What Motivates People to Take Action on Climate Change?

New research disproves the assumption that exposure to climate-related natural disasters motivates people to support climate policy.   

A common assumption is that direct exposure to climate-related disasters such as wildfires and flooding motivates people to support policy to address climate change. Yet new research proves that this assumption doesn’t hold up in reality.

Matto Mildenberger, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, discusses research, conducted in the aftermath of recent California wildfires, that dispels the notion that personal experience with climate-related disasters automatically drives support for policy-driven climate solutions. He also explores how efforts the inform people of personal climate risk can be counterproductive to climate action, and alternate communications strategies that prove more effective.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone. If you’re listening to this podcast, you’re likely concerned about the impact of our energy system on Earth’s climate, and how policy in combination with new energy technologies will drive the transformation towards a zero carbon energy system. Yet it’s clear today that there are many who, for a variety of reasons, do not share the same sense of climate urgency.

I often find myself asking what it will take to get the whole country on the same page when it comes to climate change, and the need to reduce carbon emissions. And I’ve assumed that with increasing flooding and wildfires touching communities, more people will inevitably embrace climate policies. This assumption that a personal understanding of risk drives action often forms the basis of communication strategies that aim to build support for climate policies such as government incentives for clean energy.

On today’s podcast, we’ll explore why this seemingly commonsense connection between a personal view of climate risk and support for climate policy may not be as direct as we think. In fact, new research suggests very little connection. My guest is Matto Mildenberger, assistant professor of political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Matto’s work focuses on the political driver’s inaction in the face of climate change. He has also uncovered surprising misconceptions about the connection between personal politics and support for clean energy. And he’s explored what these findings may mean for future efforts to build support for climate policy. Matto, welcome to the podcast.

Matto Mildenberger: Thanks for having me.

Stone: Now Joe Biden as put climate change near the top of the list of priorities for his administration. Reportedly just behind fighting COVID, and on par with issues including the economy and racial equity. Yet a recent Pew Research poll that in fact came out in late January suggests that Americans on the whole don’t rank climate as highly as the new president. How real is this divide in prioritization of climate change?

Mildenberger: I don’t think it’s quite that stark. I think there’s certainly polarization in this country as I’m sure everyone is well aware by this point, where Democrats are prioritizing this issue considerably relative to Republicans, and we saw evidence of that in the primary, where climate change was really one of the top button issues shaping Democratic primary votes and debates.

What I do think is the case though is that the Biden administration sees climate change and economic inequality and COVID as sort of linked crises, and sees the policies that will address one as being the policies that will address all of these crises.  And in fact, to the degree that the public is sort of urgently demanding or seeing the need for COVID relief, and economic recovery support in the very short term, I don’t think that changes the degree to which, for many Democrats in particular, climate change is right there in the mix.

I’ve actually done some work, some of it published in environmental research letters last year, looking at to what degree does adding, for instance, economic policy considerations into a climate package, does that make the climate package more popular? And we find the answer is yes. So that’s a bit of the underlying knowledge of the Green New Deal. And then we just published a brief over the summer looking at COVID recovery packages, and what we found is that including climate related, for instance, infrastructure spending, around, say, clean energy infrastructure, in a COVID recovery package, makes the COVID recovery package more popular.

So I think in some ways the Biden administration has its pulse on the way in which the American public wants to see these crises managed jointly. They want the government to sort of walk and chew gum at the same time. And I actually think that there’s good evidence that this type of joint approach to managing these major existential threats we face is quite popular, even if it’s somewhat more muted when you ask people to rank, is COVID more important then climate. I think that’s not the right way to think about what the political incentives are for the current folks in D.C., where I do actually think there are political rewards for tackling climate alongside COVID and economic recovery.

Stone: Well yeah, it’s interesting that you put that connection together. So Biden has been very clear on that, right? He’s highlighted climate change as presenting an opportunity to address some of the economic damages of COVID. Now does your research show that linking two issues together in fact builds policy support in this case for climate policy?

Mildenberger: Yeah, so I mean first of all I’d say that many people think it’s good policy to integrate these domains together, right? We’re going to need to spend an enormous amount to stimulate the economy as we come out of this economic crisis. And that’s an opportunity to spend money not on what we’ve done in the past, but where we want to go in the future. You know, rather than as the Trump administration did, bailing out fossil fuel companies is part of economic recovery, we can invest in the type of clean energy future that is necessary to protect our climate.

So it’s good policy, but what our research shows is that it’s not only good policy, it’s also good politics. And so exactly as you say, we do for instance survey experiments where we have members of the public choose between different policy packages. And those policy packages vary in, for instance, whether they integrate climate and COVID in the same package, or whether they just focus on COVID on their own, sort of COVID recovery on its own.

And what we find is that systematically by integrating climate related considerations into the economic recovery package, into the COVID response package, that increases political support. It makes the overall COVID recovery package more popular. So we have really clear evidence that you increase the size of the political coalition that’s willing to support ambitious policy and ambitious spending, for instance in a COVID package, if you also take an opportunity to tackle this looming threat of climate change. For instance, through investment in transmission or clean energy or wind and solar, and all of these other mitigation efforts that we know are necessary over the next decade.

Stone: Now it’s interesting, again, so those linkages are very important, but it’s interesting that much of your recent research over the last couple of years has looked at something a little bit different. And that is the connection between personal experience of climate impacts and the willingness to support policy solutions, policy based solutions to climate change. And as I said in the beginning of this, there’s kind of an assumption that I carry around, and I assume that I’m not alone, that direct experience again with severe weather events like wildfires and floods drives people to become very concerned about climate change and demand action to address it. So again, your research calls this assumption into question. Before we get into the findings, can you tell us why this assumption may be so compelling?

Mildenberger: Well, for a very long time climate change was a distant threat. It was something that was going to be shaping the lives of our children, future generations, or perhaps people who lived in countries in the global south that felt very distant to Americans. And there was an assumption that as the impacts of climate change began to realize, that distance would get eroded, and people would begin to think of climate change not as something that my children or other people have to confront, but something that’s already shaping my life today in the here and now.

And there’s been really significant advances in climate attribution science, to sort of find the spatial fingerprint of climate change in some of the extreme weather events that we’re already experiencing in the US today. And of course the impacts of climate change are already here and intensifying. And so for many years there was an assumption that, well when we get to this point where climate change is no longer a distant threat, but it’s a proximate threat, it’s something in the here and now, that’s going to sort of reshape the calculus, it’s going to reshape the politics of climate change, and sort of mobilize our political system into action.

Or at least that was the hope. And so as a — I’m a political scientist, and so now climate change is here, right? Climate change is not just a distant threat, it’s something that’s disrupting all of our lives in the here and now, we can begin to see whether empirically that’s the case. Are these experiences with climate change that people have, are they actually driving the type of shifts that might break the political gridlock that has characterized climate policymaking and energy policymaking over the last decade.

Stone: So has research to date supported this cause and effect relationship between experience of natural disasters, personal experience and growing concern about climate change? 

Mildenberger: Yes and no, right? So as with all good research answers, it’s complicated. But it’s complicated in a really interesting way. So I’ve done some work recently looking at the distribution of wildfires in California. And looking at how exposure to a wildfire shapes people’s voting behavior and their preferences for different energy policies.

So California is obviously one of the states in the country that has a lot of ballot initiatives, where each election cycle the public is not only asked to vote for who they want to represent them in Sacramento or in D.C., but also asks to opine directly on, do you want to see this type of clean energy policy, do you want to see investments in this type of energy infrastructure. And even when there was a big debate over the state’s carbon pollution reduction targets around AB32, do you want to see the state sort of have this ambitious climate policy or not.

So what I did with my colleague, Chad Hazlett who is at UCLA is we looked at the spatial distribution of all wildfires across the state over several election cycles, and aligned that with the votes on various climate and energy related ballot initiatives to see if I’m living in a small electoral precinct, the 200 or 400 people in my precinct, if those folks are exposed directly to a wildfire, does that shape my willingness to invest in or support costly government policy through these ballot initiatives?

And here’s the top line, here’s what we found. So the answer is yes, we see about a five or so percentage point increase in support for costly energy and climate policies after exposure to a wildfire across the entire state. And we do a lot of work in this paper to sort of make sure we’re really getting at cause and effect so that we can really say that it’s the wildfire exposure itself which is causing this increase in ballot support. But it’s really heterogeneous. Where we’re finding all of that effect being concentrated in precincts and parts of the state that are predominantly Democrat, that have an above average number of Democratic voters.

Whereas when we look at the electoral precincts in part of the state that are more Republican and tend to have more Republican voters, we see a complete flatline. No responsiveness, no shift in people’s voting or opinion preferences as a result of this experience. So what we’re actually seeing is that this direct experience is not really moving everyone towards a sort of common share purpose of addressing climate change, it’s actually polarizing the public further, and it’s making Democrats who already accept climate science and support climate policy, it’s ratcheting up their commitment to this, and making them more committed to climate policy, helping them prioritize this issue, and making them more willing to invest in costly solutions.

Whereas we’re seeing essentially a no responsiveness on the Republican side. And to go back to your first question, this is actually pretty consistent with the political story in D.C. right now, where over the last two years we’ve actually seen the prioritization of energy and climate policy ratchet up within the Democratic Party, as reflected in President Biden really being the first climate President that we’ve ever had who is trying to address this existential threat at the scale of the crisis, while we have not seen a lot of movement on the Republican side, and if anything, the polarization over the last five years within the Republican Party on this issue has only deepened.

Stone: Let me ask you a question. It’s very interesting what you bring up. I recall reading that research, and a couple of things hit me. One is that you said that the exposure to a wildfire would make someone, particularly if they were a Democrat, more likely to support policy. That was actually a very specific effect though, because I think that was, if I recall the research correctly, there was a 5% or so increase in tendencies to support that policy if you were within three miles of the fire itself.

So I’m no expert on this by any means, but almost that immediate exposure would make me think that that number would be much higher. Number two, if we’re looking at the Republicans who you say didn’t have any response, is there any insight that you can provide into how they’re connecting these severe climate impacts with what they’re seeing? Are they attributing it to something else? What’s going on there?

Mildenberger: Yeah, I think this is a really good question. So to think a little bit about how people are being exposed, yes, so we find that the strongest effect of the wildfire exposure on voting outcomes amongst Democrats is right adjacent to the wildfire itself. And then as you move away from the wildfire to sort of 25, 30 miles away, then that effect is going to decay. And then by the time you’re a certain distance away from the wildfire, then it no longer is a personal experience in quite the same way. People don’t appear to sort of view it as a personal experience if it’s happening to the other part of the state.

Now as to the question of why Republicans may be non-responsive, I think there’s actually a really important point that we don’t appreciate enough. So in order to interpret an event like a wildfire that I experience as — in order for that to drive a shift in my political behavior and my attitudes and my preferences, I have to understand my experience as climate related, right? So I need to see this wildfire and interpret this wildfire as something that has the fingerprint of climate change in it.

Now in general, the media has not done a very good job of keeping up with advances in climate attribution science. And so generally speaking, the storytelling that we have in our society around the role of climate change in sort of our day to day lives is pretty weak. That’s only really begun to change in the last year or so. But even four or five years ago, if you look at sort of the studies that have been done, extreme events, extreme weather events that climate scientists felt did have — that could have been attributed in part to climate change were not being discussed with that context in a lot of the mainstream media reporting.

So that’s the first thing. The second thing is that if I don’t accept that climate science, if I don’t accept that climate change is shaping our environment and the conditions in which we live, then I’m not going to interpret or make sense of an experience like a wildfire as being a climate related event, right? If I’m not even thinking about this event as climate related, if I’m just saying there’s always been wildfires, and I’m not appreciating the science which shows that the intensity and frequency of those fires are being exacerbated by climate change, well then I’m unlikely, or there’s no reason to think that I’m going to change my mind.

And this sort of creates a dynamic where we might expect that these direct experiences could ratchet up support for climate policy and clean energy policy amongst communities that already are predisposed to care about this, that already accept the science of climate change. But they’re not going to convert skeptics, or they’re not going to convert people who aren’t already potential climate supporters, just need that activation.

Let me just give one other example of this same phenomena just to make sure that we don’t see it entirely as a Democratic versus Republican story. There are many impacts of climate change, or even the impacts of wildfires that are much more indirect, right? So for instance, the electricity system in California has just been roiled by wildfire risks, and the need to do planned power safety shutoffs over the last year or two.

As you know, in 2019, the fall of 2019, there was a particular extreme example of this where PG&E in Northern California had to, over a sequence of different shutoffs, had to kill power for up to a million households just in order to sort of manage wildfire risks and ensure that electricity transmission infrastructure wasn’t sort of sparking fires in sort of high risk fire conditions. Now climate change, to the degree that climate change is exacerbating wildfire risks in the state, as climate attribution scientists addresses the case, then it’s also the case that climate change is exacerbating or intensifying the need to have more frequently these types of large-scale power safety shutoff events.

But the public is not necessarily going to understand the linkage between these two. People are not going to experience that power safety shutoff and think, well climate change is contributing in its small part to this sort of extreme crisis that I’m part of. And so we’ve done some work where we’ve surveyed people who are just inside or just outside of those outage boundaries, trying to make sense of, among people who experience these power outages across Northern California in 2019, how did their attitudes towards energy infrastructure, utility company liability, how did all of that change as a result of experiencing this crisis, right?

And we don’t find any effect on, for instance, climate concern, either on Republicans or Democrats. Because in this case, even Democrats are not understanding their experience as really sort of being a direct function of climate change. It’s too indirect. And so there was lots of media conversations and sort of advocates saying, well look, the entire state of California is in the dark partly because of climate change. Now we’ll get serious about it. But that’s not how people are understanding their lived experiences.

Stone: People aren’t making that connection.

Mildenberger: Yeah, because it’s a little indirect, right? It’s not climate change in the wildfire itself, which Democrats can make the connection to. This is sort of a second order, a more indirect pathway. And so as climate change intensifies, we know that its effects are not just going to be felt in these sort of one-off crises events, we’re going to have all sorts of cascading, intermingled, complex follow-on repercussions, and it’s not entirely clear that people are making or going to be able to make that connection in a sufficiently clear way, that it’s really going to drive changes in our political discourse.

Stone: You know, I want to step back for just a moment to that research that you described in California with the wildfires and people’s reaction to that. Now that doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You’ve also done some meta-analysis of previous research that explored, again, how weather might influence climate opinions. And the conclusions that you drew from that work which looked at I think 73 papers on the topic were also mixed. Were there any additional insights that we might get out of that analysis?

Mildenberger: Yeah, so there’s been quite a bit of work done in sort of economics, political science, public policy, trying to see how people understand the extreme weather that they’re increasingly faced with, and how does that shape their attitudes towards climate change. And overall, I think a lot of people just assume that there is a clear empirical relationship between experiencing climate change and your attitudes towards the issue.

But the results, as you point out, are quite a bit more ambiguous. There certainly is an effect. For instance, if you fill out a survey on a hotter day, you’re more likely to report that you believe in climate change and you accept climate science. But the effects are somewhat ephemeral, and a lot of them are very much focused on short term shifts in attitudes. For instance, attitudes towards climate change. There’s actually very little work that looks at behavioral intentions and political behaviors, and really tries to see if any of these experiences are also translating into intended shifts in your adaptation behaviors, intended shifts in your political support for different policies, and so on and so forth.

So we certainly find that there isn’t sort of clearcut evidence that these direct experiences are reshaping politics. And if anything, there’s a couple of caveats that we need to keep in mind, right? One is that there’s actually quite a bit of good work showing that people become very, so to speak, acclimatized to current conditions. So there’s some great work that comes out of Fran Moore at UC Davis looking at how, for instance, people on Twitter, the degree to which they are remarking about extreme weather events, right? And finding that as extreme weather events become more normalized, they sort of become less remarkable.

And we might expect that people are calibrating their expectations so that they no longer are realizing how unusual particular climate related events are. And in fact, there’s a broader psychological literature that points to the same issues in a variety of different environmental contexts, where for instance people who face an inherently more polluted environment sort of shift their baseline and expectations about what an unpolluted environment is. And frankly if we think back even 150 years, just think about the plenitude which existed even in North America in our wilderness, in our wild spaces, from passenger pigeons to the great plains bison to the extraordinary salmon runs along the east coast of the Atlantic, right?

All of that is gone, and yet it’s sort of a historical footnote. It’s not something we experience, most of us, as a loss. And so to the degree that it’s sort of this sense of loss that is converting direct experience to action, we may just calibrate to a new world in which that loss is just part of our normal far too quickly as a society. And you could imagine how problematic this is, because if we keep on calibrating to these losses as being normal, we end up in sort of a downward spiral to sort of the worst existentially threatening climate scenarios that we’re being warned about.

Stone: What you just described brought to mind also a picture. I saw a picture once, I think it was taken during the 1920’s, of Ernest Hemingway holding fish that he had caught I believe in the Gulf of Mexico, and they were huge. And the subtext here was that these fish don’t even exist anymore, at least at this size. And it makes me think about kind of the generational context. So we as a generation today, right?

We see the environment around us, and we think that whatever is there is normal. We don’t necessarily have a concept of what might have been before. When we look at climate, the assumption is that young people are concerned about their climate, they don’t want bad things to happen, are more activist on these front off. But if what each generation has brought into is the new norm, does that dilute the power of action over time?

Mildenberger: Well, I certainly think that there are people in older generations who are not grappling with the full scope of the climate crisis, even though this has very much happened in their lifetimes. I think that if we look at younger generations today, it’s not just that they have to cope with a certain amount of loss in sort of the plenitude that exists in our natural spaces, they’re facing an existential threat from climate change, right? They do not have any reason to suspect that their quality of life is going to be better in 25 years than it is today, and frankly I feel the same way, right?

This is not just people who are in high school today. I think many, many, many people have sort of legitimate concerns that we are at a tipping point, and the next, say, ten years are going to be make or break in whether or not we get this existential threat under control or not. And from my perspective, the question is no longer whether there are going to be devastating climate impacts, there are going to be devastating climate impacts. The question is no longer, are we going to lose some of the sort of things that we hold dear in our wilderness, are we going to cause immense suffering for people around the world. Yes, we are.

The question is, how much of that suffering can we alleviate, how much can we save. And I think that younger generations right now just feel that sense of wanting to alleviate suffering, and save what we can really acutely. And I don’t think that sense is going to be undermined by sort of calibration in sort of the new normal. I think that we ought not to calibrate our understandings of this problem to normalize suffering. In many ways, like that is what the sort of history of environmental injustice has been for the last 30 or 40 years, right?

Where as a society, powerful people and people in positions of decision making have essentially normalized the notion that people in fence land communities and communities of color should essentially be holding and taking on the health harms of pollution for everyone else, right? And literally subsidizing the quality of life of more affluent white, for instance, Americans with the bodies of people in these fence land communities and communities of color.

And so that has been this extraordinary calibration and normalization of like this fundamentally unjust and sort of racist system of energy production. We cannot let that type of calibration happen for climate too. We need to actually disrupt in all of these different systems, in all of the different ways in which we’re thinking about how we produce and use energy. We need to disrupt these assumptions about what is normal.

Stone: In that vein, and anticipating this forward, you’ve done some research that looks beyond current direct experience with weather related damages that have already taken place, and instead explores how communicating the risk of future damage to people’s homes and communities might motivate them to support climate policy. Here too the finding has been that it’s unclear that this strategy, again of communicating future risk, is effective in driving support for climate policy. Can you talk about those findings?

Mildenberger: Yeah, so I’ve talked about some of the work that I’m doing looking at, well does the actual experiences we have with climate change shape our energy policy preferences, right? How does that shape our interest in adopting EVs or solar panels on a roof, or any of these behaviors that broadly our policy systems are trying to incentivize right now? There’s another tact, and this is a tactic that a number of sort of government agencies and also NGOs have taken, which is, well what if we try and make the future impacts of climate change more salient to people today? Can that cause them to prioritize this issue more?

And this has particularly been a tactic that’s been used in communicating risks associated with sea level rise. So there’s been a number of efforts now to create these interactive online tools that offer people the ability to, say, project sea level rise in their coastal community through 2100, and see where science predicts the new coastline will fall, absent hardening investments/mitigation behaviors. You might have seen, like there’s a Surging Seas Initiative, and Noah has some stuff that sort of exists in this communication space.

And so we’ve run a bunch of experimental work, where we show people sort of these risk maps, tailored for their specific address. And what we find is that actually these communication tools are also having an unexpectedly ambiguous set of effects. So if I’m someone who lives just outside the flood zone, I’m someone who, say, is like 100 meters away from being flooded by 2100, and I receive a map that shows that sort of flood risk to me, it reduces my concern for sea level rise for me personally and for my community, right?

And so one way of thinking about this is that I had some abstract, generic concern about climate change, but then I got this very concrete, specific piece of information, and that made it an individual risk. And I just began thinking about it, like is my basement going to be flooded or not, and that began to dominate my thinking about this issue. I wasn’t appreciating increased commute times, I wasn’t appreciating the risk to my water infrastructure and sewage infrastructure.

And I certainly wasn’t thinking about this risk in a way which would facilitate collective action by giving me a sense of linked fate with my neighbors on this same map that I am seeing are going to be flooded by 2100. Now, people who are right inside the flood zone, who we show maps to, whose basements are actually being flooded, are not elevating their concern seriously either. So —

Stone: Wait, those are people who are already being flooded, or people who see definitively that they be flooded?

Mildenberger: People who see they definitively will be flooded, right? So these risk maps are not alone adequate to catalyze the type of action which we might hope, right? And so we’re left with a situation where this effort to show people and visualize direct experience to people is having a backlash effect, and in particular not having the effect we want. So now the next step in this project is, we thought to ourselves, okay so these individualized risk maps are not offering the type of communication benefits that advocates have hoped.

What if we try and directly communicate systemic risks rather than individual risks, or more precisely, why don’t we communicate to people what their systemic risk exposure is. So not whether their basement floods or not, but how are they are going to be inconvenienced by the really extraordinary anticipated impacts of sea level rise on coastal infrastructure. So we did an experiment in the Bay Area, similarly we were sort of recruiting people into our survey who lived just inside this flood boundary and just outside it, and we used a sort of a fairly high powered traffic model to understand commuting patterns for every census tract in the Bay Area, and then we could project with sea level rise what roadways would be flooded, and then recalculate the average census tract commute time under this new flooded sea level rise scenario.

And we gave that information to our respondents in an experiment. Now what we found is, is that if you discover that your commute time inconvenience is less than the median, in the Bay Area it was an eleven minute median increase in commute time under a 2100 sea level rise scenario, that had the same backlash effect. You became less concerned about sea level rise, and less concerned about it both in your community and personally.

By contrast, people who discover that they were going to be extremely inconvenienced in terms of their commute time by sea level rise, we did see a slightly elevated concern for themselves, but not others, right? So in other words, even the systemic risk communication was having ambiguous effects. And for every positive effect you might sort of squint and see, you can equally make a case that these sorts of tools are undermining our ability to sort of have social solidarity.

And so the take home message here is that it’s not clear to us that the most impactful way to sort of reshape the politics of, say, clean energy, reshape the politics of climate change, reshape public willingness to invest in the type of energy infrastructure that we need, making salient some of these personal effects of climate change and direct experiences with climate change in the future isn’t sort of having the — isn’t the driver of breaking political gridlock that we want it to be. In fact, there’s concerning backlash effects that we even need to think about.

Stone: Interesting. So direct experience with climate impacts doesn’t seem to do it. Okay, understanding future risk doesn’t seem to do it. And even going a step further and looking how it might influence your life or inconvenience your life beyond just pumping out your basement also doesn’t seem to do it. So all these — again, these are sort of commonsense things that we would all think would spur people to action. So I guess coming out of this, what are the recommendations? How should we handle these communications going forward? What is potentially more forceful and constructive?

Mildenberger: Well, I think political scientists have sort of a strong sense of what a better strategy is. And the good news is that I increasingly see this as being the political strategy that advocates and politicians in D.C. are taking, right? So for a very long time, we have been having public debates and dialogues around climate policy that have been very cost-centered, right? We have been talking about short term costs, and we’ve been making those extremely salient. They’ve become sort of the object of political debate, and we’ve backgrounded and not really done a lot of work to bring the benefits of acting into the public domain.

And this has also been the case with the particular types of policies that we’ve chosen to support, right? We’ve not had, for instance, federal climate reforms that have centered the benefits of acting for the average American. The better approach is not to rely on experiences with climate impacts to be some silver bullet that is going to sort of reshape public attitudes. Advocates speak, for instance, about what’s called a standards investment justice approach to energy policymaking, where we articulate a vision for where we want to go.

We might think about President Biden’s commitment to sort of 100% clean energy by 2035. That’s coupled with an enormous amount of investment in communities, in people, to provide the type of forward looking, benefit centered sales pitch to the public around climate policy. And then a focus on justice, because it’s also important that we not normalize all of the inequities that exist in our current energy system.

And that type of standards investment justice approach I think has an enormous amount of political benefits. And to go back to the very first question that we were talking about early in our conversation, we’ve actually been empirically finding that integrating these benefits, integrating, for instance, climate change into a COVID recovery package, or integrating minimum wage policy into a climate package, right? These have increasing returns. These are making everyone happier.

It is increasing the pie in terms of political coalition support. And even when, for instance, there isn’t strong Republican support for some of these energy and climate related issues, it rarely reduces Republican support, right? So if we look at, for instance, all sorts of different clean energy standards, or clean energy investments, sometimes they bring some Republicans along, often the political benefits of including them come from substantially increasing Democratic support for the policy, including amongst historically underrepresented communities, and fence land communities who are sort of suffering many of the worst injustices surrounding our energy system.

But it’s not antagonizing Republicans, right? So we include climate policy in the COVID recovery bill. It makes the COVID recovery bill a lot more popular with Democrats, and it makes it just as popular with Republicans. So we have this real opportunity through sort of this integration to build our political coalition rather than polarizing it further. And I really do think that in looking at the priorities of the Biden administration, the priorities that Majority Leader Schumer has articulated in his sort of strong commitment to ensuring that this policymaking window involves acting on climate and energy in the next several months, I think this is a political win-win.

Where the climate can win, we can see sort of real investments in decarbonization and transforming our energy infrastructure, while protecting people’s health, protecting people’s livelihoods and quality of life. There’s a real opportunity here to sell them on the benefits of action, sell them on the benefits of a clean energy system, the jobs that are going to exist, the improved quality of life, the correction of historic injustices and who is being exposed to pollution. Like, sell them on all of this, not on the fear of a future risk that is unlikely to shift their perceptions and attitudes in the empirical evidence that we’ve examined really carefully to date.

Stone: Matto, thanks very much for talking.

Mildenberger: Yeah, thank you for having me.


Matto Mildenberger

Assistant Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara
Matto Mildenberger is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His work focuses on the political drivers of policy inaction in the face of climate change.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.