The COP26 climate summit has been largely focused on those inside the glimmering Scottish Event Campus. Friday, though, the theme of the conference is pointed outward.
“We absolutely need system change, but how do we get system change?” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “It doesn’t just happen. You don’t just come up with good policy ideas and they sell themselves.”
For that, he said, you need people power.
What are the central problems we face under this theme?
There are a range of hurdles when it comes to empowering people to engage with climate change — from risk perception to political polarization.
One problem, said Leiserowitz, is that many people around the world don’t know about climate change. “They are keenly aware of changes,” he said. “What they lack is the context of climate change to make sense of those changes.”
A survey conducted by Facebook and the Yale program in 31 countries earlier this year found that 44 percent of respondents either “never heard of” or knew “a little about” the subject.
“If people don’t know, there’s no way they can adapt,” said Natalie Lucas, executive director of the nonprofit Care About Climate.
Once someone is aware of climate change, the question becomes whether they see it as a threat. People in developing countries, said Leiserowitz, tend to see climate change as a more pressing problem than those in the developed world.
According to the survey, roughly two-thirds of respondents in Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico were “very worried” about climate change. In Britain and the United States, that figure was below one third.
“Especially for those with power and privilege, it’s a lot harder to realize the everyday realities of climate change,” said Lucas.
And at least in the United States, politics is another driver of the divide, said Chenyang Xiao, a sociologist at American University. “There is the requirement that we as a society act all together,” he said. But instead, climate change has become a partisan issue. “It almost becomes a party I.D.”
For young people, though, Lucas said the issue often isn’t if they want to take climate action, but rather how they go about doing that. “Youth haven’t been so concerned about the knowledge,” she said. “It’s been about ‘how I make a difference?’”
What are potential solutions?
Article 6 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change highlights public “education,” “awareness” and “participation.” References are also included in Article 12 of the 2015 Paris agreement. And there’s a whole U.N. entity dedicated to “Action for Climate Empowerment” (ACE). But tangible progress has been minimal.
“Almost no one in the world has stepped up and developed a plan,” said Leiserowitz. “It’s an area that’s never gotten geopolitical attention, let alone resources.”
There have been some efforts on the individual country level. Ireland, for instance, has held “town halls” on the country’s climate action plan. The United Kingdom has convened “citizen juries” to help localize climate solutions. And in 2019, Italy became the first country in the world to make climate change part of its national school curriculum.
Leiserowitz would like to see increased proliferation of such innovative forms of participatory democracy — along with more traditional mass media and education campaigns. But in the meantime, he said, “the public isn’t waiting around.”
Movements such as the youth-led Fridays for Our Future have garnered millions of supporters around the globe in recent years — including it’s first post-pandemic protests this September in cities across the world.
What solutions are already underway in the U.S.?
Since the 2015 COP in Paris, the U.S. has seen a number of displays of public support for climate action; most notably perhaps was the 2017 People’s Climate March, when tens of thousands of people protested in Washington, D.C. alone. More systematized examples of climate engagement, though, are harder to point to.
One exception, however, is conservation corps. Modeled after the President Franklin D. Roosevelt program of the 1930s, these corps put young people to work cutting trails, building roads and solidifying America’s infrastructure. According to the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, also known as the Corps Network, there are currently over 130 conservation corps with roughly 25,000 members nationwide.
That number could expanded drastically as part of the budget reconciliation proposal working its way through Congress. The measure calls for billions of dollars to fund President Biden’s vision of an expanded national “Climate Conservation Corp.”
The latest iteration of the “America in One Room” project, which brings people of all political backgrounds together to discus a range of topics, focused on climate and energy. One of the questions the group debated was whether “we should take serious action to reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere because waiting to do so is taking an irresponsible risk with our kid’s future.”
Before the deliberation, agreement among the group was at about 63 percent. Afterward, it was 78 percent — a 15 percent jump.
What developments can we expect out of COP26?
What exactly might come out of the COP26 negotiations themselves is a bit unclear; there is the potential for more countries to detail national action plans. The U.S. ACE framework, for instance, calls for “developing an ACE national strategy for delivery COP26” and including ACE in the country’s contributions to the summit.
Overall, Lucas said she doesn’t have high expectations. “When it comes to actual government action,” she said, “I would say it’s pretty limited.”
In the meantime, demonstrators are mobilizing at COP26. At one protest earlier in the week police confiscated a giant, inflatable Loch Ness Monster. On Thursday, more than a dozen young climate activists staged a protest inside the conference center. They stood in a crowded hallway and chanted: “Whose planet? Our planet! Whose future? Our future! Whose water? Our water! Whose air? Our air!”
Much larger protests are planned for Friday and Saturday at a park in Glasgow outside the conference venue, including a Fridays for Future event.
According to The Guardian, Scottish police have vowed a “welcoming, friendly and proportionate” tact toward demonstrators.
More on climate change
Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.
What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.
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