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Long Reads

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?

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