After Paris, we need a public discussion on climate change

Stuart Capstick and Adam Corner

Now that the hype from the Paris climate talks has died down, it’s up to ordinary people to keep the momentum going, say psychology researchers

There’s a curious paradox at the heart of climate change. Despite scientists asserting the need for urgent action and the widespread acceptance of the reality of climate change by people worldwide, it is a subject that we tend not to talk about with friends, family or colleagues. Just six per cent of the British public say they discuss climate change often, whereas approaching half (44 per cent) do so at most rarely. Likewise, two-thirds of Americans rarely or never discuss the subject.

Perhaps we are too fearful of appearing worthy or hectoring to express our concerns, or maybe the issues seem too complex and overwhelming. Or we have grown tired of seeing polar bears floating on melting icebergs. Whatever the reasons for our reticence, however, it is hard to see how a global impetus for public engagement and action can be realised if it remains out of bounds for discussion by all but an interested few.

The Paris summit meant climate change was headline news for a week or two. Perhaps you did find yourself reflecting on the unusual weather or the fate of low-lying Pacific nations. But now that Christmas has come and gone, are you still worrying about these things? The discussion can’t tail off from here – after Paris, we need public conversation about climate change more than ever before. Whether you think the agreement was a resounding success or are troubled by its limitations, it is clear that the hard work still lies ahead.

“It is hard to see how a global impetus for public engagement and action can be realised if it remains out of bounds for discussion by all but an interested few.”

Amid the focus in news reports on compromises struck and the commitment to keep temperatures rises “well below” 2C, one aspect of the process has received less attention. The role of civil society, never more vocal than at the Paris talks, will be crucial for words to become action.

As protesters took to the streets in the final hours of the negotiations, inside the sprawling complex north of Paris, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon called on grassroots organisations to keep up the pressure on governments to act, arguing that “active engagement” was required from across society in order to hold governments to account. Adjoined to the sealed-off buildings housing the international delegates, the Climate Generations hall provided the space for organisations and individuals from across the world to make their voices heard.

This should be seen as more than the usual rhetoric and well-meaning outreach accompanying a fleeting international limelight. Article 12 of the Paris Agreement affirms that its signatories commit to climate change education, increased public awareness, and public participation in order to achieve its aims. We can be sure that organisations such as Greenpeace and need no encouragement to do just this. But what of the wider public and their role in the process? Are we ready to play our part?

Meeting the 2C target will require an unprecedented level of disruptive change. This won’t be achieved unless we embark upon a process of meaningful public dialogue to work out our collective response. In doing so, we will inevitably encounter the old disagreements about climate change, but this is all the more reason to talk openly about the many challenges that remain.

Perhaps most significantly, and for the first time in human history, the Paris talks have led to a unanimously-endorsed policy position which appears completely at odds with continued fossil fuel dominance: the world aims to be “net zero” in emissions of carbon dioxide by the end of the century.

“Meeting the 2C target won’t be achieved unless we embark upon a process of meaningful public dialogue to work out our collective response.”

But despite the rush to celebrate the end of the fossil fuel era, the truth is likely to be more complicated. In addition to this “net zero” target, there are precisely zero mentions of fossil fuels in the final Paris text, and zero indications of how the production of fossil fuels (as opposed to the emissions they cause) will be curtailed by leaving most of these in the ground.

Have we even begun to imagine how this can be achieved, to consider the implications for changing the ways in which millions of people live? How do we, as citizens, want this to be done? None of the options currently available are straightforward or palatable to many – whether through reducing our consumption, or at the system level through an acceleration of renewable energy, nuclear power, or the use of (still speculative) carbon extraction technologies.

The conversations that are necessary as we attempt to restructure our societies – if we attempt to do so – are where the real discussion on climate change is now required. This will not result in neat texts endorsed by all, but will instead give rise to disputes grounded in different values, and played out in the familiar fight between conservatives and progressives. Finding common ground on these more contentious topics is where the energies of climate campaigners and communicators are best placed now that the skeleton of a more sustainable world has been assembled.

First published by The Conversation

Photo title: Deligates at the Paris climate talks in December

Photo credit: © COP Paris/Benjamin Géminel

  • Glyn Mitchell

    Very good article. I would like to share with you the good news about how putting microbial life back into the soil is drawing down liquid carbon and sugars to trade with micro organisms which need carbon in return for minerals and nutrients, We are recording huge increases of carbon in the soil by simply putting bacteria, fungi, microarthropods, Protozoa and nematodes, grown good Compost back into the soil.
    We are seeing farmers draw down on average 9 tons of carbon into their soils over 1 hector in a matter of months using the a count system alongside their Regenerative practices.

  • Clifford J. Thompson

    There’s also “End Global Warming & Climate Change Now” – An MIT Climate CoLab Technology Solution Recommendation Proposal” ( Abstract )

  • Chris

    A very interesting article, thank you. Until it is in the best interest of big business to change away from fossil fuels, whether that be legally or financially, it is going to be very hard to get the masses to change their way of living. Being “green” & thinking about our effect on the world is still portrayed as “whacky”. Having to live without fossil fuels is portrayed as having to live without electricity. Going back to the dark ages.
    There are very few incentives for new innovations powered by renewables & it is hard for the public to make an informed decision about the products that are available due to the lack of published data. People are not encouraged to take responsibility for their own actions, it’s okay to let someone else decide what is the best way to grow our food, to travel from one place to another, where the best places to live are. We have a very long way to go yet & I wonder if we really have the time left to make it.

  • Stan Rosenthal

    Yes we need more public conversation about climate change but I think this will only work in the context of talking about something more positive like how we can live a much more satisfying life without the hyper-consumption that is driving global warming and other forms of pollution. The charity Action for Happiness (who’s patron is the Dalai Lama) is attempting to change our focus in this direction and its Happy Cafes are seen as a way of bringing these ideas into the mainstream ( see my article in Positive News).

  • Daniel Strypey Bruce

    If corporations are dragging their feet so selfishly, perhaps part of the solution is to consider changing away from a political-economy dominated by corporations? There are now a plethora of projects demonstrating what Yochai Benkler calls “commons-based peer production”; free code software, open source designs, reference sites like Wikipedia and, OpenStreetMap, the Maker/ FabLab/ HackerSpace movement, WikiHouse, WikiSpeed, and so on. T

  • Daniel Strypey Bruce

    Corporations are not excluded from these open collaborations, but they can’t monopolize control or supply, lock-in users, or treat contributors as virtual slaves (like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk does). Check out the work of the P2P Foundation and CommonsTransition for more in-depth articles on these topics
    (Oops, clicked ‘submit’ by accident before I was finished)

  • Daniel Strypey Bruce

    Manufacture thousands of “Synthetic trees”? Really? Why not just plant… actual trees. Fruit and nuts trees for food production, rubber trees, fibre trees, timber trees, and even firewood trees using species that can be “coppiced” (cut off just above the ground and regrown from their roots). If these were grown in massive managed forests, not only would the trees and other plants in the forest absorb carbon, but the forest floor and the soil underneath would eventually absorb and hold roughly ten times as much carbon as the plants themselves.

    Sequestering carbon, restoring habitat, and providing for human needs. Win, win, win!

  • Ruth

    Good point, but trees aren’t a total win- they emit methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas (the amount emitted is not yet clear for many species). They also drop leaves which decay and release carbon dioxide, or methane if they decay after being buried, and they eventually die and release carbon dioxide anyway- they’re still brilliant, and we need them for oxygen, but the idea of some of the synthetics is to truly trap and sequester carbon dioxide without any unknowns.

    Same time, whenever we do things the complex way we seem to create environmental problems- kind a Pandora’s Box isn’t it? I agree that trees are the best option, bearing in mind that most synthetic materials seem to damage the world in some unforeseen way, e.g., polyester threads clogging the bellies of ocean-bottom dwelling creatures…

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