Building Public and Political Will for Climate Change Action
One important means to achieve meaningful reductions in carbon emissions is government policy, yet there remains a critical lack of ‘political will’ for climate action. One important influence on government leaders is engaged citizens who demand action.
By Anthony Leiserowitz
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
Global climate change is a “massive collective action problem.” While changes in individual behavior (for example, energy conservation) can help reduce emissions, system-level changes to the way human societies use energy and natural resources are necessary to limit global warming to “safe” levels. Government policy is one important means of system change — including laws, rules, regulations, standards, and incentives. But many climate change policies, from the local level to the global level, founder on the lack of “political will” — the unwillingness or inability of government officials to enact policies that will reduce carbon pollution at the scale and speed required. Public will, especially as expressed through citizen activism, is an important influence on the policymaker process. Strong public demand increases the likelihood that governments will prioritize climate change action.
Public will refers to a “social system’s shared recognition of a particular problem and resolve to address the situation in a particular way through sustained collective action.” Indicators of public will can include public support for mitigation policies, contacting government officials, and pro-climate consumer behavior. Importantly, however, there is no single, homogenous “public” — there are many diverse “publics” within any society.
One key set of citizens is an issue public — a relatively small proportion of a population that is passionate about a specific issue. Issue publics are highly attentive to and seek out information about their issue, have relatively high levels of knowledge, have developed strong and stable attitudes, and are more likely than other citizens to take action on the issue. Some issue publics are diffuse, with few and weak connective ties between individual members. Others are highly organized through social, institutional, or advocacy groups and networks, which can make them powerful political actors. One example of the latter is the National Rifle Association — an organized issue public of approximately four to five million members (in a country of more than 250 million adults) who wield political clout far beyond their numbers on the issues they care about. Public will can thus include at least three levels of citizen engagement: (1) general public support for an issue or policy, (2) an issue public focused on that issue or policy, and (3) an organized issue public mobilized to exert influence on policymakers. In turn, a mobilized issue public can include diverse groups, organized into a coordinated “advocacy coalition” of partners working together to achieve a common goal.
Separately, there is always “limited space available on the political or decision-making agenda, that is the continually evolving, brief list of issues that command policy makers’ attention at a given time.” “Windows of Opportunity” theory says an issue is “most likely to reach the political agenda when three things occur at the same time: a problem is perceived as important and urgent by the public and elites [public will]; viable policy solutions are available; and political commitment to adopt a solution is high [political will]. When these three elements converge, a “policy window” opens during which significant change is possible. All three elements are necessary for policy change, but even then, change is not inevitable. Advocates have to be ready and able to take advantage of a policy window when it opens. After it closes, only incremental progress is likely until the next window opens.
Global Warming’s Six Americas
Building public will for climate change action must start with an understanding of the different publics within a population. Since 2008, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, in partnership with the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, has conducted a twice-a-year nationally representative survey called Climate Change in the American Mind. One key insight has been the identification of “Global Warming’s Six Americas” — six distinct segments of the American publican public that each respond to the issues in a different way.
As of 2008, 21 percent of Americans were alarmed about climate change. The Alarmed are convinced that global warming is happening, human-caused, and an urgent threat, and they strongly support climate change action. Most, however, do not know what they can do to solve the problem. Next are the Concerned (30 percent), who also think human-caused global warming is happening and is a serious threat. However, they believe that it is still a distant problem — distant in time, with impacts a generation or more away, and distant in space — a problem that will primarily impact plants, penguins, or polar bears but not the United States, their communities, or the people and places they care about. The Concerned support policy action but do not see the issue as an urgent priority.
Next are the Cautious (21 percent), who still question: Is global warming happening? Is it human-caused or natural? Is it serious or overblown? The Cautious have not yet made up their minds. Then come the Disengaged (7 percent), who know little about global warming. They rarely or never hear about it in the media or from their own friends or family members. Next are the Doubtful (12 percent), who do not think global warming is happening, but if it is, it is just a natural cycle. They do not think about climate change much or consider it a serious risk. The final group are the Dismissive (9 percent), who are convinced global warming is not happening, human-caused, or a threat. Most endorse conspiracy theories: global warming is a hoax, scientists are making up the data, or it is just a get-rich scheme by Al Gore. The Dismissive are just a small percentage of the American public. But they are very vocal, and their views have had an outsize influence in Congress, the White House, and many state governments.
A first priority is to organize the Alarmed, who are currently a latent issue public. There ae approximately 53 million Americans alarmed about climate change. Of this group, 7 percent (about 3.7 million) say they are already part of “a campaign to convince elected officials to take action to reduce global warming.” 28 percent (about 14.8 million) say they “definitely would join” a campaign, and 37 percent (about 19.6 million) say they “probably would join” such a campaign. This represents an enormous potential social movement — if they were recruited, organized, and deployed. But unlike other issue publics, the citizen activist wing of the climate movement remains relatively small and disorganized.
Second, the diverse organizations advocating for climate change action need to be organized into an advocacy coalition with the political muscle to sway elections, influence policymakers, and overcome the concerted opposition of climate change action opponents. Advocacy coalitions can include nongovernment organizations, social movements, governments, political parties, research institutions, companies, and media outlets. On the issue of climate change, opponents of climate change policy, such as the fossil fuel industry billionaires Charles Koch and David H. Koch, have constructed a larger, better organized, and better financed coalition, sustained over decades, than have proponents, who — despite having majority public support for many policies, a larger issue public, and a larger number of organizations working on climate change — continue to pursue relatively diverse agendas, with less coordination and focus. The balance of power and influence between these different coalitions can have very significant effects on the policy-making process.
A third priority is to build the “silent permission” for action among the 70 percent of Americans in the middle four groups of the Six Americas. These audiences are unlikely to become active members of the climate change issue public (for example, the Alarmed), but critically, they do represent the majority of voters. They are unlikely to ever lobby a public official, call their members of Congress, march in the streets, or donate money to a climate change organization. But most elected officials need their silent permission to pass climate policies — their tacit support and willingness to not punish political leaders at the ballot box for taking action. A slightly more ambitious goal for this silent majority is to persuade them to prefer political candidate X over candidate Y, because candidate X favors stronger climate change action.
A fourth priority is to build a diverse issue public among the Alarmed. Many Americans currently associate climate change with three main messengers: scientists, environmentalists, and liberal politicians. For most Americans, however, these are relatively abstract others. Most people trust scientists and hold them in high esteem; however, for most Americans, scientists remain a distant abstraction. Few Americans personally know a scientist, let alone a climate scientist, and rarely identify with science or scientists themselves. Likewise, many Americans do not consider themselves “environmentalists,” who are often stereotyped as “others,” with different values, attitudes, and behaviors than mainstream Americans. Finally, most Americans do not identify as strong liberals. Likewise, pre-existing political identities shape attitudes toward climate champions like former vice president Gore. Gore successfully engaged the liberal Democratic base and elites in the issue of climate change, but he also activated strong opposition from those Americans who dislike him and his politics — intensifying the partisan divide on climate change. All three of these messengers reinforce the perception for many Americans that climate change is “their” issue, not “my” issue. Most Americans have not yet seen people like themselves demanding climate change action.
But climate change threatens the life-support systems all human beings, human societies, and other species depend on. This recognition has led to the emergence of diverse new voices also demanding action, including business, faith, and military leaders, media organizations, artists, minority groups, doctors, lawyers, children, parents, grandparents, and every other sector of society.
It is critical to organize and amplify these new voices. Beyond their own political, social, and cultural power, their participation communicates to the silent majority that people other than scientists, environmentalists, and liberals care about climate change. Diverse Americans are starting to see and hear from people who look like them, dress like them, talk like them, and share their values, who are now saying climate change is “our” issue too. This mental shift — from perceiving climate change as “their” issue to “our” and ultimately “my” issue — helps build public will for policy action. That public will can then be mobilized when policy windows open at the local, state, national, or international levels.
Engaged citizens, organized issue publics, and advocacy coalitions can build public and political will for climate change action. These groups will be vital to the achievement of strong and sustained climate change policies. While many organizations with professional staff advocate for such policies, relatively few find, recruit, train, and deploy active citizens as a means of political power. Instead, many environmental groups focus on legal challenges, policy development, economic analysis, or professional lobbying of elected officials. These are all critical functions of a robust climate movement, but relatively few environmental or other groups focus on developing citizen activists. Citizen’s Climate Lobby, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, 350.org, the Sunrise Movement, and some state and local-based organizations are a few examples of groups that have made citizen organizing a core part of their DNA.
Building a powerful issue public, with political muscle, requires a different kind of organization. It necessitates different strategies and tactics: taking advantage of twenty-first-century data-driven tools to find Alarmed citizens; connecting them to organizations devoted to developing and amplifying citizen voices and power (not just fund-raising or petition-signing), also known as “deep organizing”; building a shared sense of collective efficacy through wins big and small; and investing in sustained power building so the movement is eady to act when policy windows open.
Ultimately, advocates must shift the political climate of climate change. Climate change itself provides an analogy — as the planet warms, extreme events become more frequent and severe. Similarly, as the climate movement shifts the political climate of climate change in a positive direction, the movement will win more frequently and the policy wins will go further and be less vulnerable to electoral swings. As the climate itself shifts in an ever-more dangerous direction, it will become ever more imperative that advocates build public and political will — shifting the political climate toward more ambitious climate change action.
This is an excerpt of an essay by Anthony Leiserowitz published in the book, “A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future.” Leiserowitz is a senior research scientist at the Yale School of the Environment and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.