Don’t be afraid to talk about the costs of dealing with climate change

Climate advocates have struggled to persuade half of the U.S. public of the need to do more to slow the pace of global warming.

But even as climate scientists are sounding louder and louder alarms about the urgency of the situation, they disagree among themselves about how to proceed.

As political scientists who study the politics of climate change, we wanted to find out how to get more people to take the risks of global warming seriously. So we designed an experiment.

Two approaches

Dealing with climate change requires two kinds of policies. One involves attempts to slow down the rate of global warming. This approach, which experts call “mitigation,” takes aim at what’s causing the problem by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere.

So far, most of these efforts have consisted of governments agreeing to take steps to reduce their carbon footprints, through accords like the Paris Agreement, which the U.S. government is leaving, and incentives at the state level that encourage the use of solar and wind power.

The second approach seeks to manage the consequences of climate change that are already happening. Often called “adaptation,” it acknowledges that the world has waited too long to prevent the problem. Since climate change is already raising sea levels and making severe storms and other major weather events more deadly, humanity is already coping with the consequences.

A good example of adaptation policies is how Miami is spending an estimated US$400-500 million to elevate frequently flooded streets and roads and take other steps to cope with rising sea levels.

Both approaches may sound essential, but some environmentalists worry that drawing attention to the need to adjust to a changing climate will undercut public support to boost spending on efforts to slow the pace of global warming.

[embedded content] Actor Jack Black tours Florida neighborhoods that are often flooded due to rising sea levels in the National Geographic TV show ‘Years of Living Dangerously.’

Higher gas taxes

We conducted an online survey to assess the validity of those concerns.

In this experiment, 2,000 people read different versions of the same brief newspaper-style article, which we wrote, discussing a proposal for a higher gasoline tax. The text explained that gas taxes can reduce carbon dioxide emissions, helping address the long-term problem of climate change.