Does climate change need a new agenda?

I was speaking to some friends of mine recently about climate change (I know what you’re thinking, those poor souls). They understand and accept the science of climate change but were not particularly interested in the topic or its solutions. One thought wind farms were ugly and the other felt the answer lay with reducing energy usage. I accept that some people find wind farms ugly but someone’s personal aesthetic preference about wind farms pales in significance to the gravity of the problem of climate change. I do have some sympathy with the view that we need to use less energy. I agree with that. But we need to do much more than simply consuming less energy. Using less energy is not going to solve the problem. Emissions need to be zero not just less.

I’ve just been reading an interesting report – I haven’t read all of it though – called A new agenda on climate change by Jonathan Rowson. He thinks we should not bother wasting our time arguing with those who question the scientific consensus on climate change but instead turn our attention to those who accept the science “but continue to live as though [the problem] were not there.” This is, according to Rowson, two thirds of the population. There are four main points to his argument:

* Forget about national emissions, it’s really about global extraction of fossil fuels. It was recently reported that just 90 companies are mostly to blame for the climate crisis. Our current focus on improving energy efficiency should be switched to action to prevent the extraction of fossil fuels.

* This is not just an environmental problem. Climate change is often thought of as a problem for environmentalists or greenies. But this is not so. According to Rowson, climate change will have “significant implications for public health, immigration, industrial policy, pensions, financial stability and energy security”. It is relevant to all of us.

* We have to stop pinning our hope to ineffective action like improvements to energy efficiency.

* Connect people to solutions and solutions to people. Rowson is suggesting here that we should refocus the debate away from the problem and onto to a debate about solutions.

He offers eight suggestions for linking people and solutions. I was surprised by point 6 which is to dismantle the ETS but the others all sound reasonable:

1) Build a climate alliance with clear shared objectives that is not part of the environmental movement
2) Consistently refocus the debate away from the existence of the problem towards competing ideas about solutions
3) Create public platforms for people to speak to each other about climate change for more than a few minutes at a time
4) Lobby for consumption based emission reporting
5) Support and promote divestment in fossil fuels
6) Campaign for the reduction of fossil fuel subsidies and the dismantling of the European Emissions Trading Scheme
7) As far as possible, collectively supply and manage your own renewable energy
8) Build reciprocal international commitment by highlighting that we are not alone in our attempts to lead on climate change

Rowson has grouped the population into three groups: those who remain unconvinced about anthropogenic climate change (19.6%); those who accept that there is a problem but who are unmoved (63.9%); and the last group who accept the problem and who live in ways that are consistent with their understanding of it (14.5%).


Probably Rowson is right when he says we should forget about the 19.6% who are unconvinced. We should instead focus on the unmoved, a group he calls the climate ignorers. Their reasons for being unmoved are threefold:
1) “I don’t feel uneasy about climate change”
2) “My daily actions are not part of the climate change problem”
3) “There is nothing I can do personally that will have any significant effect on limiting climate change”

The question is how to move the unmoved? We need to start by reframing climate change from a technical, environmental problem to an ethical challenge which requires collective solutions. He says, it “is as much a financial risk as it is an environmental risk”.

I thought I’d finish with this cartoon I saw recently which, although I’m not a climate scientist, strikes a chord with me. I can only say, why are we waiting?


22 Replies to “Does climate change need a new agenda?”

  1. Great article. What we are doing has not been effective. May I seed your article to Newsvine for discussion? 


    1. It seems like we will not pass a cap-and-trade bill in the US, so I have been promoting a carbon tax, with part used to pay down our national debt and the rest returned to each citizen as an energy dividend. it would give the unmoved an incentive to support CO2 reduction.

      1. I’ve always supported a carbon tax. I think what you are suggesting is what James Hansen has been proposing – a carbon tax, part of which gets returned to US citizens.

  2. How to move “unmoved” exactly like this, sharing your insights-you influenced some of mine, you sweet persistent hot looking mama :))

    1. Oh wow, thanks Maya! It’s so nice to hear you say that. I’ve never thought I could possibly influence anyone.

    2. Not sure I like this icon assigned to me, where did that come from??!! Can I share this on my fb, it’s one of the better ones?

      1. Of course, please share. The icon is generated automatically, sorry.

  3. The European Emissions Trading Scheme is quite controversial in the environmental and development movement.

    What I do not get is why we should not work on improving efficiency? I would almost argue that that is the most ignored solution of the main solutions. People love to talk about more renewable energy and how much employment they create. Politicians love to push a button to start a new wind or solar park. But also renewable energy has monetary and environmental costs. Not needing the energy by being more efficient seems to me a very effective way to reduce our footprint and under-appreciated because not as visible. Japan is doing a great job here with their top runner program to improve energy efficiency.

    1. Victor,
      Rowson specifically mentions this in a number of places and rather than trying to re-write what he says, I’m going to take the easy option and copy and paste a bit of it:

      There appears to be a very strong case that we radically
      underestimate ‘rebound effects’ eg that energy will be used more as it becomes cheaper or that energy not used for one purpose in one place will still be used for another in another place. There is still a sound financial and moral case for avoiding unnecessary waste, especially in the UK which has some of the least energy efficient homes in the world,8 but as long as energy production is unaffected, the connection between energy efficiency gains and climate progress is a goal still to be achieved rather than something to take for granted.

      and further:

      we cannot
      …take efficiency gains as being the same thing as reductions in energy demand with a meaningful impact on supply.


      Efficiency helps reduce energy demand, but to what extent depends on rebound effects. While reducing demand by reducing consumption would appear to help, we don’t have credible models of significant reductions in consumption and the concomitant demand for energy that don’t have a negative impact on economic growth, which is currently perceived to be an axiomatic goal by the political class and general population. It follows that we need to think harder about how behaviour change might help to shape a substitution of the energy supply, away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy.

  4. “There is nothing I can do personally that will have any significant effect on limiting climate change”

    This, I believe, is a major part of the problem. I live in an area where people have been taught that they are just wasting their time if they make efforts towards change. It is in part an illusion put upon them, It takes time and effort and some proven success before they will join in and discover otherwise.

    The one power that we have in this, is our consumer power. We can change energy suppliers but are encouraged to do so in order to get the cheapest tarriff. A useful pursuit for environmentalist would be to publish the efforts by companies who pursue clean sustainable energies and show support for those who are achieving most. I think this would give consumers I clear path towards doing someting useful and that they would take it. Such things do gain momentum.

    Energy suppliers keep our attention focused away from such an approach because they know that they would be driven by it and that it would effect their profits. All the more reason to take up the that underused force.

    1. Changing energy suppliers is one way consumers can empower themselves. But a strategy which I think may be more effective is to demand of our superannuation/pension/investment funds and also institutions that they divest of all shares in fossil fuel companies. I think shares in fossil fuels are a risky investment anyway. There’s a carbon bubble developing and the share prices of these companies is based on coal and oil that has not yet been extracted and which, if we’re to remain below 2C, cannot ever be extracted.

  5. In the matter of entrenched view and those who would prefer to ignore.

    My own experience has been that such people are not moved by argument but are moved by the actions of others. In part actions, rather than words, show that the matter has serious motive. In part it is more embarrasing to oppose or ignore the actions of peers than it is to dispute their words.

    Therefore, the proposition presented here alos has that wider and most useful effect.

    As for “connect people to solutions”, I would just reiterate the belief that consumer power is our best tool. It is the driving force of our present world and therefore something that we can make use of.

    1. You may be right, Graham, with regards to shifting views through our own actions. I’ve certainly come to the conclusion that an honest discussion doesn’t usually work with people whose views are entrenched.

      1. My experience here, with community actions would seem to show that is the case. A point at which the emphasis can successfully change from combating the obstruction to overridng it with actions that prove the point.

        Merry Xmas.

  6. More can be done in reducing energy use than most people probably imagine. In 2008 Elizabeth Colbert for The New Yorker visited a Danish island whose total energy consumption was negative. Then she met a group of Swiss researchers exploring whether it was possible to live comfortably on a power budget of 2000 watts per capita (at the time the US average power consumption was 12,000 watts per capita),,690/

    1. Thanks for that link, MikeM. Very interesting. I think it’s amazing that that small community has achieved what they have and I would love to be a part of something like that.

      On energy use. I use far less energy here in the UK than in Auckland. This is one of the reasons I hate Auckland so much. I am forced to drive a car there yet living here I can ride my bicycle or walk or train. I haven’t been behind the steering wheel of a car since July this year and I just love that. We also use far less energy to heat our home here. It is solid brick, double glazed, terraced and well-insulated. I want to live like this. In Auckland, it’s just not possible.

  7. I agree that it is a complete waste of time at this point to try and convince the unconvinced.

    However, I think any new agenda should be tied to the concept of climate change as a result of the depletion of resources resulting from unrestrained population growth, for I believe that is the root cause here. Climate change is merely a symptom of a planet that is vastly overpopulated.

    We can focus on increasing energy efficiency and reducing our carbon footprint, but I fear that this work will merely be overridden by the explosion of 3 billion more people added to the planet over the next thirty years 🙂

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