Climate change calls for a change of heart

Climate advocacy campaigns need to become less transactional and more transformational. 


When Senator Joe Manchin torpedoed the Build Back Better bill this week, climate change activists despaired. Many see the bill as our last big chance to decarbonize the American economy and stave off disastrous warming.

Such missed opportunities and despair are not new. I moved to the Washington DC region 31 years ago as a freshly minted PhD economist, seeking to apply my training to climate change.  Over the intervening years, I’ve seen scientists’ understanding and empirical evidence of greenhouse gas emissions’ impact on climate become much stronger. I’ve seen the menu of technological solutions grow more diverse and cost-effective.  Because carbon pollution in the U.S. was neither regulated nor priced by the market, policy analysts have also developed a suite of proposals to encourage commercialization and deployment of climate-friendly technologies.  And I’ve seen multilateral initiatives proliferate to ensure that all countries do their share.  

Yet despite all this, transformation of the energy sector has been glacial, while atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations have continued to grow toward uncontrollable tipping points. That’s why meaningful change requires more than tinkering with policy. It requires a change of heart.

Looking back, it’s hard to avoid feeling discouraged by the national stalemate.  One political party philosophically opposes collective actions for the broader good when perceived to limit individual liberty. The other party makes ambitious pronouncements on climate, but cannot muster support for policies that would put us on a trajectory for stabilizing atmospheric emissions.  

Deliberations around climate provisions of the Build Back Better bill suggest that politicians worry that their constituents will resist paying higher prices for energy or changing their energy use patterns.  Thus, politicians fall back on offering subsidies for clean energy or declaring carbon neutrality goals that take effect long after their term of office ends.  Not surprisingly, most carbon tax proposals begin with low tax rates with initially trivial impacts on energy costs.  

Why has climate change proven so intractable in enacting policies whose level of ambition is well matched to the scale and urgency of the challenge?  Although moneyed fossil fuel interests and political polarization play important roles, they do not fully explain the inadequacy of collective climate actions to date.  According to the latest public opinion survey by the Yale Climate Communications Center, 70% of Americans are somewhat or very worried about climate change. While public support for climate action is now broader than ever, it is also shallow.  Compared to other issues, climate change has what political scientists call low public salience.  Most of the 70% are not active around climate change and rarely talk about their worries with friends and family.  

Although possibly heretical to say in Washington DC, I no longer view climate change as a challenge amenable to technical and policy solutions alone — or even primarily.  Rather than focus on technocratic solutions emerging from our clever brains, mobilizing sufficiently broad support for ambitious action also needs to become an affair of the heart.  

According to Climate Anxiety 101 by Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray, “Compassion is the ability to care about another’s suffering.”  Our society’s confrontation with the COVID pandemic demonstrates another example of the dynamic interplay among technology (vaccines and testing), policy (admonitions around masking, social distancing, etc.) and the degree of compassion among fellow citizens.  My willingness to adopt pandemic-fighting technologies being offered and to accept public health recommendations goes beyond pure self-interest.  It is also about caring for those I love.  With both the pandemic and climate change, I am challenged to expand my “circle of compassion” beyond myself, my family and my friends. 

To paraphrase activist Catherine Abreu, working on climate change may be called a fight, but underneath, it constitutes an act of love. I can’t expect others to care about climate change for the same reasons that I care, but most everybody loves someone or some place, and climate change threatens all.  Rather than trying to motivate others in the 70% group through facts and logic, I need to listen with compassionate curiosity to their stories and be emotionally authentic when offering my own.  

Beyond my own behavior, climate advocacy campaigns need to become less transactional and more transformational.  Fortunately, various models are available for having conversations designed primarily to establish relationships rather than to persuade skeptics.  For example, the core of “deep canvassing” is an exchange of personal stories that then connects to a specific action. Climate advocates would do well to consider such approaches, shifting the focus of their public outreach from heads to hearts.  Doing so could make all the difference in whether those already alarmed or concerned are moved to actively protect whom or what they love.


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