Why climate change activists have failed to get public support


July 22, 2023 | 10:00 in the morning

We’re hearing even more than usual about climate change this summer and that’s no surprise, not with heatwave news cycles driven by record-breaking heatwaves, torrential rains and widespread wildfires in Canada.

Some climate campaigners think we are not hearing enough about the issue: writing in The Guardian, columnist Jonathan Freedland insists that the problem is marketing. The climate movement has devoted relatively few resources to reaching or persuading the public, he writes, absurdly.

He quotes progressive pr man David Fenton Were in a propaganda war, but only part of it is on the battlefield and quotes former UN climate grandee Christiana Figueres, who says the climate community has backed away from marketing. Why? Because, says Figueres, it is somehow contaminated. It’s gross. You know, we’re too good at marketing. They were too right. . . I hope we are overcoming it.

Of all the stupid and dishonest things that have been written and said in the climate debate, the idea that climate change activists fail to get their message across that they won’t stoop to marketing might be the stupidest and most dishonest.

Billions of dollars have been spent on climate change advocacy, not to mention money devoted to actual climate policies.

Raging wildfires in eastern Canada sent huge plumes of smoke across North America this summer. Environmentalists are loudly suggesting that smoking is evidence of a changing planet, even as progressives insist their agenda is being silenced.

The heads of government of virtually all democratic countries are constantly talking about the issue.

In the intergovernmental sector, everyone from the United Nations to the International Monetary Fund is sounding the climate alarm bell, while in the private sector, you can count on the likes of BlackRock, Goldman Sachs, and other corporate titans to do the same.

ESG rules have pushed the climate issue onto the corporate agenda in a massive way: Companies are spending billions in total (up to $1.4 million per company) on climate reporting costs alone.

Even the alleged villains in history, big energy companies like ExxonMobil, spend billions of dollars a year touting the green agenda. Over the past decade, we’ve reduced greenhouse gas emissions in our operations by more than 7 million tons, boasts ExxonMobil, which is equivalent to taking some 1.4 million cars off the road. You may not think they are sincere, but they are far from silent on the matter.

Firms like private equity big BlackRock are spending billions on ESG programs, which link their investment strategies with leftist social goals.

Climate activists have the commanding heights. What do the so-called deniers have? Some of my cranky libertarian friends.

And the voters.

The real problem with climate policy isn’t that voters aren’t aware of the problem, it’s that they disagree. Climate policy touches everything from big tech to agriculture to economic growth, everything from homes we live in the cars we drive and, as such, an ambitious climate program will necessarily impose high costs.

The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes of the world may pretend that green policies will pay for themselves, but no serious person believes them.

One of the clearest ways to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is to expand access to nuclear energy, which requires major investments in new infrastructure.
Getty Images

Sure, Guardian headline writers can openly declare The beauty of a Green New Deal is that it would pay for itself, that’s just the marketing our green friends are supposedly so against.

American voters care about climate issues, but not as intensely as activists would like. The climate regularly polls into the single digits when it comes to voters’ top concerns, far behind (surprise!) the economy and health care.

Independents see immigration as a more pressing issue than climate change.

You may think the US government is under the thumb of oil barons, but no democratic country has embarked on the kind of economic transformation advocated by climate activists.

Signatories to the Paris Agreement are far from meeting their climate obligations; the $100 billion a year in climate finance pledges promised at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow have not been fully funded; even in the European Union, whose leaders take a much stronger climate line than their US counterparts, there has been no radical change.

A coal excavator in Germany, ramping up coal mining in the wake of gas shortages caused by the Ukrainian crisis.

Germany has responded to Russia’s recent energy blackmail by reopening coal-fired power plants.

European voters give climate a higher priority than Americans, but polls typically track economic growth and immediate issues like the invasion of Ukraine.

This is not oil-soaked propaganda at work which is, for better or worse, democratic politics at work.

While there has been piecemeal progress, countries around the world are moving at a glacial pace when it comes to the only policy that can reliably reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a reasonable cost: rapidly expanding nuclear power, which has an operational carbon footprint of approximately zero.

Pennsylvania state government reopened that collapsed interstate overpass in record time by waiving all sorts of planning and permitting rules, but such urgency does not exist in the case of nuclear power or other necessary energy infrastructure.

Christiana Figueres, who leads the United Nations campaign on climate change, says environmental issues suffer from a lack of proper marketing. Many would certainly disagree.
LightRocket via Getty Images

Unfortunately, this too is democracy.

What is needed is not more marketing, more propaganda, more hysteria.

What is needed is a more attractive set of compromises.

But finding better compromises means admitting that there are compromises, which climate activists hostage to their marketing departments have too often refused to make.

Promises made at major multinational climate conferences such as the Paris Accords remain unfulfilled as liberal democracies seem unable to overhaul their energy strategies.
Getty Images

It’s not that climate activists aren’t selling their agenda, it’s that voters in democratic countries around the world aren’t buying it.

Kevin D. Williamson is a national correspondent for the Dispatch and writer-in-residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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