Public Opinion and Climate Action

A major change in public opinion and collective consciousness on climate—"climate swerve"— can result in positive action on environmental issues.
Aug 29, 2014 2:25 PM ET

Margaret Mead may be most famous for her quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In an equally astute moment, she also observed that “We won't have a society if we destroy the environment."

According to the United Nations, climate change is causing “severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts” to our natural world. In response to a series of scientific studies issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations (UN) has authored a bold, blunt, and urgent report about the state of our changing climate (expected to be released to the public in November). The facts are clear—global warming induced food shortages, mass extinctions, warming and rising seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain, and extreme weather are likely to intensify unless we take immediate and drastic action.

The report conveys an important cautionary message—while it cites amplified climate action, increased political efforts, and declining emissions in nearly all Western countries, it affirms that these efforts have generally been overwhelmed by the construction of coal-burning power plants, mostly to support the continued industrialization of China (which now accounts for half of the world’s coal use), locking-in runaway carbon emissions for decades.

This report, and countless others before it, states in no uncertain terms that continued political delays to implement comprehensive climate action strategies will result in environmental catastrophe and severe economic disruption.

Unfortunately, many national leaders haven’t displayed the political will to commit to climate plans of any kind, resulting in more of the same inaction that has plagued the climate issue for decades. However, progress is being made on local and regional levels in many countries, ostensibly due to pressure from the people. This trend is particularly evident in the US, where forward-thinking voters and elected officials in states like California, New York, and Massachusetts have decided to take climate leadership in their own hands rather than waiting for Congress to establish governance or issue guidance.