Current climate action and the need for more

The Australian government’s Climate Commission has recently released a new Critical Decade report about International Action on Climate Change.  The report notes that this decade is critical in reducing human greenhouse gas emissions, that we have all the technology necessary to do so, and examines the policies of various countries toward that end.  Their findings are summarized in Figure 1 (Figure 3.2 on Page 34 of the report).

Fig 3.2

Figure 1: Implemented and planned climate change actions in some major emitting economies.  Blue represents a sub-national action, pink represents a planned national action, and red represents an implemented national action.

Australia for example has done quite well, having implemented a carbon pricing system, renewable energy target, and energy efficiency standards on a national scale, with national transportation efficiency standards planned.  However, their success depends on whether opposition leader Tony Abbott succeeds in his promise to repeal the carbon pricing system, if he is elected as Prime Minister in 2013.  But at the moment, Australia is moving in the right direction.

China and India have done similarly well, having implemented a version of three of the four actions, with plans to implement the fourth.  Their emissions targets could still use tightening, but for developing countries which are often scapegoated and used by developed nations as an excuse not to reduce their own emissions (as Mitt Romney did), China and India are on the right track.  China in particular has been investing heavily in renewable energy.

The USA on the other hand is arguably doing the worst on the list.  So far a few individual states have implemented carbon pricing systems.  The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) has been a success for 9 states, but is a modest system, only targeting power plant emissions.  Most promising is California’s far more aggressive cap and trade system, set to take effect in 2013.  California has long led the way in the USA on environmental issues, so hopefully the California system will be a model that the rest of the country will follow.  While some states have renewable energy and building efficiency standards, the USA is lagging behind on these actions on a national scale as well.

The European Union (EU) deserves high praise for being the only major economy to have achieved all four emissions reduction actions, despite the challenge of achieving agreement between 27 member nations.  The EU has long led the way on carbon emissions, implementing a cap and trade system in 2005, having set ambitious emissions reductions targets, having per person emissions that are less than half of those in the USA, Canada, and Australia, and which in general has been the global model on climate policy.  This is evident for example in their installation of solar energy, where EU nations have three of the top four and four of the top seven nations in installed capacity (Figure 2).

fig 3.4

Figure 2: Top nations in solar photovoltaic installed capacity (gigawatts).  Figure 3.4 in the latest Critical Decade report.

Japan also deserves much credit, being third on the list in Figure 4 (ahead of the much more populous USA), and with per person greenhouse gas emissions at a similar level to those in the EU.

Canada is not depicted in Figure 1 above, but is in a similar situation as the USA.  The per person emissions are roughly the same, and there has been some action on a local level (for example British Columbia’s successful carbon tax), but there has been far too little action on a national level.  Canada also has local, but not national renewable energy targets.  The current national government has paid some lip service to climate change, but has taken few steps to actually address the issue, has pushed hard to develop the tar sands, and has generally treated climate scientists as pests.

How Do We Catalyze More Climate Policy?

If we fail to take serious action very soon to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the future climate will be much less hospitable than today’s, with potentially catastrophic results; however, our political leaders are currently failing to take the necessary steps to avoid a potentially catastrophic future.  This begs an important question – how do we change that?  Let’s begin with the large-scale changes that are necessary, and work backwards to see what we can do as individuals on a smaller scale to make those big changes happen.

Pricing or Regulating Carbon Emissions?

In order to achieve the necessary large-scale greenhouse gas emissions reductions, some form of government action is required.  There is simply no way we can stay within our carbon emissions budget with only individual or small-scale efforts.  On a national level, emissions can be reduced through simple government regulation, as the USA  has begun implementing through the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, putting a price on carbon emissions will generally have a smaller economic impact than government regulations.  A carbon emissions price allows consumers to consider the costs of these emissions and adjust their purchasing decisions accordingly, effectively allowing the free market to assist in the emissions reductions.  Currently, carbon emissions are what’s known as an economic “externality” – a factor whose true costs are not included in the price of associated products (i.e. fossil fuels). 

Carbon emissions do damage through their impacts as a result of climate change (for example, economic losses via damaged crops from increased drought frequency), but that cost is not currently reflected in the products’ market price, so consumers cannot take them into account when they purchase fossil fuels.  Economists consider this type of externality an economic and free market failure.

There are many different options in implementing carbon pricing – a carbon tax, cap and trade system, cap and dividend, etc.  Each has upsides and downsides which are worth debating, but the important first step is to remedy this market failure and put some sort of price on carbon emissions.

Fortunately, some governments have listened to these economists and implemented carbon pricing systems, as discussed above, but more action is necessary.  So how do we ensure that the countries with national carbon pricing systems keep and strengthen them, and convince the countries without such national systems to implement them?

Demand Climate Policy

Most of us live in democracies, and we can therefore influence national climate policy by making our priorities known.  Climate change is the gravest threat humans currently face, and it should therefore be at the top of policymakers’ list of priorities.  However, in a democracy, policymakers’ priorities are generally determined by the voters who put them in office.

So first of all, we can make climate policy one of our top determining factors in who we vote for.  We can write letters and/or sign petitions to our policymakers to ensure they know our vote is contingent on their support for climate policy.  We can encourage other voters to follow suit.  The only way to make carbon pricing a top priority for our policymakers is to show them that it’s a top priority for their voting constituents.

Educate People

Before they will make it a top priority, people must first understand the magnitude of the climate problem, which many currently do not.  In the USA for example, while a majority of the population supports climate policy, they do not see it as a priority.  Until the issue is considered a top priority by voters, there is no pressure for policymakers to implement carbon pricing.

The climate disinformation campaign has been very effective on this issue.  Despite the overwhelming consensus amongst climate experts that humans are causing global warming, only 53% of Americans believe humans are the primary cause, and only 58% believe that most scientists agree that global warming is even occurring.

According to the March 2012 George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication (CCCC) national poll, climate scientists are the most trusted source for climate science information, with 74% of public trust (Figure 3).


Figure 3: Responses to the George Mason CCCC poll question “How much do you trust or distrust the following as a source of information about global warming?”

Thus as Ding et al. (2011) concluded, if a larger percentage of people realized that there is a scientific consensus on the issue amongst the group they trust most on the subject, more people would believe that humans are causing global warming, and more people would demand that we do something about it.  Thus it is critical to educate people not just on the scientific evidence, but perhaps more importantly, about the existence of the expert climate consensus.

A populace can only make informed decisions if it is adequately informed, and right now the public as a whole is misinformed about climate change.  We can all make a difference on this issue by educating those we know, and we believe Skeptical Science is a good resource to accomplish this.  However, our individual and collective reach is limited – most people are informed (and/or misinformed) by the mainstream media.

Demand Factually Accurate News

Unfortunately the mainstream media tends to believe that false balance is more important than factually accurate reporting.  Too many journalists and news organizations are afraid of being labeled as “biased” if they do not report “both sides” of a story, even if one side is not supported by the evidence.  Thus the climate contrarian position receives nearly as much media coverage as the mainstream position, even though the contrarians comprise less than 3% of climate experts.  This over-representation of the climate contrarian position in the mainstream media for the sake of false balance is undoubtedly the main reason why such a large percentage of the populace is unaware of the climate consensus.

So how do we influence the mainstream media to prioritize factually accurate reporting over false balance?  Just as politicians are influenced by their voting constituencies, the media can be influenced by its viewers/readers.  Television advertising dollars are often driven by the number of viewers, newspaper advertising dollars are driven by the number of subscribers, and online media advertising dollars are driven by the number of pageviews. 

An independent study demonstrated that viewers prefer quality TV programming.  We can reward good stories and media outlets by viewing and subscribing to them (and encouraging others to follow suit) and discourage bad stories and media outlets by ignoring them; thus we can begin to influence journalists’ priorities by making them recognize that their readers value factual accuracy over false balance.

This is something of a challenge for Skeptical Science, because we believe debunking climate myths in the mainstream media is an important exercise, but we draw attention to those stories in the process.  By quoting directly from the stories, we do allow our readers to see the myths and debunkings without necessarily having to read the stories themselves and give them additional pageviews.  However, we may reduce our number of mainstream media debunkings in the future.  As they say, “do not feed the trolls.”

Using Social Media

We can each extend our individual reach on this issue through the use of social media.  For example, when encountering a factually accurate mainstream media story which does not fall into the false balance trap, we can share it on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to encourage those in our social media circle to also view the article and add to its traffic.  Right now the media also tends to operate under the principle that “controversy sells,” and climate contrarian positions inevitably create the controversy that generates viewer traffic. 

Only by increasing traffic to the stories that focus on factually accurate information rather than creating a false sense of controversy can we convince the media otherwise, and social media is a useful tool to accomplish that.


Only when the media focuses on factually accurate reporting will the public become correctly informed on climate change.  Only then will the public come to understand that the experts are in agreement about the climate threat, and that we must make it a priority.  Only then will the public demand that our policymakers take action to address climate change, and only then will those policymakers implement serious climate change mitigation policies.

It’s important to remember that in both democratic and capitalist systems, we each have a significant amount of influence.  Our traffic drives advertising dollars for the media, and our votes determine our policymakers’ priorities.  We can each extend our individual influence through the tools of the internet such as social media.  So let’s get to work and solve this problem.

This post is based on two posts published on Skeptical Science.