(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Fires that have consumed swathes of Australia, the Arctic and now the western U.S. are lighting only a tiny flame under climate action for the world’s top polluters. It’s hard to imagine how the past two years could have included more environmental alarm bells, from the ancient peatlands ablaze in the thawing north to mercury hitting just over 54 degrees Celsius (130 Farenheit) in California’s Death Valley, after the hottest decade on record. Even that isn’t changing enough minds.
So, what will it take? Focusing less on the deniers, learning to work with biases, alongside communities and expanding the green lobby as benefits spread would be a start.
Last week offered a clear example of the extent of the problem. Meeting California state officials to discuss out-of-control wildfires, U.S. President Donald Trump was told global warming was making the situation worse. “It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch,” he said. The science suggests otherwise, came the reply from the secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. “Well, I don’t think science knows, actually.” This isn’t a unique response, and suggests fact and experience aren’t enough.
Evidence from Australia, climate victim and perpetrator, is just as worrying. Last year, before a devastating bushfire season and a May election, an ABC poll suggested the environment had jumped to the number one concern for 29% of respondents, ahead of the economy. Still, voters backed an incumbent coalition that champions coal. Today, it is remarkable how little has changed after months of blazes that produced as much climate-damaging pollution as the world’s commercial aircraft fleet in a normal year. The government has left net-zero greenhouse gas emissions targets to states, focuses on new technologies instead of outright cuts, and wants a gas-fueled recovery that heads in the wrong direction, as my colleague David Fickling has written.
Some communities are stepping up efforts, and conversations about how to adapt to and mitigate the new reality are more frequent. U.S. Democrats’ Green New Deal, laid out last year, is ambitious; so, too, is Europe’s green recovery. And extreme events have changed some minds, as in the case of Frank Luntz, the pollster who had long helped the Republican party minimize the threat of climate change. Far more changes of heart are needed, though.
For years, global warming was seen as too distant, happening too slowly and as a problem for others. It didn’t feel urgent or personal, and was an unsolvable collective action problem. Much of that no longer applies. If reminders were needed, the coronavirus pandemic has shown just how swiftly a distant threat can become immediate. Still, public and political action hasn’t been galvanized.
Some of that is due to psychology. Humans have limited memories and adapt, so extreme events may become less noteworthy as they become more frequent. Research by Frances Moore at the University of California, Davis, and others published last year suggests that expectations are adjusted as anomalous temperatures become less remarkable. It isn’t yet clear if that extends to other extreme weather, but it’s not a comforting thought.
More gravely, there is the increasingly partisan nature of the environment debate, after years of active fossil fuel industry lobbying. It feeds on our desire to protect the status quo and the social group we belong to. We avoid challenging our worldview even when we experience something inconsistent with what we hold to be true. Changing our mind becomes like turning our back on ourselves, or betraying our community, says Rebecca Colvin at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, who studies social relations in this context. A polarized media exacerbates that, with the messenger trusted even if the facts are proven wrong.
It doesn’t help that the problems at hand are complex, and have multiple causes, offering narratives for naysayers to hook onto — say, the role of arson in Australia’s wildfires, or the question of inadequate forest management in the U.S.
But if parties aren’t changing and facts don’t work — what can?
The good news is that even if policy action is tough, perhaps impossible in some parts of the world, there is plenty that can be done by activists and others, using the same psychology that stops individuals now. Irina Feygina, an independent consultant on behavioral science, suggests framing action as a means of protecting our way of life. That works with biases and counteracts the tendency to avoid change. As important, it’s worth spending less time on the small percentage of hardline naysayers who won’t convert and focusing on the larger, disengaged and poorly informed population that can be coaxed into adjusting, she says.
Then there is the role of local groups, working from kitchen table up to encourage change that’s harder at the national level. ANU’s Colvin points to Yackandandah, a community in Australia aiming to run entirely on renewable energy. Falling prices help. Financial markets, meanwhile, are beginning to incentivize action as investors shirk polluters and insurance companies raise premiums for flood- and fire-prone areas. Green lobbying can highlight examples of successful transitions, as advantages accrue.
All of this can help compensate for insufficient policy. The question is whether we have enough time.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.
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