Protesters at a Global Climate Strike protest on September 20, 2019 in Washington, United States
Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Climate Change / Clean Energy

Climate activism is now a global movement, but it’s still not enough

Polling shows more people, particularly Republicans, will need to demand action on climate change to ensure the passage of desperately needed policies.

Sep 24, 2019
Protesters at a Global Climate Strike protest on September 20, 2019 in Washington, United States
Samuel Corum/Getty Images

More than a million students, workers, and others poured into the streets of major cities across the world on Friday, in what was likely the largest protest to date demanding action to halt climate change.

The kickoff of the Global Climate Strike, ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York this week, was the latest and loudest signal yet that climate activism is coalescing into a powerful global movement.

“It sure feels like the climate strikes were a turning point,” says Costa Samaras, director of the Center for Engineering and Resilience for Climate Adaptation at Carnegie Mellon. “Policy progress on climate change comes from politicians, and politicians count votes. There were a lot of potential voters in the streets.”

The real question, of course, is whether there’s enough pressure and enough votes, not just to prompt bold talk from progressive politicians but to pass rigorous policies and treaties in the face of intense government polarization.

The stated demands of the protests, organized by young people concerned about the changes they’ll see in their lifetimes, include an immediate end to the use of fossil fuels, a rapid shift to 100% renewable energy sources, and “equity, reparations and climate justice.”

Certainly some politicians have taken note of the growing global calls for action. A sweeping, multibillion-dollar climate plan is the basic cost of entry for any candidate seeking the Democratic nomination in the upcoming US presidential election.

But have attitudes toward climate change really shifted enough across the electorate? The polling presents a mixed picture.

Rising alarm, persistent polarization

Americans are certainly becoming more worried about climate change, according to a series of national surveys conducted by Yale and George Mason universities.

The portion of citizens who are “alarmed” or “concerned” together rose 17 points from 2013 to 2018, adding up to nearly 60% of respondents. The proportion who are “dismissive,” “doubtful,” or “disengaged” fell from 32% to 23% over that period. Another 17% are in the middle, or “cautious.”

Concerns are higher still globally, according to a Pew Research Center survey published early this year. In a survey of views across 26 nations, a median of 68% of respondents saw global climate change as a major threat, 20% as a minor one, and only 9% as no threat at all. In 13 of those nations, the majority of the participants named global warming as the “top threat” to their country, ahead of ISIS, cyberattacks, North Korea’s nuclear program, and the state of the worldwide economy.

But these views reflect deep polarization across political parties, particularly in the US. From March 2016 to April 2019, the proportion of Democrats who thought global warming should be a “very high” priority for the president and Congress climbed from 39% to 48%, the Yale and George Mason surveys found. But for Republicans, that figure stood at 6% in March 2016 and 5% this April.

Surveys do suggest polarization is narrowing a bit, particularly among younger conservatives.

“Millennial Republicans are more likely to say global warming is happening, is human-caused, and that most scientists agree it is happening,” according to researchers at Yale.

But the electoral gulf still makes for some very difficult political math at the moment, short of a total Democratic takeover of Congress and the White House.

A recent poll conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly 80% of Americans believe climate change is a “crisis” or “major problem.” But that doesn’t mean they’re eager to personally pay to address it.

Only 47% of Americans were willing to pay a $2 monthly tax on their electric bills to combat the problem, while 71% opposed a $10 tax and 64% rejected a 10-cent-per-gallon levy on gasoline. (Solid majorities, however, were in favor of raising taxes on the wealthy and on carbon-polluting companies, at 68% and 60%, respectively.)

Meanwhile, the solidly blue state of Washington has twice rejected a carbon tax (see “People will never vote for a carbon tax, so let’s stop asking”). French president Emmanuel Macron walked back a gas tax proposal following escalating protests by the “yellow vest” movement. And even citizens of Paradise, California, which was nearly destroyed by the Camp Fire last November, have pushed back on stricter fire standards that might raise the costs of rebuilding, or undermine the town’s charm by removing too many trees.

(See “Paradise, California, and the impossible choice between climate fight and flight.”)

'How dare you?'

There are certainly different ways to spread the costs and responsibilities of addressing climate change. But it’s hard to imagine a way to tackle it without demanding some financial sacrifices from the average citizen.

For the youth activists driving the climate protests, however, it’s not an economic, technical, or political issue. It’s a question of safety, survival, and doing the right thing for the future (see “Climate change: The moral choices”).

“People are suffering, people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing,” scolded Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist who began the school climate strike movement with a solitary protest a year ago, as she addressed world leaders at the climate summit on Monday. “We are at the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?”

(Separately on Monday, Thunberg joined with more than a dozen other young people to file a lawsuit accusing Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey of violating children’s rights protected under a 1989 UN convention.)

As more of the younger generation reach voting age, the polling sentiments may well shift far more radically. But that could be awfully late for a problem that’s effectively irreversible. Whatever level of warming we reach by the time we finally achieve zero emissions is, more or less, the temperature we’ll be stuck with for hundreds of years.

And even as the protests build hope for popular change, the United Nations released a stark report on Sunday underscoring the threats already upon us, and the radical changes now required to prevent them from escalating.

Among the findings: Climate impacts are “hitting harder and sooner” than predicted a decade ago. The years 2015 to 2019 are on track to be the warmest five-year period on record. Sea-level rise is accelerating. Limiting warming to 2 ˚C, already a higher level than most scientists think is safe, will now require nations to triple the emissions cuts they pledged to achieve in the Paris climate agreement in 2015.

At the climate summit this week, governments and businesses were expected to trumpet the ways they’ll step up efforts to cut emissions, with the general goal of nearly reaching zero by midcentury.

But by the end of Monday, it was already clear that “most of the major economies fell woefully short,” said Andrew Steer, chief executive of World Resources International, in a statement. “Their lack of ambition stands in sharp contrast with the growing demand for action around the world.”

Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says we’re just at the beginning of the global climate crusade. But social movements are powerful forces that have achieved real advances in the past, including strides in civil rights and voting rights in the US.  

It may require additional election cycles to achieve major changes, or things could happen faster than we expect if excitement builds behind political candidates and policy packages, she says.

It’s hard to imagine dramatic progress in the darkness of this political moment, “but change does happen, change can happen and we need to be open to that possibility,” Stokes says.