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Making Climate Change Matter

In a world ravaged by hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves, and droughts, why has it been so hard to garner broad public support for efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels? The answer is all in the messaging.

PARIS – This has been a year of disruption and change, complete with escalating extreme weather events and turbulent election results around the world. Most likely, the years ahead will be no less eventful. According to a recent special report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we will be experiencing the effects of global warming much earlier than many previously assumed.

According to the IPCC, the world has just 12 years to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 45% from 2010 levels, or we will have to live with the catastrophic effects of irreversible climate change. The IPCC report is important not just for what it tells us about the near future, but also for what it can teach us about the diffusion of scientific information across governments, the media, economic actors, and average citizens.

For those involved in the fight against climate change, the report – which underpinned the urgency felt at this week’s UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland (COP24) – has raised important questions about how best to convey the sheer gravity of the crisis. Should we try to quantify the risk as a matter of human and economic costs, or is it better to describe climate change in more generalized terms? Should we depict the problem as a catastrophe, or as a manageable challenge? How we answer these questions will determine our approach to the most important question of all: How do we get the public to care?

Signal and Noise

Since its creation in 1988, the IPCC’s raison d’être has been to communicate the findings of empirical research on climate change to policymakers and the public, so that there is a general understanding of where the scientific consensus lies. To that end, the IPCC has always approached its mission as a matter of risk assessment. By studying the underlying drivers of climate change and extreme weather events, IPCC scientists establish ranges of probabilities for potential outcomes at different levels of warming.

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Yet portraying climate change as a range of risks leaves out a key possibility – that it will be catastrophic beyond the range of our scientific and economic models. Under our current frameworks, it is necessary to ignore “low probability and very high impact” events, because probabilities cannot be efficiently assigned to these phenomena. But scientists and others have been ringing the alarm bells ever louder that such events might very well happen.

The mere possibility of a catastrophe should be impetus enough for us to pursue aggressive emissions reductions. So, why haven’t we?

One explanation is rooted in the current political economy. Governments, corporations, and other incumbents that depend on fossil fuels constitute a major share of the global economy. And the fossil-fuel industry itself has long organized “campaigns of doubt” and “dark money” lobbying initiatives to sow skepticism toward climate change.

Paradoxically, the rhetoric of catastrophe we are hearing ever more frequently from worried scientists might – instead of encouraging action – be triggering a human reflex that scholars call “apocalypse fatigue.” Studies show that the brain will avoid or shut out overly apocalyptic or catastrophic discourse, particularly when such themes are not accompanied by talk of solutions. If a problem seems too large to solve by individual action, people will not expend psychic energy dwelling on it.

Matter Over Mind

Prompting individual action requires incentives. Yet encouraging behavioral change is particularly difficult in the face of cognitive dissonance: we know that airplanes and eating meat both contribute to climate change, but we cannot countenance giving up air travel or becoming vegetarians. Rather than accept and work through this dissonance, we often come up with rationalizations to justify our actions.

The most common justification is that an individual’s change of lifestyle won’t help in the grand scheme of things. In more extreme cases, people will even deny the facts. “Having been told that climate science demands that we fundamentally change our way of life,” environmental scholars Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger write, “many Americans have, not surprisingly, concluded that the problem is not with their lifestyles but with what they’ve been told about the science.”

Emotional/cognitive dissonance is particularly difficult to cope with when it relates to issues of identity, culture, and values, and if it leaves one at odds with one’s social group. This is evident in countries like the United States, where global warming is a heated partisan issue. It becomes more difficult for any one person – regardless of their sympathies and preferences on other issues – to take a pro-climate stance if those around them, or those in the same political party, are opposed to climate action.

A final psychological barrier to appreciating the urgency of climate change is distance, in terms of both time and space. Though we have already begun to experience the effects of global warming, most people still think of it as something that awaits us in the distant future. Even when the problem is framed as a threat to our children and grandchildren, it feels remote compared to seemingly more pressing quotidian concerns.

Likewise, most people think of climate change as an abstract global process that will not necessarily affect them. Because it is such a broad phenomenon, it rarely becomes a local story. And even if people do acknowledge that extreme weather events and other symptoms of global warming will inevitably harm someone somewhere, they are hesitant to make any sacrifice on behalf of unknown “others.”

From Impossible to Inevitable

All of these biases and psychological hurdles were at the top of our minds when we designed the framework of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. We knew from past failures – not least the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (COP15) – not to announce an imminent catastrophe and leave it at that. And we knew we needed to account for the powerful role that expectations can play in human behavior. Hence, the message I always wanted people to take away from COP21 in Paris was: “The low-carbon economy is inevitable and desirable and underway.”

To that end, we embraced a theory of change that encourages progressive discovery and exploration of the possible. The transition to a green economy must necessarily be framed as a learning exercise based on social and political experimentation. Rather than obsess about the sheer scope and scale of the project, which only encourages despair and resistance, governments and other actors should focus on what is immediately achievable. By taking things step by step, progress will be made, and expectations will slowly change. Eventually, what once seemed impossible will suddenly feel within reach.

This convergence of expectations is itself an enforcement mechanism for ensuring further progress. Consider the effort to achieve zero-carbon mobility. Full decarbonization of transportation within the next few decades seemed utterly impossible just five years ago. Yet now it feels inevitable, owing to the speed of advances in electric cars, battery storage, and other technologies. Now that investment is increasingly moving into this industry to capitalize on the future that everyone expects, progress toward decarbonized transportation has taken on a momentum of its own.

In some cases, this sea change in expectations is occurring on a global scale. But to clear the way for climate action, it is essential that we bring the global and the local together. During the six long years between COP15 and COP21, there was a major shift in this direction. In 2009, most participating heads of state issued statements about the negotiation process. But by 2015, world leaders were focused first and foremost on climate-related catastrophes in their own countries.

There were a few reasons for this change. Beyond the fact that more and more people had begun to experience global warming firsthand, national scientific assessments played an important role. As a multilateral institution that represents a global consensus, the IPCC’s statements do not always resonate as strongly as those of national academies.

This has been especially true in the case of China, where the government really began to take the climate threat seriously only when Chinese scientists themselves spoke up about it. That is what it means to bring the global to the local. Even if many of these same scientists were also behind the IPCC’s work, the fact that they spoke for their own country, region, city, and community is what was needed to drive the message home.

Skin in the Game

In addition to bringing the global to the local, we also need to bring the future to the present, so that climate change is no longer dismissed as a problem for future generations. If there is any silver lining to the rapid increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events over the past few years, it is that these unnatural natural disasters are situating the problem firmly in the present. Hurricanes, typhoons, floods, droughts, wildfires, and heat waves are killing people and destroying property today, not in some distant dystopia.

Bringing the future to the present also means engaging with younger generations. To many people, the usual time horizons for climate change – 2050, 2100 – are meaningless. But with the latest IPCC report, that is no longer the case. Most people on earth will be alive 12 years from now; indeed, in 2050, my own daughter will be younger than I am today.

To bring the future to the present in the Paris agreement, we included a revision mechanism whereby countries will submit new emissions-reduction targets every five years; it is hoped that they will increase their ambitions over time. And by asking countries to present their 2050 decarbonization plans by 2020, the agreement requires that we first imagine the green economy of the future, so that we can then start to create it here in the present.

A final essential element of climate action is to highlight areas where aspirations are already aligned with reality. Citizens and policymakers need to see that there are indeed solutions to the problems they face. Simply knowing that there are already implementable and financeable options on the table can make an enormous difference in marshaling the will to act.

After all, politicians’ success depends on offering viable solutions. They have a duty to their constituencies, and thus a responsibility to understand the issues affecting their lives. And given that climate change will affect everyone, they have a responsibility to acquaint themselves with the available tools for fighting it. Once equipped with that knowledge, policymakers, eager to demonstrate their competency, will be all the more committed to taking action.

Specifically, policymakers need to internalize the main pathways for achieving deep emissions reductions. In the run-up to COP21, tools like the Global Calculator helped governments understand the sources of emissions across sectors, and how emissions could be modified over time to reach certain milestones.

The rationale for such tools is that full-scale decarbonization in any country requires a practical plan that works in a national context. By focusing on specific sectors, governments can frame the challenge in concrete terms, and plan accordingly. And once they know precisely what needs to be done, they can pursue creative, tailored strategies for making it happen. This is the logic behind the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and long-term decarbonization strategies under the Paris agreement.

In addition to governments, these tools should also be available to other stakeholders. Citizens, businesses, and civil-society groups all have a role to play in tackling climate change. And voters need practical mechanisms for holding their governments accountable. But, more to the point, more attention and other resources must be focused on how proponents of climate action communicate with average citizens. Otherwise, the public will neither get involved nor hold politicians accountable.

Here, too, the global must be brought to the local. No single person can reach everyone, so we need to find messengers with the credibility to speak to individual communities and groups. For people to take an interest in climate change, they need to hear about why it matters from someone they trust. Only then will they be convinced that it is a concrete threat to their communities and the people they love.

With more diversity among the messengers of climate action, we can also hone the language that we use for reaching different groups. The phrase “climate change” does not resonate with everyone. Some people may respond more enthusiastically to ideas like the “conservation” of nature, “clean” energy and air, energy “independence,” and so forth.

Locking in Climate Action

The complexity and scope of climate change mean that it cannot just be national governments’ problem; we all have a responsibility to commit to the goals of the Paris climate agreement, and to act accordingly. The entire point of the agreement was to establish a shared objective among national, regional, and municipal governments, economic actors, international institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and local communities. Though all of these entities have unique governance structures and decision-making processes, establishing a common goal ensures that their priorities will be aligned.

As we have seen, a convergence of expectations can be a powerful catalyst for further progress. But, beyond that, it also makes the Paris accord more resilient. This, too, was by design. We knew the agreement would encounter political headwinds sooner or later, and now it has.

Fortunately, stakeholders across the board, even independently from their governments, have already committed to reducing emissions and keeping global temperatures within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels. Believing that a low-carbon future is inevitable, they are still all in. And by using the strategies advocated here, we can start to engage with those who have succumbed to denialism or complacency.