Climate change programs are up for elimination with the proposed 31 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget and the dismantling of the Clean Power Plan. While environmentalists are protesting this, we are not seeing a grassroots uprising to fight this in the way that Obamacare repeal was fought and defeated. For all the solid science behind climate change and the technological solutions already available or close at hand, we have not found a way for the general public to make an emotional connection to the problem. We have not shown how solutions to climate change can contribute to quality of life here and now, and not just a generation or two later.
Obamacare is an interesting case study in public opinion. It took some years for the public to warm up to it, in part due to the lack of a public relations blitz from the government. But people also needed to see and experience some of the benefits to themselves and to others in their social circles. Repeal of the law was opposed by a 3 to 1 margin in recent opinion polls, and calls to members of congress were running 50 to 1 against the repeal.
The message for climate change activists should be clear: It will be difficult to preserve, let alone expand, major initiatives like climate programs without strong public backing.
When we find lead in our drinking water, it is relatively easy to mobilize public opinion and demand action from the government. The impact of lead on human health in the short and medium terms can be readily demonstrated. There are probably not many in Flint, Michigan, who would oppose a cleaner water supply and no politician could get away with opposing lead-free water on the basis of cost. But we have struggled for more than two decades to get public opinion similarly behind climate change.
All indications are that the elimination of EPA’s climate change programs will not flood legislators with calls. According to a Pew Research survey, the US is among the countries least concerned about the impacts of climate change. While climate activists have largely focused on the long-term impacts and projections of what may happen by the year 2100, the challenge now is to create a sense of urgency about the short term.
We must steer the debate towards how climate change mitigation can provide tangible co-benefits in other domains. People need to see the upside of climate-friendly policies, while knowing that any costs will be shared broadly by society. Among the issues that matter to Americans on a daily basis, health and employment should be front and center while tackling climate change.
While a generally warmer climate is being linked to a number of health risks, we have to drill down to the underlying causes of climate change that also impact public health. Air pollution in the US causes about 135,000 premature deaths, 150,000 cases of hospitalization, and 18 million lost work days annually. Two major air pollutants, methane and black carbon, are also significant short-term contributors to climate change.
Cutting fugitive methane emissions in the oil and gas industry could be done with existing technologies that have a short payback period due to the economic value of the recovered methane. But in general, curbing methane and black carbon emissions will require regulations that simultaneously address public health and climate change. The EPA under the Obama administration did just that last year with a rule targeting methane emissions from new or modified oil and gas wells – this was a historic first step that might not survive now without public support, but very few people have even heard about it. We simply have not talked about how co-benefits in such cases can produce good outcomes for society.
We must also highlight the co-benefits of climate protection on the employment side. Clean-energy sectors are among the most dynamic when it comes to job growth, with about 800,000 Americans already employed in low-carbon energy generation and nearly a million workers focused on alternative fuel and fuel-efficient vehicles. Another 2.2 million jobs involve energy efficiency products and services.
These sectors can more than make up for job losses in the coal industry now and over time in other industries tied to fossil fuels. But that does not necessarily imply that every impacted worker will be able to find new employment. Those of us seeking action on the climate front should recognize that there will be an unavoidable human cost to it and push for a compensation mechanism that provides job training and retirement packages to affected workers. Empathy for our fellow citizens might not have been part of the climate action vocabulary in the past, but it needs to be if we want to get everyone on the same side.
This reframing cannot just be a messaging strategy, but a real change in our approach that aligns a longer-term climate plan with measurable short-term solutions that can make a positive difference to people’s lives. Climate change mitigation that doesn’t speak to basic needs like health, jobs and financial security – and an approach that doesn’t identify with people’s anxieties and insecurities in these areas – will continue to face an uphill task getting the critical mass of public opinion required to secure Earth’s climate for the future.
Kumar Venkat is a technologist and writer based in Portland, Oregon. He was the founder of CleanMetrics Corp. and spent several years helping companies quantify and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their production and operation.