After Paris, we need a public discussion on climate change

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