The Age of Us

Can People Power Drive Action on Climate Change?

In a new "Age of Us" column launching this week at The Conversation, I will be writing about research, ideas, and trends that shed light on why we disagree so strongly about climate change and other environmental problems. A major focus will be on the strategies that can promote political cooperation on our tough, new planet. You will encounter not only my thoughts and ideas but also the voices and arguments of leaders in the fields of communication, journalism, political science, sociology, and the policy world.

Just as importantly, as readers and commenters, you will be sharing your own thoughts and conclusions, often challenging my ideas and those of others. At The Public Square, in combination with regular original essays, I will be expanding on columns at Age of Us as they are debated and discussed.

In my first column, I note that despite the major financial resources devoted in recent years to shaping public opinion in the climate debate, among political scientists, there is intense disagreement over the role public opinion plays in policy decisions generally, and the conditions that might shape legislative action. Other research indicates that if public opinion matters, it is the preferences of the wealthiest and best educated that influence outcomes.

Relative to social protests and mass movements, sociologists tend to study (and activists celebrate) memorable successes like the Civil Rights and nuclear freeze movements, but overlook the many other movements where success is more uncertain. Previous research, for example, evaluating the impact of the anti-apartheid divestment movement suggests that divestment strategies had no discernible financial affect on the South African economy, including its companies, currency, or major industries.

“The actual impact of social movement actions is really poorly understood because it’s really hard to study,” University of Texas sociologist Michael Young told last month. “Good studies that would compare and contrast different kinds of actions that could compare the relative impact, we don’t really have them. Anecdotally, scholars have noted that a lot of very impressive rallies have amounted to nothing.”

A new study published this month at the journal Global Environmental Change by researchers at Simon Fraser University further complicates our understanding of the role that public opinion might play in the climate debate. Between 2006 and 2009, British Columbia passed North America’s most aggressive climate policies. These measures included a carbon tax, energy efficiency regulations for buildings, a low-carbon vehicle fuel standard, a clean electricity standard, and a carbon neutral government program. The actions have been the subject of considerable political and media debate in the province.

Yet when Ekaterina Rhodes, Jonn Axsen, and Mark Jaccard surveyed British Columbia residents in January 2013, most remained unaware of the new climate policies and had little knowledge of their effectiveness. Asked in an open-ended way with no prompts, 73% of BC residents could not name any of the province's climate policies. In a follow-up set of questions, respondents were presented with fourteen climate policies, and asked to identify the policies currently in place. The five correct choices were included with nine other non-existing policies.

Provided a list, 69% of respondents correctly identified the more controversial carbon tax. Yet apart from this measure, a majority could not correctly identify the other enacted policies. As the authors also note, the rate of misidentified policies among the 14 choices suggest that "some, or perhaps many, of the correct responses in the closed-ended question might have been due to successful guessing."

Next, to assess public support for the enacted policies, the researchers asked survey respondents to consider each policy as if there were a new provincial referendum up for vote on the matter. After recording their initial opinions, Rhodes and colleagues provided respondents with projections by experts on the effectiveness of each policy in reducing emissions, and then asked again about their support. Surprisingly, providing expert information had little direct impact on public support (see figure).

Figure7_GECstudy (1)

Figure. Support/opposition to British Columbia's climate policies before and after providing expert information on their effectiveness in lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

As Rhodes and colleagues write: "Awareness of policy existence and knowledge of policy effectiveness are not associated with greater citizen support for most climate policies." They conclude that their findings challenge the assumption that “more public knowledge and support is essential for effective climate policy implementation.”

The authors argue that rather than expert advice and knowledge playing a role in shaping policy preferences, public opinion is more likely to be guided by competing values, worldviews, and visions of the “good society,” including cultural beliefs and moral intuitions about nature, risk, progress, authority, and technology. Their analysis of the British Columbia case also suggests that broad-based public knowledge and concern is not a necessary condition for policy action, (at least at the provincial or state-level.)

Instead, what may matter more are the less visible, behind the scenes negotiations that occur among key political groups and leaders, the smaller segments of constituents actively following these efforts, and the mix of policy actions and technological solutions that are proposed. The carbon tax in British Columbia was passed in 2008 when the Liberal party controlled government, pushed through by an alliance of greens and business leaders. The tax was also linked to cuts in income taxes for provincial businesses and residents, making it difficult for opponents to rally support for reversing the measure; even during the subsequent economic recession.

Similarly, in contrast to the renewable portfolio standards advocated by U.S. environmentalists, British Columbia's clean electricity standard focused instead on achieving a more inclusive zero-emissions goal. This emphasis on a broader menu of technologies than renewables has catalyzed investment from the fossil fuel sector, which can develop carbon capture and storage as an electricity generation option, note Rhodes and colleagues.

In climate politics, public opinion may be more of a background factor than a driving influence when it comes to policy action. In the U.S., polls show that strong majorities of the public for more than a decade have favored policy actions such as setting emissions standards for cars, industry, and power plants; or providing tax incentives for industryt to develop new energy technologies. Among the least favored policy measures (and the most intensely opposed) by Americans is a carbon tax.

For the foreseeable future, the proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules limiting emissions from coal-fired power plants, if they survive court challenges, along with similar executive actions, may be climate advocates’ best bet to meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Looking ahead to after the 2016 election, even assuming that an experienced Democrat like Hillary Clinton is elected president, there will remain major barriers to passing a carbon tax or a similar climate bill, given that Republicans are likely to control at least one half of Congress.

All of this suggests that in combination with new approaches to communication and grassroots advocacy, a complementary paradigm for climate advocacy may be needed. Indeed, to the extent that President Barack Obama's administration has been able to make substantive progress on the issue, it has been through a combination of smaller scale, less politically visible approaches like fuel efficiency standards or EPA rules, rather than pushing for society-transforming solutions like an economy-wide price on carbon.

Weigh in with your thoughts and arguments at the new Age of Us column and here at The Public Square.