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2016-03-29 22:37:59 -0400
– American Psychological Association is proactively analyzing the psychology of messaging.
Climate change communication heats up
Environmental scientists, teachers, advocates and others are turning to psychologists’ research to help them educate the public about climate change.
By Lea Winerman
June 2014, Vol 45, No. 6
Print version: page 30
Climate change communication heats up
Climate change is already melting ice caps, stressing world water supplies and intensifying the weather, according to the latest report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in March. The report leaves little doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change: It’s happening, it’s extremely likely that humans are the main cause and it will only escalate if we don’t take quick and significant action.
Despite this scientific consensus, annual greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. In May 2013, a team of scientists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached a milestone record of 400 parts per million, likely higher than at any point in the last 3 million years.
So why have we — as individuals and as a society — generally failed to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in the face of such serious consequences?
According to Anthony Leiserowitz, PhD, the director of Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication, it’s because “you really couldn’t design a worse fit for our underlying psychology” than climate change.
The pain of paying more for gas at the pump, turning down the thermostat, or deciding to forgo airplane trips is real and immediate. And yet those actions can feel minuscule compared with what needs to be done to limit global warming. Meanwhile, the most serious consequences of climate change seem remote — far away and far in the future.
“It’s kind of the perfect challenge,” says Columbia University psychologist Elke Weber, PhD, who studies environmental decision-making. “The costs [of reducing carbon emissions] are immediate and upfront. But the benefits come in dribbles and with great uncertainty. The public doesn’t easily have the tools to think about that and weigh costs and benefits and outcomes.”
Now, behavioral scientists are helping to bridge that gap, by helping climate communicators better understand their audiences and motivate people to make changes to reduce global warming. Here are a few examples of how innovative researchers, educators and others are putting those strategies into practice.
Gauging public opinion
For any climate communicator, the most fundamental rule is “know thy audience,” says Leiserowitz. Without understanding what citizens know and believe about climate change, it’s impossible to know how to talk to them effectively. Two decades ago when climate scientists and others first began to talk about climate change, he says, they tended to lump the public into two simple groups — those who believed humans were causing the planet to warm up and those who didn’t. Then they focused their efforts on convincing the disbelievers.
Leiserowitz thought this was too simplistic. In 2008, he and his colleagues surveyed more than 2,000 Americans and found that they could segment the public into six distinct groups along the following continuum: the “alarmed,” who are certain that global warming is happening and support strong action to address it; the “concerned,” who are moderately sure that it is happening but are less likely to view it as a personal threat; the “cautious,” who are still making up their minds; the “disengaged,” who don’t know anything about the issue; the “doubtful,” who don’t think it’s happening, but if it is, it’s a natural cycle and therefore not something we can do anything about; and the “dismissive,” who are certain that global warming is not happening and may think it’s a hoax. Leiserowitz called these groups Global Warming’s Six Americas.
His work has revealed that climate-change dismissives are a small though vocal minority of Americans. They can seem like a larger group because they are outspoken in the media, but in a survey he conducted last year, Leiserowitz found that two-thirds of all Americans were in the alarmed (16 percent), concerned (27 percent) or cautious (23 percent) categories. Five percent were disengaged, 12 percent were doubtful and only 15 percent were dismissive.
Just knowing those figures, Leiserowitz says, can help climate communicators. For example, a docent in a science museum might worry about talking to visitors about climate change because he or she is afraid of being attacked by climate dismissives, not realizing that they are likely a small percentage of the visitors.
“That is a vast disservice to the other 85 percent of people who are looking to them as experts to help them understand the science and how it applies to their lives,” he says.
The Six Americas concept has proven to have staying power. Over the past several years, the National Park Service, science museums, aquariums and other groups around the country have begun to use it to assess their audiences and help guide their outreach.
Matt Lappé, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Climate Education (
), for example, has worked with Leiserowitz and colleagues to help design assemblies on climate change for high school students and to assess where the students fall on the Six Americas spectrum both before and after the
programs. That allows them to figure out whether they’re making a difference in how this critical group thinks about climate change.
“This is the demographic that has had a strong role in cultural shifts,” Lappé says. “Young people tend to be on the cutting edge of pushing the conversation in a way that can result in real change.”
Leiserowitz and other public opinion researchers also hope that their work will reach policymakers. Showing politicians that the public largely believes that climate change is real — and supports efforts to mitigate it — could, they hope, help convince those politicians that supporting greenhouse-gas-reducing policies is less politically risky than it might seem.
Stanford University psychologist and public opinion researcher Jon Krosnick, PhD, for example, found in a 2013 analysis that even in traditionally “red” states — where people are more likely to dismiss climate change — more than three-quarters of respondents said that worldwide temperatures probably had been going up over the past 100 years. In most traditionally “blue” states, as many as 80 to 85 percent of people responded that way. And in all but four states, more than 50 percent of people thought that the U.S. government should do more to address global warming.
Leiserowitz and Krosnick differ on some issues of survey methodology and question wording — hence the differences in the magnitudes of their findings. But, Leiserowitz says, “We both find there’s strong support for a variety of policies that would be put in place to combat [global warming.] … So in that sense there is and has long been more support for taking action then you see reflected in Washington, D.C.”
Motivating personal change
Despite surveys showing that most U.S. citizens believe that climate change is a real and serious threat, on an individual level it can be tough to motivate them to take steps to reduce their own fossil fuel use, or advocate for political or communitywide change.
But psychologists’ work can help, and educators, climate scientists and others are increasingly turning to behavioral science research to help them make their case.
One example is “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication,” published by Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. The 50-page guide, first published in 2009 and now being updated for a second edition, is a user-friendly compilation of research meant to help environmental scientists, teachers, journalists and other climate communicators. It covers topics such as how to frame climate change in a way that makes it relevant to your audience, why to avoid overusing emotional appeals and how to talk about scientific uncertainty.
The center has conducted academic research in those areas since 2004, says Weber, who contributed to the guide. But around five years ago, staff realized that they needed to translate that research into practical recommendations for those who talk directly to the public about climate change. The guide has been a hit — it’s been downloaded more than 26,000 times, according to Weber.
Part of its appeal is that it is full of specific examples of how to connect with different audiences — for example, by framing climate change as an issue with major implications for human health and national security as well as nature; and by emphasizing local rather than worldwide effects.
At the Alliance for Climate Education, Lappé is relying on that kind of advice to work with his teen audience, homing in on their demographics and interests to craft messages that will resonate most effectively with them.
For example, some researchers have found that framing climate change as a local, and not just global, problem can help. In one 2011 study in Environment & Behavior, for example, University of British Columbia psychologist Robert Gifford, PhD, asked 327 participants to complete a survey that measured their engagement with climate change issues. Before they did so, one group read a poster with information about the global effects of climate change, such as average sea level rise. Another group read a poster that emphasized local effects, such as worsening pine beetle infestations in local forests. A control group didn’t read any message. Gifford found that the group that read the local message showed more engagement with climate change issues in the follow-up survey than the control group, while there was no difference between the global message group and the control group.
Because of results like these, Lappé and his staff have developed custom programs for students in different areas of the country — in the San Francisco Bay area, for example, they talk about drought and water availability, while in Denver they talk about increasing wildfires.
has also worked to create follow-up “action teams” to keep the most enthusiastic students who come out of their assemblies engaged with climate change issues. These teams sponsor local projects like schoolwide energy audits or “bike to school” days. For those who want to get even more involved,
is organizing citywide action teams to work on larger efforts, such as community anti-car-idling campaigns in Reno, Nevada, and Atlanta.
“We think about our engagement program as being a ladder,” he says. “At each point, students are given a ‘next step,’ so that we can build a network of students at different levels of engagement. We’ve relied really heavily on research to lay out that pathway for the students.”
Climate frames and carbon conversations
aims to reach hundreds of teens at a clip, Pennyslvania State University environmental psychologist Janet Swim, PhD, and her colleagues are trying to reach a different group — the 75 million people who visit zoos, aquariums and science centers every year. They’re aiming to reach this sizeable population through a smaller group — the “informal science educators” who run those institutions and interact with the public there.
These staff and volunteers generally care deeply about animals, the environment and climate change issues. But often, Swim says, they feel constrained in what they can say about the topic — both because they don’t want to appear too political and because they feel that they don’t have the skills and knowledge to talk about the subject effectively.
Swim and her colleagues are working with a nonprofit group called the Frameworks Institute on a four- to five-month training program in which groups of about 40 of these educators meet to learn research-based techniques to talk to their visitors about climate change.
On a simple level, for example, the trainees learn to use more effective words and metaphors. For example, scientists often talk about the “greenhouse gas effect” contributing to global warming. But some research has found that people don’t really understand what the greenhouse gas effect is. In fact, the metaphor may underplay the phenomenon’s seriousness because people tend to think of greenhouses as gentle, pleasant places where plants grow. Instead, the training program teaches educators to use the stronger metaphor of a “heat-trapping blanket” covering the earth.
On another level, the educators also learn to frame the entire issue of climate change in a way that works with zoo and aquarium visitors.
“There are social norms in zoos and aquariums. People go there for entertainment,” says Swim. “It’s their vacation. So we’re not going to succeed by talking doom and gloom about difficult subjects we can’t do anything about.”
Instead, she says, it’s more effective for the educators to start the climate change conversation by emphasizing “big ideas” that most Americans agree on — that we are interconnected with the planet, and that Americans are innovators and can solve problems. “The idea is to shift people’s frames, so that when you talk about climate change, people don’t think about disasters, but instead about these things they already value.”
Swim is evaluating the program as part of a five-year National Science Foundation grant. In a study published in the Journal of Museum Education in October, she found that the training increased the educators’ belief in their ability to discuss climate change, and that after completing it they were more likely to talk about climate change with their co-workers and wider social networks.
Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, Rosemary Randall is trying to change individuals’ energy-consumption habits just six to eight people at a time.
Randall spent 25 years as a psychotherapist in Cambridge, England, and has also been active in the environmental movement in the United Kingdom.
In the mid-2000s, she realized that she could combine her two passions by using principles of group therapy to help people reduce their carbon footprint. The facts of climate change, she says, can cause people to feel anxiety, guilt, anger and hopelessness. So, as with many things that cause those emotions, people tend to turn away and ignore the cause rather than figuring out how to address it.
“It’s not that we don’t know about climate change, it’s that we hide it from ourselves,” she says.
Group therapy, Randall believes, provides people a safe space to address many uncomfortable truths. So why not develop a group-based intervention that would give people a safe space to explore climate change and their own contributions to global warming?
That was the genesis of her program “Carbon Conversations,” in which groups of six to eight people meet for six two-hour sessions with a trained leader, who shepherds them through conversations and exercises on what climate change means for themselves and their families. They talk about their fears and anxieties, and learn practical tips for steps they can take to reduce their own carbon footprint.
Randall and her colleagues have taken the program to community groups, local governments and workplaces. So far, more than 3,000 people have participated. A not-yet-published 2013 evaluation found that participants reduced their yearly carbon output by an average of three tons (the U.K. average yearly per-person carbon output is about 12 tons) through such actions as carpooling, reducing their meat consumption, foregoing vacations that required airplane trips and eco-refurbishing their homes.
“It is very time intensive, but it’s quite effective,” Randall says. “Something about the deeper engagement seems to keep people determined and willing to do more difficult things than they would otherwise have done.” The Bioregional Dashboard
In the modern world, it’s easy to consume energy and resources: flip on a light switch, run a load of dishes, turn up your air conditioner during a summer heat wave. What’s difficult, though, is to picture where that energy comes from, how it’s produced, and how your personal use contributes to the community’s use overall.
To Oberlin College psychologist Cindy Frantz, PhD, that’s the crux of the problem with asking people to reduce their resource use. In the past, people had to cut their own firewood if they wanted light or heat or haul water from a creek to cook with. But now we get our light, heat and water without any effort, and without seeing any obvious signs of how it’s produced.
“All functional systems have to have feedback,” she says. “But we as modern humans live in systems that have no feedback about our resource use.”
That’s what Frantz is working to change with her Oberlin Environmental Dashboard, a multipart project that aims to help citizens in Oberlin, Ohio, visualize their personal and community energy and water use, and in doing so increase their sense of connection with nature and their motivation to cut their resource use.
In the project’s first phase, Frantz and her colleagues in the environmental science department installed energy-monitoring software in all of the dorms on campus. Real-time information about each dorm’s energy use is displayed on a monitor in the building. Since 2007, the dorms have used the information to participate in an annual energy-reduction competition.
In 2012, Frantz and her colleagues expanded the building monitoring program to several public schools and libraries in the surrounding Oberlin community.
They also unveiled a new, online citywide dashboard that displays real-time information on how much electricity and water the entire city is consuming on an engaging screen display.
The goal of the citywide dashboard, Frantz says, is broader than that of the building dashboards. Her aim is to help people understand how their individual actions contribute to the collective resource use and ecosystem of the city, and make them feel more connected to those resources.
“It shows, literally, the connection between the coal-fired electricity plant and their house. And it shows how wastewater coming out of a house goes to the nearby creek. We’re trying to broaden the context in which they think about these things.”
In one study, which Frantz presented at APA’s 2013 Annual Convention, she found that people who spent just a few minutes a day interacting with the dashboard, for six days in a row, showed a heightened sense of connection with nature. They also had a tendency to show wider “rings of responsibility” — in other words, to think more broadly about who shares the responsibility for an outcome like resource overuse.
“That’s really exciting to me because it suggests that we’re not just giving them little facts, but we’re shifting the way that they think about the world,” Frantz says.
For much more on how psychology can help address climate change, read the 2009 report from APA’s Task Force on the Interface between Psychology and Global Climate Change, led by Janet Swim, PhD, of Pennsylvania State University.
Other resources include:
Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (2009). The Psychology of Climate Change Communication: A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the Interested Public. New York.
Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Feinberg, G. & Howe, P. (2013) Global Warming’s Six Americas, September 2012. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
2016-03-21 22:57:44 -0400
One take on celebrating
and then, move on to the tougher work of what’s next!
Michael Jacobs, visiting fellow at
, and visiting professor at the Grantham
Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of
Economics and Political Science, wrote this article, which appears in edition 22.4 of Juncture, IPPR’s quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.
High pressure for low emissions: How civil society created the Paris climate agreement
A huge diplomatic achievement, the Paris agreement signed in late 2015 was also
the outcome of an unprecedented show of political power by a broad and diverse
coalition of forces from global civil society. Michael Jacobs describes how this
alliance forced the hands of the world’s major polluters, and forged a new politics of
The international climate change agreement reached in Paris in December 2015 was, as
many observers have noted, an extraordinary diplomatic achievement, uniting 195
countries around a highly ambitious agenda to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As others
have said, it sends a powerful economic signal, telling the world’s businesses and
investors that the global economy is set to become increasingly low-carbon, and that
major new global markets will now be created for renewable energy, and for low-carbon
products and new technologies.
What fewer people have noticed is that it was also a remarkable display of the political
power of civil society. The Paris agreement was forged over two gruelling weeks of
negotiations between governments. But it was crafted into being over the previous five
years by a broad coalition of forces from global civil society.
To understand this, we need to understand the astonishing nature of the agreement
reached. The Paris deal requires governments to do something none of them wants to do.
Governments hate making commitments that they do not know they can meet, and for
which the cost is unknown. But this is precisely what the agreement does. It sets the goal
of ensuring that greenhouse gas emissions peak as soon as possible, and then commits
to phasing them out altogether in the second half of the century. This is not quite a death
sentence for fossil fuels, since it may be possible to capture some emissions in natural
systems or underground. But it comes close, requiring their almost complete replacement
by renewable energy (and possibly nuclear power), even while global energy demand
continues to grow. At the same time it requires a complete end to deforestation within the
next decade or so, even while agricultural production must rise to feed a growing human
population. And it means a fundamental redesign of the world’s cities to reduce energy
and transport emissions, even while the world continues to urbanise.
All of this is necessary if the rise in global temperature is to be held to ‘well below 2°C’, or
even to 1.5°C as the agreement stipulates. But right now we do not know precisely how
achieving ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions will be technologically possible, and we
certainly have no idea of the cost. 80 per cent of the world’s energy still comes from fossil
fuels despite the advances in renewables in the last decade.
It is therefore extraordinary that governments have set themselves this radical goal. But
they have done more than this. The agreement requires governments, every five years, to
set progressively more ambitious targets to reduce emissions. These targets must be
based on a scientific ‘stock-take’, also conducted every five years, that will show how far
current plans fall short of the 2°C and 1.5°C targets. The Paris agreement therefore
guarantees that governments will come under huge pressure to strengthen their targets
on a regular basis. To what degree individual governments respond to such pressure
remains their prerogative, but it will almost certainly drive them into policies they are
reluctant to adopt, such as taxing carbon, reducing subsidies for fossil fuels and phasing
out the use of coal. This will antagonise powerful vested interests, and risks stoking
Governments hate pressure of this kind. So why on earth have they agreed to subject
themselves to it? The quadruple alliance
The answer is that they have effectively been forced to. Following the failed Copenhagen
conference in 2009, an informal global coalition of NGOs, businesses, academics and
others came together to define an acceptable outcome to the Paris conference and then
applied huge pressure on governments to agree to it. Some of this activity was formally
co-ordinated; much of it came from individual organisations and coalitions. But the
combined effect was to generate a political momentum that proved strong enough, in the
end, to overcome all resistance. Civil society effectively identified the landing ground for
the agreement, then encircled and squeezed the world’s governments until, by the end of
the Paris conference, they were standing on it. Four key forces made up this effective
alliance. The scientific community
The first was the scientific community. Five years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (
), which reviews and summarises evidence from the world’s climate
scientists, was in trouble. Relentless attacks from climate sceptics and a number of
apparent scandals – the ‘climategate’ emails, dodgy data on melting Himalayan glaciers,
allegations surrounding its chairman – had undermined its credibility. But the scientists
fought back, subjecting their work to even more rigorous peer-review and hiring
professional communications expertise for the first time. The result was the IPCC’s
landmark Fifth Assessment Report, published over several months in 2013–2014. The
report was not just another painstakingly sober – and sobering – account of the latest
evidence on the impacts of climate change and the costs and benefits of acting on it. It
also contained two powerful central insights.
report introduced the concept of a ‘carbon budget’: the total amount of
carbon dioxide the earth’s atmosphere can absorb before the 2°C temperature goal is
breached. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, that amounts to around 800
billion tonnes of CO2. Of this, approximately 530 billion tonnes has already been used up,
which leaves another 270 billion tonnes available to the world and its future economic
growth. At present emission rates, even without growth, that would be used up in less
than 30 years. So cutting emissions cannot wait.
The other insight was that these emissions have to be reduced until they reach zero. The
IPCC’s models are clear: the physics of global warming means that to halt the world’s
temperature rise, the world will have to stop producing greenhouse gas emissions
altogether. If we want to hold it to under 2°C, net zero carbon emissions will have to be
reached by 2060–2075, and all greenhouse gases emissions halted before the end of the
century. The economic community
The IPCC’s report put the scientific evidence on climate change right back on the political
agenda. But it was a second set of forces that really changed the argument. Back in 2006,
the UK government’s Stern report had convincingly shown that the costs of future climate
change were far greater than the current costs of preventing it. But since the financial
crash in 2008–2009, cutting emissions had fallen down the priority lists of the world’s
finance ministries. The old orthodoxy that environmental policy was an unaffordable cost
to the economy reasserted itself. A new argument was required.
Enter the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, an initiative hatched by a
number of economists, research institutes and the Swedish, Norwegian and UK
governments to re-examine the evidence on climate change and economic growth.
Chaired by the former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, and comprising more than 20
leading figures from politics, business and finance, the Commission’s report, Better
Growth, Better Climate, set out a powerful new argument. Cutting emissions was not just
compatible with economic growth: it could generate better growth, with lower air
pollution, more liveable and economically efficient cities, more sustainable use of land and
greater energy security. Published in September 2014, the report drew on longstanding
academic work on ‘green growth’ and the practical evidence of international organisations
such as the UN Environment Programme and the UN Development Programme. Its
message quickly reverberated around the world: by the time Calderón’s presentation
received a standing ovation at the Lima climate conference in December 2014, it had
become the dominant discourse of climate action, repeated by governments and
businesses alike. The heads of the mainstream economic organisations quickly took it up:
some of the strongest advocates of low-carbon growth soon included Christine Lagarde
of the International Monetary Fund, Jim Kim of the World Bank and Ángel Gurría of the
At the same time, a quite separate economic story was being told by a tiny
London called Carbon Tracker. Founded by former investment managers Mark Campanale
and Nick Robins, Carbon Tracker took up the IPCC’s idea of the global carbon budget and
turned it into a startling proposition. If the world was to stay within the 2°C limit, 80 per
cent of the world’s remaining oil, gas and coal reserves were now effectively ‘unburnable’
and would have to be left in the ground. If governments acted on their own commitments,
it would leave many of the world’s fossil fuel companies with ‘stranded assets’, unable to
continue planned production and with heavily devalued share prices. The world’s stock
markets and pension funds were effectively sitting on a ‘carbon bubble’.
Carbon Tracker’s analysis spread like wildfire. Some of the biggest shareholding
institutions sat up. The insurance sector had already begun to understand the risk that
heightened climate impacts could have both on its products (as insurance claims from
extreme weather events rocketed) and on its investments. Within just four years of Carbon
Tracker’s first report, Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, was warning of the
financial risks of climate change, and the global Financial Stability Board was starting to
draw up guidelines on how companies and asset holders should ‘stress test’ their
investments against different climate scenarios and publicly disclose their risks. The businesses
As these narratives of science and economics gathered pace, a critical new player began
to amplify them. The traditional stance of business organisations had been to oppose
stronger climate policy. However, over the last decade a number of leading global
corporations, exemplified by the consumer goods giant Unilever, had begun to argue in
public that strong climate policy was in the interests of business. On the one hand the
ways in which climate change threatens water and food production in supply chains
around the world had become increasingly clear. On the other, the growth of green and
renewable energy policy has created a global market in low-carbon and environmental
goods and services now worth US$5.5 trillion and growing at 3 per cent a year. This has
generated whole new industries – such as wind and solar power – dependent on strong
For Unilever and other global giants such as Nike,
and Bank of America, it was not
enough for businesses to take advantage of the new markets: they should be advocating
for policy change. The result was the creation of a new global network, We Mean
Business, that brought together seven global business and investor organisations to lobby
in favour of climate policy and for a new international agreement. By September 2014 over
1,000 global companies were calling on governments to introduce ‘carbon pricing’
through carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes. By May 2015 organisations
representing over 6.5 million businesses were urging an ambitious climate agreement in
Paris. The NGOs
Meanwhile, environmental NGOs had shifted their campaign tactics in the aftermath of
the Copenhagen conference. While some NGOs downgraded climate campaigning
altogether, others focussed their attention on a different battle: the fight against fossil
The initial focus was coal. Beginning in the US and western Europe, broad-based
coalitions with the aim of stopping the building of new coal-fired power stations rapidly
spread across the world, as protests over air pollution, land rights and corruption – and
the attractions of renewable energy – aligned with climate concerns. Local groups joined
forces with sophisticated national campaigns, at great personal risk to protestors in some
countries. But the results have been remarkable: since 2010 new coal generation has
been virtually abandoned in the US and western Europe, and almost 900 projected plants
have been cancelled worldwide. Global coal demand has now tipped into decline, with the
movement in the US and Europe now pressing to phase out its use altogether.
Greenpeace turned its attention to protecting the Arctic, and in particular to Shell’s plans
to drill for oil there. Combining its usual methods of spectacular direct action with the
mass campaigning of over 7 million supporters around the world, the campaign achieved
a landmark victory just a few months before Paris, when Shell announced its withdrawal
from the Arctic.
What made the
revival after Copenhagen different was its global nature. As it
became clearer in many developing countries that climate change was already occurring,
it increasingly became a focus for a huge range of civil society organisations struggling
for development, women’s rights, the rights of indigenous people and other social and
economic issues. The global labour movement, too, took it up. The International Trade
Union Confederation shifted its campaign strategy away from simply defending jobs
under threat and towards arguments for industrial and community support policies to
enable a ‘just transition’ from a high-carbon to low-carbon economy. In many countries
city mayors and state governors also became critical advocates and exponents of change.
At the same time, two much newer NGOs entered the fray. 350.org, founded by the
American writer and activist Bill McKibben, fired up a largely student and youth
membership with two highly imaginative and focused campaigns. Picking up Carbon
Tracker’s concept of ‘unburnable carbon’, and drawing inspiration from the anti-apartheid
disinvestment campaigns of the 1980s, 350.org called upon universities and other
institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies. The campaign expanded to include
supporters among pension funds and other financial institutions. These argued not that
fossil fuel companies were immoral, simply that in a climate-constrained world they were
not sound financial assets. At the same time 350.org mounted a nationwide campaign in
the US against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, designed to bring oil from the carbonheavy
Canadian tar sands through the US to the Gulf of Mexico. Bringing together a huge
range of opponents – one colourful protest featured Nebraskan ranchers alongside native
Americans in a ‘cowboys and Indians’ alliance – the campaign reached a triumphant
conclusion in November this year, when President Obama announced that the pipeline
was incompatible with the US’s climate policies and would not be approved.
Meanwhile the online campaigning organisation Avaaz was steadily building a global
supporter base. Deploying an imaginative combination of online petitions and email
campaigns with street protests and paid-for advertisements in newspapers around the
world, Avaaz acquired new supporters at the rate of a million a month. Entirely selffinanced
from small donations, it had reached 42 million global supporters by the time of
the Paris conference. The 2014 climate summit
These four emerging forces in civil society – science, economics, business and NGOs –
first came together in an organised way around the climate summit in New York in
September 2014. Organised by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, the summit was
unusual in that it brought together not just heads of government but leaders from
business and finance, city mayors and state governors, heads of international
organisations and NGOs. While the heads of state made speeches accepting the IPCC’s
science and the new economics of low-carbon growth, hundreds of new commitments to
climate action were made by this new community of ‘non-state actors’ – from stopping
deforestation in commodity supply chains to investing in renewable energy; from
disinvesting in fossil fuels to making cities more sustainable; from reducing emissions in
agriculture to helping developing countries build resilience to climate disasters.
But it was outside the conference hall that the summit really took off. For months a small
number of activists had seen the event as a perfect opportunity to mobilise large numbers
of climate supporters around the world in big street marches. But the major NGOs were
not convinced: what decisions would be made in New York?
So a remarkable thing happened. The idea for a climate march was taken up by the
newcomers 350.org and Avaaz, working with community organisations in New York. In the
end the big NGOs came on board, and the People’s Climate March on 23 September 2014
became the largest in the history of climate campaigning, and one of the largest ever –
400,000 people in New York, and many more in countless parallel marches in cities
around the world. It put climate change onto the front pages of almost every newspaper,
and made sure that the leaders gathering at the summit knew they were being watched. Some even joined it.
The climate summit marked the long build-up of political momentum towards the Paris
conference. In June 2015 the Pope’s encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si, galvanised
support from faith-based organisations, particularly in the developing world; he was
joined in his calls for climate action by leaders from almost every other faith. The thinktanks
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a fifth civil society force was exerting its influence: the
thinktanks and academics drawing up designs for the agreement to be secured in Paris.
Organisations such as the World Resources Institute (
) and C2ES in Washington DC,
the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, the National Centre for Climate Change
Strategy and International Cooperation in Beijing and the Institute for Sustainable
Development and International Relations (
) in Paris conducted quiet consultations
with governments and civil society organisations to gather ideas and build support for a
new international regime. A gradual consensus coalesced around the concepts of a fiveyearly
stock-take and cycle of commitments, parity between mitigation and adaptation,
the importance of ‘climate justice’, finance for developing countries, and the definition of
an accounting and monitoring regime.
The most remarkable of these efforts was the idea that the agreement should have at its
heart the long-term goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero in the second
half of the century. This was the idea of London-based lawyer and longstanding
negotiator Farhana Yamin. She argued that, since ‘net zero emissions’ was what the
said was required to hold global warming to under 2°C, it should be the goal of the
agreement. When Yamin set out the proposition in early 2013, few people in the climate
movement thought it was remotely achievable – it might be true, but it was surely far too
radical for governments to adopt. But Yamin was undeterred. She set up a small
Track 0, to campaign for it, and used her extensive global networks to win support. It
rapidly became clear that Yamin had hit on the concept that could unify the entire civil
society movement, now growing in strength. The scientists supported it; the economists
and business organisations recognised that it would send the clearest signal to investors
about the future direction of the global economy; and the NGOs saw it as the end of fossil
fuels. When German chancellor Angela Merkel indicated that she too would support it, a
brilliantly orchestrated campaign, supported by a 3-million-strong Avaaz petition,
produced a remarkable outcome: agreement at the G7 meeting of industrialised country
leaders in Bavaria in June 2015 that they should phase out greenhouse gas emissions
altogether by the end of the century.
Gathering all these forces together, the climate movement made a bold decision. The
Paris conference had to become another make-or-break moment, at which maximum
pressure must be applied to governments. Many warned against raising expectations:
hadn’t we done this before Copenhagen, and then been catastrophically defeated? The
world could not afford another failure. But others realised that that risk had to be taken – if
ambition wasn’t high enough, a sufficiently strong agreement would be impossible. The
Paris conference would not solve the problem, but it had to be a big deal. The diplomacy
In the run-up to the conference, the dominant dynamic in the UN negotiations was the
relationship between the US and China. Determined to leave a new international
agreement as part of his legacy, President Obama and his secretary of state John Kerry
prioritised the establishment of a climate relationship with the Chinese government. A
joint statement between the two heads of state in November 2014 was followed by a
second in September 2015. This raised many people’s hopes that a new agreement could
indeed be signed: if the two largest polluters and global powers were aligned, the chances
were surely good. But it also led many to fear that the agreement would be weak, for
neither the US nor China would want to be constrained by the goals and rules of a binding
But in Paris something else happened. The US and China continued to talk, but a much
more powerful force emerged as the dominant voice in the negotiations. This was that of
the countries most vulnerable to climate change – the low-lying islands and others who
are already experiencing severe impacts from rising temperatures and extreme weather
events. The structure of the UN climate negotiations, which requires decisions by
consensus, gives small countries unusual power if they act together. A new grouping of
43 countries, the Climate Vulnerable Forum, made itself heard alongside the more
traditional groupings of small island states, least developed countries and African
countries. Together they set the negotiating agenda: they would not sign an agreement
unless it had the target of holding global warming to 1.5°C rather than 2°C; included the
long-term goal of net zero emissions; recognised that developing countries needed
support for the loss and damage they were already experiencing from climate change;
and committed developed countries to scaling up finance from a floor of $100 billion per
year in 2020.
Supported on the outside by a broad coalition of NGOs coordinated by the international
Climate Action Network, and a looser group of organisations led by WRI’s climate director
Jennifer Morgan, the vulnerable countries reached agreement first with the Latin
Americans and European Union and then, remarkably, with the US. A common agenda
was agreed, including a commitment to the five-year cycles and to a single ‘transparency’
system of measurement, reporting and verification which would apply to all countries.
This new ‘high ambition alliance’ challenged other countries to join them. To see one of
the tiniest nations on earth, the Marshall Islands, alongside other small countries such as
St Lucia and the Gambia, co-ordinating the agreement of the EU and US – and eventually
Canada, Brazil and others – to a radical common platform was a remarkable sight. As one
Filipino negotiator said, ‘it was the ants moving the elephants’.
The final piece of the jigsaw that created the Paris agreement was the expert
management of the conference by the French government, led by foreign minister Laurent
Fabius and his climate ambassador Laurence Tubiana. Together with the executive
secretary of the
, Christiana Figueres, they handled the two-week negotiations
superbly, ensuring that all countries felt listened to and that the agreement gave everyone
something of what they wanted. The key decision occurred on the Thursday of the
second week, when the French issued a bold draft of the final agreement. It was high risk:
it could have been rejected. But it was brilliant politics. By anchoring the text in the
principles of equity, ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ and sustainable
development, and ensuring continued differentiation between developed and developing
countries (though not a on a fixed and binary model, which the US and EU could not
accept) they achieved the seemingly impossible – an agreement that met the demands of
the ‘high ambition alliance’, but also gave China, India, Saudi Arabia and others what they
sought. In the end, it ensured that everyone acceded to a high ambition agreement. The new politics of climate
So Paris was a triumph for multilateral diplomacy. But it would not have happened without
the huge mobilisation of civil society in the five years beforehand. By orchestrating the
narratives of science and economics to demand strong climate action, and organising the
business community, NGOs and many others in support of a strong agreement, it was civil
society that pressured governments into the positions that made the final negotiations
That’s why the vast majority of environmental NGOs have welcomed the agreement. And
it’s why the reaction of the few that did not – those such as Friends of the Earth, who
called the Paris outcome a ‘sham’ – is so short-sighted. Of course in an ideal world
governments would have committed to higher ambitions now. But in the world we live in,
this was more or less as good as it could have been, and far stronger than most people
realistically thought possible. Moreover, it owed a great deal to civil society pressure. If
you cannot recognise victory when it comes, how can your supporters ever feel that
campaigning is worth it? Rejection of the agreement sends a terrible message to
campaigners and activists. It says to them – whatever you do, whatever you achieve,
you’ve always failed.
More importantly, the agreement casts new light on the relationship between civil society,
governments and capitalism. In her bestselling book This Changes Everything: Capitalism
vs the Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014), Naomi Klein argues that climate change is the
inevitable consequence of capitalism, and that the former will only be combatted if the
latter is overthrown. This thesis, intended as a clarion call for campaigners, was always a
recipe for despair. If it depends on capitalism being overthrown, reversing climate change
in the little time we have available will surely be impossible. But the real problem is that
the causality in this argument is the wrong way round. We do not have to overthrow
capitalism to tackle global warming. On the contrary, by tackling climate change, we can
This is what the Paris agreement will set in train. In order to achieve the targets they have
set, governments will have to introduce policies that regulate businesses and shape
markets. They will have to tax carbon and incentivise innovation. They will need industrial
policies and public expenditure. They will find themselves penalising fossil fuel industries
and encouraging energy efficiency. They will have to create cities that work for people,
and land-use systems that sustain the forests, soil and water. And in doing these things
they will ensure that capitalism can no longer destroy the climate system, because global
society will no longer allow that to happen.
This is, of course, why those on the free-market right so hate the climate agenda. They
know that dealing with it involves managing and shaping capitalism in order to achieve
social and environmental goals. But equally, it is why everyone else, from social
democrats to greens, liberals and Christian democrats, can welcome the Paris agreement
as a signifier that our economic system is not out of our control.
So has the agreement saved the world? Of course not. No international negotiation can do
that. As many people have pointed out, the agreement is just a framework of goals and
rules. Now governments have to act on it – and at every step there will be battles with
powerful forces that continue to pursue a high-carbon economy. Achieving a temperature
rise limit of 2°C, let alone 1.5°C, will be an immensely difficult process requiring
transformative economic change that will challenge our political system. It will take
immense, continuing efforts by civil society to force governments down the path to zero
emissions that they have now laid out.
But in building this agreement, civil society has cleverly written itself into it. Lying at the
heart of the agreement are the five-yearly ‘global moments’, when governments will have
to face up to the inadequacy of their current efforts and commit to doing more. At each of
these moments it will be up to the combined forces of civil society – in every country – to
pressure them into doing so. As ever throughout history, economic and social change will
come from below, from a coalition of social movements and enlightened businesses,
campaigners and visionaries. It was how the Paris agreement was constructed over the
last five years. And it is how the agreement just may be able to save the planet over the
Michael Jacobs is a visiting fellow at
, and visiting professor at the Grantham
Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of
Economics and Political Science.
This article appears in edition 22.4 of Juncture, IPPR’s quarterly journal of politics and
ideas, published by Wiley.
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