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Now Is the Time for Climate Action

People wearing green face paint and costume antennae holding signs
Climate activists demonstrate in Copenhagen, Denmark, on November 30, 2009. © Keld Navntoft/AFP/Getty

As someone who has been working on climate policy for 20 years, I am often asked to speak to student and youth groups. This is one of my favorite parts of my job, and it has been a joy to watch in recent years as young people’s interest in and knowledge about the climate crisis has increased.

Despite the overall increased public awareness, however, a gap clearly exists between what we know about the climate crisis and what we’re willing to do about it. Indeed, as a new report from d|part makes clear, outright denial of the climate crisis is rare—but people remain confused about how much of the problem can be attributed to human behavior.

In our surveys, significant minorities of respondents in the United States and several European countries—ranging from 17 percent to as much as 44 percent—still said, incorrectly, that climate change is equally caused by human society and natural processes. Just as concerning, significant minorities also said that scientists were divided among themselves on the issue, even though the truth, as the Consensus Project has shown, is anything but. 

Of course, the prevalence of climate misinformation is not new. But what our research shows is that this confusion about causes ultimately harms the chances of enacting good climate policy. “Soft skepticism” can quickly turn into rigid opposition. With time running out, it’s clear that more work needs to be done to improve the public’s understanding of the climate issue, on the one hand, and to confront and weaken the power of disinformation, on the other.

To be sure, disinformation is a symptom of our time, and its effects are not limited to the politics of climate science. Rallying public opinion behind action is always difficult—and it’s exponentially more so when populist political movements spread conspiracy theories and falsehoods. The good news, though, is that our research also found that, despite these hurdles, respondents expected their governments to address the issue of climate change. Across all nine countries polled, clear majorities (from 58 percent in the United Kingdom to 57 percent in the United States) agreed that climate change requires a collective response. 

This is crucial moment—not only for the future of climate justice, but for the future of the world. And as we can see through narrative-shifting developments like 2018’s UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the Paris Agreement, and the European Commission’s 2019 European Green Deal proposal, the political space for climate action is growing. The challenge of our time, then, is translating the public’s demand for action into policy that works for people and the planet.

D|part’s report shows that this won’t be easy, and that misinformation remains a serious threat to climate justice. At the same time, though, the report also underlines that there is already sufficient public will behind government-backed action. Rather than waiting until 100 percent of the public embraces reform, policymakers and advocates alike should seize this moment and push for strong climate action. The time to act is now.

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