Past the tipping point: Climate change communication and research in the 2020’s
Let’s face it: stopping climate change is one of humanity’s most challenging endeavours. And we are definitely not on the right track to reaching the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Concerned scientists, activists, and politicians alike often focus on trying to convince people that the science of climate change is sound. The logic, so it seems, is that when one “follows the science”, the need to reduce emissions should be obvious and everybody would follow suit.
As I argue in my recently published PhD thesis, this logic is based on a strategy that has served its purpose but probably no longer fits the political and social realities of many, especially European, countries.
Europe-wide polling shows that overwhelming majorities in all EU member states think climate change is a “very serious problem”, they support climate-neutrality by 2050, and seem to clearly understand that tackling climate change requires the concerted efforts of individuals, businesses, governments and the European Union.
Zooming in on one of the countries I analysed, Germany, tackling climate change is part of the political consensus (as portrayed by the media). Similarly, many national media, rather than debating science denial, already focus on highlighting different approaches to limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
In my discussion, I argue that this state of affairs is characteristic of a public sphere that has moved “past the tipping point”. This means that public and political debates about climate change are very unlikely to walk back on the commitment to become carbon-neutral by mid-century.
However, this does not mean that the gap between ambition and action will shrink on its own. Still, rather than trying to convince the remaining 10-20% of “climate skeptics”, it is time to change strategy and start focusing on what is actually holding back climate policy: the inability to translate public support into political decision-making.
In my view (and here I leave the territory of discussing empirical research findings), one of the key challenges of climate politics is that emissions-reducing policies have severe implications for social justice and inequality that need addressing in order to be politically viable. The French “yellow vest” movement has illustrated such: rather than opposing climate-friendly policies in general, the protesters directed their anger at a policy perceived to be socially unjust.
Following this line of interpretation, researchers, activists, and political actors in the “past the tipping point” state of affairs need to direct their attention towards understanding and resolving the social conflicts associated with implementing climate-friendly policies.
As I discuss in my thesis, this does not negate the need for good science communication — but it implies shifting attention towards the social sciences. While some researchers may be wary of having their work drawn into a political battlefield, I argue that it is our responsibility as social scientists to participate in the public debates we must have to stand a chance at fighting climate change.