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Climate & Energy

Voters Support Climate Action When They See That It Works


Commentary27th March 2024

After several years of increasing support for taking action against climate change across Western democracies, there is now a growing public backlash as climate-target deadlines loom and the costs of climate policy begin to hit people in the pocket.

While these concerns are understandable and justified, scepticism about climate action isn’t just about costs. An underappreciated but perhaps even more important reason that many are concerned about climate change is that they lack trust in major actors, like industry and government, to follow through on their climate plans and hit their climate targets. This is boosted by “doomerist” rhetoric from some climate activists who say climate change is out of control and that humanity is heading for catastrophe unless we radically change our lifestyles. This message can easily spread widely on social media and is starting to have major deleterious effects, including influencing a growing number of young people who say they don’t want to have children because of climate change.

Negative framing isn’t spurring support for climate policies. It may even be counterproductive, encouraging fatalism and inaction. Instead, messaging around climate policy should focus on two things: the positive steps currently being taken by major actors and the public, and on the potential for technological advances to make those actions more effective.

First, a 2023 review of research on the reasons why individuals take pro-climate actions found that the best motivator – even more effective than financial incentives – is to give examples of others’ pro-climate work, highlighting examples of steps taken by both major actors and the public. Leading players are investing in the future, building companies and consumer products that are changing their respective industries. Climate policymakers could note that 71 per cent of new energy generation in the United States comes from solar and improved battery capacity; they could note that China has increased its renewable-energy usage by almost 400 per cent since 2015 and generates more renewable energy than any other country; and they should highlight actions taken by average citizens – for example, 25 per cent of new cars sold in Europe and one-third sold in China are electric.

Second, it is important to highlight that rapidly improving technology is making the actions that are being taken more effective at delivering clean and affordable renewable energy, and that the rate of improvement is set to increase. This provides a vision of hope and optimism, in contrast to the despair of the “doomerists”. Research shows that the public is sceptical about the effectiveness of many climate policies and that the best way to convince them is to clarify how these policies will be effective in attaining climate goals.

Technology is perhaps the greatest contributor to climate-policy effectiveness. Improvements in solar and wind technology have made the cost of renewable energy cheaper per unit than fossil fuels in most places. The cost of producing batteries, essential for renewable-energy storage, has fallen by more than 80 per cent in the past decade. Moreover, technology deployment creates a virtuous circle in which prices fall as more people adopt an innovation, increasing both its usage and demand for further technological innovations. This means that the technology-improvement curve is getting steeper and that more-advanced carbon-reduction technologies, like geoengineering and carbon capture and storage, will likely become feasible in the future. It is essential that politicians reinforce these positive messages, not only because they are true and should be celebrated, but because they can help convince people that continued efforts will bear fruit.

There are several examples of politicians using this messaging effectively. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau notes that green technology will become a multi-trillion-dollar industry and that Canada is leading the way in support for green technologies like carbon capture and underground storage, as well as hydrogen generation from offshore wind. Perhaps the best example of climate action is the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which created $400 billion in tax incentives, grants and loan guarantees for clean energy. In speeches at project sites around the country, US President Joe Biden has touted the fact that IRA subsidies have allowed the conversion of factories to green manufacturing and energy production. However, while most people in the US support the IRA’s green-investment policies when informed about them, most US citizens aren’t aware of its potential impact on climate. This suggests that the messaging campaign around the legislation should be expanded.

With several major elections happening around the world in 2024 – not least in the UK, US and EU – it is important to get climate messaging right. Ultimately, people want to be part of a winning effort. If they’re being asked to assume significant costs to contribute to that effort, they’ll want to know that it has a good chance of succeeding. Too much rhetoric currently makes climate action feel like a losing battle, which can encourage fatalism and reduce individuals’ willingness to make behavioural changes and support climate action.

Fatalistic resignation is not inevitable. Major players are already taking positive steps, and the technologies being developed and delivered are becoming increasingly effective against climate change. Policymakers must show leadership with climate policies that place technology at their core. China is beginning to dominate supply chains in climate technology and other countries could become dependent on it if they do not develop their own strategies.

But even with the right actions, public support for climate action cannot be taken for granted. One of the best ways to build public support is for leaders to demonstrate publicly that they’re delivering effective policies to promote the development of climate technology. This should be complemented by a positive messaging campaign around the possibilities of climate action, one that emphasises what’s been done and, more importantly, what can be achieved if we continue to invest in technology and climate action.

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