It’s been 30 years since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was finalized and opened for signatures. Since then, countries have held 27 rounds of negotiations with the goal of implementing policies that will limit the effects of climate change. Nonetheless, carbon emissions continue on their upward trajectoryMy new paper draws on the lessons from societal responses to the COVID-19 pandemic to answer the question: How do we get to successful climate action?

Like the necessary responses to stop the spread of COVID-19, the climate crisis requires transformational social change. In fact, early responses to the pandemic, such as lockdowns and travel restrictions, not only limited the spread of the virus, but they also had the unintended consequence of reducing our greenhouse gases. However, both effects were short-lived. The world became accustomed to the risks associated with COVID-19 and individuals resumed more normal levels of travel and social mixing even as the disease continued to spread; to date, the pandemic has killed more than 15 million people globally and carbon emissions rebounded in 2021.

Mitigating the most harmful effects of climate change involves changing the way that energy is used to fuel industrial life as we know it. As the IPCC outlines, an effective response to the crisis involves decreasing our carbon emissions substantially, as well as reducing the carbon that is already trapped in the atmosphere to get us on a path to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius. The longer we continue with business-as-usual, the more we will experience the effects of climate change in the form of extreme weather events such as hurricanesdroughtsfloodsheatwaves, and wildfires.

Given the lack of progress (as measured by tangible emissions reductions, not symbolic policies), there is ample evidence that only a substantial and sustained experience of risk with clear cost to people and property will motivate the necessary reorientation of the state, market, and civil society sectors to limit the worst effects of climate change. This process is what Andrew Jorgenson and I call an AnthroShift. The most plausible pathway from the experience of widespread risk to an effective social response to the climate crisis is social change that is motivated by civil society. Although climate activism has increased in recent years, the effects of this activism on economic and political actors’ behaviors has been relatively spotty and even less is known about the actual climate effects of these efforts in terms of emissions.

Read the full article about climate action by Dana R. Fisher at Brookings.