Climate concerns and collective action

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Five zebras walk along the plain somewhere in Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro can be seen in the distance
Photo: © Curt Carnemark / World Bank

It is now old hat to say that concerted leadership and action on the climate agenda are increasingly urgent. It is also widely known that there is a divergence of views on what types of actions should be taken across countries. And even where countries agree that safeguarding the climate is an important goal, they may disagree on how important a goal it is relative to others they have.

This divergence of views is substantially influenced by the divergence in initial conditions facing countries and populations around the globe. Even communities within the same country may differ on what they perceive to be climate priorities. The “climate agenda” means different things to different people: To some it is primarily about mitigation and to others it is more about adaptation. To some it is about the specific climate issues they face in their daily lives — such as pollution, and to others it is also about the issues that do not affect their daily lives, like the frequency of tsunamis elsewhere in the world. Views of fossil-fuel exporters and large emitters may vary substantially from importers and those who have substantial cheap alternatives to fossil fuel. People in different countries may have different discount rates to assess climate mitigation benefits — for some, present survival challenges are so great that the situation decades hence is irrelevant to their decisions.

There are surveys aimed at evaluating support for climate action. The UNDP’s Peoples’ Climate Vote surveyed 1.2 million people in 50 countries covering 56% of the world’s population and found that almost 2/3 of those surveyed support some climate action; in the seven Least Developed Country surveyed (of which 4 are low-income as per the World Bank’s definition), the percentage was 58% and in high-income countries, it was 72%. The most popular action was conservation of land and forests (54% support), followed by more solar and wind energy (53%). The least popular was promoting plant-based diets (30%) or climate insurance (32%). 39% of respondents thought that companies should pay for their pollution. People were not asked how they felt about a carbon tax — whose incidence might fall on them — at least partially. They were not asked how much they were willing to pay for each of these choices. The Yale 2020 Public Opinion Estimate shows that in the U.S., 57% believe that global warming is caused mainly by human activities and 72% believe it is happening. 68% supported a carbon tax on fossil fuel companies.

The UN survey also indicates that education was the most profound driver behind concerns for the climate agenda. That is certainly expected: How do you explain that humans cause climate change to those who have no education/ little knowledge of science? Apart from the ability to comprehend the concept of planetary warming, inability to see how human action may mitigate a planetary phenomenon is a real issue . Many of us have probably spoken to people in both rich and poor countries who do not understand how humans could possibly affect climate — or climate-related disasters.

Making policy is about making choices for your citizens. Apart from education, how might other initial conditions affect choices, particularly when action on climate is presented beside other pressing issues?  For example, respondents in the UN survey were not asked what they would forego — more health services, education, electricity, water — to protect forests, for instance. Nor did respondents have information on the costs and benefits of each measure, and the distribution of such. They were not asked, for example, if they would be willing to bear higher fuel prices to slow down changes in the weather worldwide. If support varies substantially across people when they are not asked to make choices, it is plausible that it would vary when people are asked to forego something to get climate benefits.

Presented with these circumstances, an important question is how policymakers should bring along their populations to agree on policy directions on both mitigation and adaptation. Governments may decide to take climate action, but they also have accountability to their citizens. Adaptation is the easier of the two — for example, populations suffering from climate-induced droughts or floods, would presumably be more likely to choose measures to protect against these relative to other policies, than populations that do not suffer from either droughts or floods. For mitigation efforts, I would suggest that education, in a broad sense, is one of the most important things governments can support. But they can also build support by focusing on local effects of emissions, such as air pollution or noxious fumes from poor cooking fuels (2.8 billion people worldwide do not have clean cooking fuels or technologies), whose link to fossil fuels are clearer. Whilst it may be difficult to draw the links between climate change writ large and peoples’ everyday lives (I have tried it and found it to be difficult) it is important to try to do so to build support for the global agenda.

Yet, segments of the population may remain unconvinced, and governments may not cooperate on a global agenda. To counter these tendencies, there is potential “carrot”: subsidized finance to invest in green energy and technology. The offer is good if it is truly Pareto improving — and does not take away with one hand by giving with another. More specifically, will subsidized climate finance divert such finance from health, or education, or water? If we care about global welfare today and in the future, there are no easy decisions, and the devil is always in the details.

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Roumeen Islam

Economic Advisor, Infrastructure Practice Group, World Bank

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