Thursday

23rd May 2019

Opinion

Climate change and the public: The end of a love story?

  • People have fallen out of love with the climate issue (Photo: Kelvin255)

Remember last year when the whole world was looking at a small and cold country in Europe - Denmark - mesmerized by an international conference on climate change known as COP15?

This year, many people won't even know where the follow-up conference, COP16, is taking place. While the next round of international climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico is approaching fast, publics and the media on both sides of the Atlantic remain unfazed.

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As new polls show, people in fact aren't particularly concerned about climate change any more, don't see it as a top priority, and in some cases even doubt that it is really happening.

As the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Trends finds, only six percent of Americans list fighting climate change as a top priority for their country, while 20 percent of Europeans think it should be on the top of the list for their leaders. According to the Pew Global Attitudes survey, 52 percent of Germans consider climate change a serious problem, but only 46 percent of the French, 40 percent of the British, and 37 percent of Americans agree.

When asked if they would be willing to pay higher prices to address global climate change, more than half of German and British respondents were willing to do so, but just little under 40 percent of French and Americans approved.

These numbers are probably connected to a rising scepticism about climate change in general. In a February poll conducted by the BBC, only 26 percent of the British believed that climate change was happening and man-made, down from 41 percent only three months earlier.

In the United States, half of the population believes that global warming is due to human activities, down from 61 percent in 2003, according to a Gallup poll conducted in March.

This causes a potential problem for politicians when it comes to possible climate legislation. One of the issues with pushing forward any agenda on climate change is the simple fact that the effects of climate change are difficult to identify definitively at this moment. At the same time, ratepayers in the European Union are paying for feed-in tariffs and high taxes on fuel and voters in the United States are worried about potential costs of any climate legislation.

Republicans have already positioned themselves in opposition towards almost any legislation on climate change. With climate change legislation already being unpopular with the Democrats in power, it will become even more difficult in the future as the Republicans stand to take one or both houses in the mid-term elections.

Climate change legislation might be headed towards a rough period in Europe too. While the European Commission's Connie Hedegaard has announced her desire of raising carbon emission reductions in the EU to 30%, member states seem hesitant to follow. The proposal has been criticized in particular by southern and eastern European member states and a final decision isn't expected until next spring at the earliest.

In order to change this situation and get the public back on their side, politicians have to step up and make people understand that fighting climate change is important and worth their while. To do this, politicians need to re-frame the issue of climate change. They need to find a way to convey that it is one of the fundamental challenges of the 21st century while at the same time turning the tackling of climate change into a positive story.

And it can be a positive story: With more than 300,000 jobs created in Germany alone in the renewable energy market, it is a tremendous opportunity for businesses and employees alike worldwide. According to a 2009 McKinsey report, the United States alone could save a staggering $1.2 trillion by 2020 by investing in more energy efficient buildings and replacing appliances with energy-saving models. This would include cost savings of 10-20 percent on energy bills for individual households. Similar savings would be true for Europeans.

Politicians should broaden the narrative on climate change to incorporate these positive stories. They should talk about concrete opportunities for the people, meaning job creation and money savings.

President Obama announced in a recent interview with Rolling Stone Magazine that he would focus more on energy legislation next year, calling climate change an "urgent priority". If he is serious, let's hope he will use the right narrative to convey this to the American public.

Climate change isn't the hot topic that it used to be. But if politicians across the Atlantic are smart and re-work their narrative into stories with a positive appeal, Europeans and Americans might get excited about it once again.

Christina Elvers is a programme associate with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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