

Can we expect a similar change in regard to global warming? We don’t know yet, but there is reason to think we can. We are living in a rapidly evolving world when it comes to climate change and clean energy. When our context and surroundings change, new initiatives are launched and the nature of our public discourse shifts, all these things can affect our attitudes and our sense of what seems right and necessary, of what we demand, of what we will no longer countenance. Consider:

The Paris Agreement. The Paris accord was a huge step forward in building up norms and expectations. It sent a powerful signal to the world, from governments to boardrooms to civil society, that leaders had finally made a pivotal decision to tackle climate change, built on strong temperature goals, a system of five-year cycles to ratchet up ambition, and a series of measures to ensure accountability and integrity. Going forward, the Paris regime has the potential to become the symbolic heart of the global climate effort, where countries promote engagement, hold each other to account, take stock of the dangers we face, collaborate in large or small groups, and put their reputations on the line.

With every passing year, the signs from the natural world become starker and more vivid.

Leader engagement. Leader engagement was crucial to getting the Paris Agreement done. We can only make the kind of rapid progress we need with the ongoing involvement of political leaders, which could, for example, take the form of biennial meetings among the heads of key countries, either as a separate gathering or as a day added to an existing summit like the G20. Such meetings could focus on new ways to accelerate the transformation of the global economy and to manage the worldwide impacts of climate change.

Impacts. With every passing year, the signs from the natural world become starker and more vivid. In recent years in the U.S., we have seen mammoth storms and floods, multi-year droughts, and gigantic wildfires scorching California and the West. And this parade of disasters has been matched or surpassed all over the world — in the Philippines, Thailand, China, Japan, Pakistan, India, the Middle East, Europe, Colombia, Brazil. People see this more and more. They live through these events, see their family or friends live through them, watch them on smart phones and television. The snide dismissal of a climate link to these phenomena starts to ring hollow. Our context changes.

Clean technology. At the same time that the dangers of climate change become ever-more apparent, so does the reality that solutions are becoming more available and affordable by the day and could come even more quickly with political support. Look at the astonishing progress made in the past decade on clean energy as the costs of wind and solar plummet, and the cost curve for energy storage follows suit. Look at the rapid growth of electric vehicles in countries such as China and Norway, and the announcements from many countries — including China, India, Britain, France, Norway, and the Netherlands — that they intend to end sales of gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2025, 2030, or 2040.

A Chinese worker installs solar panels at a solar farm in Yantai, Shandong Province.

A Chinese worker installs solar panels at a solar farm in Yantai, Shandong Province. VCG/VCG via Getty Images

And consider the pivotal moment coming soon, whether in 5 years or 10, when electric vehicles cost no more than conventional cars, are far cheaper to operate and maintain, and can be charged almost anywhere in five minutes. And beyond these marquee elements of the clean revolution, major new research efforts are underway around the world on promising new low-carbon technologies. In addition, surveys show that clean energy is hugely popular both in the U.S. and with a wide swath of the global population.

The market context. Carbon Tracker’s recent 2020 Vision report makes a compelling case that a downturn in fossil fuel markets is coming much faster than most people realize. Carbon Tracker argues that a moment is approaching when demand for fossil fuel products will peak, and that this is likely to happen when alternatives achieve just 5 to 10 percent of total supply. Solar PV and wind already accounted for 6 percent of global electricity supply in 2017 and for 45 percent of the growth in supply. After the peak, the impacts on fossil fuels will start to be felt in financial markets in the form of lower prices, disruptions, and stranded financial assets as investors realize that the days of the industry’s supremacy are numbered.

The business context. Major companies across a broad range of sectors are moving to embrace clean and green solutions, and many are collaborating with each other in a range of initiatives dedicated to climate action and sustainable development. Businesses are increasingly acquiring large amounts of their energy needs from renewable sources, setting voluntary targets to reduce their carbon footprints, and marketing their green bona fides to consumers. They are taking these actions for many reasons: because they see the danger climate change poses to their supply chains, markets, and infrastructure, and because they realize that younger generations — which will bear the brunt of climate change’s impacts — strongly support the clean-energy revolution.

There is also room for more direct efforts at persuasion. For example, in the U.S., many Republicans in Congress know climate change is a real and important issue but see it as a third rail they can’t touch because of their political base. But, at least to some extent, there may be a kind of odd feedback loop at work. An article in The New York Times this summer argued that Republican voters are not so much skeptical about climate change as they are skeptical about Democrats, and they see climate as a Democratic issue. The authors conducted an experiment in which Republicans supported climate policies when told that Republican lawmakers or other notables favored the given policy. These respondents were then ready to follow the party line. So, we may have lawmakers afraid to buck a base that in fact would be willing to follow their leaders in more constructive directions — if their leaders had the nerve.

We cannot treat this existential threat as the environmental issue you glance at occasionally before going back to the essential stuff.

Recent polling by the Pew Research Center demonstrates a distinct generational divide in the GOP, with millennial Republicans (22 to 37 years old) much more inclined than older Republicans to believe that climate change is happening and that government should take action.

If trusted leaders and spokespersons raise their voices and make the case to people in their own communities and “tribes,” it could make a difference. Initiatives should be funded and launched that could hasten the change of norms and attitudes. Plenty of Republicans outside Congress understand that climate change is real and getting worse, and they believe the stance of their party’s leadership is untenable. Of course, all of this is more difficult with a president who beats the anti-climate drum. But he won’t be there forever, and work done now to open minds will pay off.

Outside the U.S., the public is not so divided over the urgency of combating climate change. While there are significant differences in views about climate change and its risks among different regions, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that climate change was nevertheless identified by respondents from 38 countries as one of two leading global threats, just behind ISIS.

Another important area is educating opinion makers in places such as companies, think tanks, and universities who believe in the issue but don’t understand the speed and scale of action required and don’t grasp that climate has to be lifted to the top tier of domestic and foreign policy concerns. We cannot treat this existential threat as the environmental issue you glance at occasionally before going back to the essential stuff. Climate, now, is the essential stuff.

The fact is that we have only one home and are subjecting it to extraordinary stress. As Jared Diamond demonstrated in his book Collapse, humans don’t always muddle through. Civilizations have disappeared because they lacked the wherewithal to both recognize and address looming environmental crises. Yet the solutions we need are at hand. We can be defeated by the greed of those who know better but can’t walk away from the next dollar; by apathy; by the demagogues whose only objective is to score points, get ratings, get paid. Or we can recognize the stakes, we can learn and discuss, we can vote, and march, and rise to meet this challenge.