Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our generation. The scientific community insists we should decarbonize if we want to mitigate environmental degradation and its associated health risks. Decarbonization requires international cooperation, but it also necessitates convincing domestic audiences to support national policies that will facilitate meaningful emission reduction. In other words, people need to be on board with climate change policies and eventually support them. So, what is needed to get people to support mitigation policies? Political science research offers some possible answers.
Research suggests that that there are two broad groups affected by the politics of climate change. The first group includes those affected by environmental degradation and climate change – i.e., people at risk of experiencing extreme weather events, sea-level rise, or health effects of environmental hazards from the same sources as greenhouse gases (e.g., air pollution). The second group includes those affected by climate change mitigation – i.e., people who work in brown industries and are economically dependent on them. While the former tends to favour mitigation policies because they are directly affected by the problem itself, the latter tends to resist such policies since they will bear the economic consequences. Of course, the two groups are not always distinct: individuals who are exposed to the social and economic costs of carbon policies are often affected by climate change induced hazards.
The time-horizon of the perceived threat is important to consider in strategies to build support for climate change mitigation. People are more supportive of environmental action when climate change is perceived as more real and proximate. While extreme weather events, like the recent floods in Italy, the heatwave in Spain, or rising sea levels, are perceived as the most severe consequences of climate change, they are often viewed as “existential” threats in the long- but not short-term. Many scientific studies find that, after a disaster, people are more worried about climate change. However, this effect decays over time, and thus the perception of risk associated to climate change is not always long-lasting. In contrast, the time-horizon of concerns related to job losses is shorter. If climate change mitigation policies go into effect, people who economically rely on fossil fuel industries, like coal mine workers, will be directly affected. As a result, they will prefer to support policies that protect their short-term interest – i.e., their jobs – rather than support climate change mitigation, which yield an effect in the long run (possibly an effect that, they believe, they won’t even experience) and largely at a global scale.
This is why focusing on the immediate, local-scale health benefits that can result from climate change mitigation is a powerful lever to build public support. Health co-benefits (that tackle climate change while delivering both direct and indirect health benefits) of climate change mitigation due to air pollution reduction can bolster support from local stakeholders. They can serve as a catalyst for local mobilization by showing to individuals of regions that rely on fossil fuels, the positive effects that mitigation policies can have. Workers who are reliant on fossil fuel industries may lose from the energy transition. Policy plans should anticipate and offset distributional impacts to increase the broad social acceptability of mitigation actions. Additionally, politicians need to highlight mitigation co-benefits, which are linked to public health benefits, like the promotion of cleaner air, and to economic benefits, like the creation of green jobs. Therefore, the increase in jobs from the renewable energy industry should be used as an incentive for people economically affected by the energy transition. At the same time, highlighting the local, short-term health benefits from improved air quality resulting from phasing out fossil fuels can potentially help mobilize even the more hesitant individuals to support policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Dafni Kalatzipantera | Postodoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham | Researcher on environmental politics and attitudes.