Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks during a press conference at the Mayflower Marina in Plymouth, southwest England, on August 14, 2019, ahead of her journey across the Atlantic to New York, aboard the Malizia II IMOCA class sailing yacht, where she will attend the UN Climate Action Summit next month. - A year after her school strike made her a figurehead for climate activists, Greta Thunberg believes her uncompromising message about global warming is getting through -- even if action remains thin on the ground. The 16-year-old Swede, who sets sail for New York this week to take her message to the United States, has been a target for abuse but sees that as proof she is having an effect. (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP)BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
Climate activists like Greta Thunberg need to open a dialogue with people not easily won over by their arguments © AFP

As climate activist Greta Thunberg sails into New York this week, the concern of those campaigning like her for action against climate change cannot be that their cause lacks publicity. From a series of authoritative scientific reports to the Extinction Rebellion protests in Europe to the extreme weather of the past two months, such issues have been high on the agenda.

That coverage, along with growing evidence of the real impact of global warming, of which the dramatic melting of Greenland’s ice cap is just the most recent example, has led to a range of new policy commitments. Ten European countries have promised to deliver net zero carbon by 2050. In the US, the Green New Deal has shaped the debate among the numerous would-be Democratic presidential candidates

Putting in place detailed policies to support such ambitious commitments will require sustained electoral support. The problem is that in an age of populism the campaign for action on climate change remains dominated by the views of the highly educated minority — the liberal intelligentsia — led by academics, scientists and students. For them, climate change is an existential issue that cuts across conventional ideological lines. 

Such groups, however, no longer hold sway in the political market place. Populism, and in particular resentment against the views and attitudes of traditional elites, has grown. Resistance to climate change policies has become a feature of the populist agenda.

This has happened not just in the US, where President Donald Trump is openly sceptical of climate science, but also in France, where the gilets jaunes movement emerged in response to attempts by President Emmanuel Macron to impose higher fuel taxes. In Australia, hostility to the climate agenda helped swing the election earlier this year. Nigel Farage’s recent attack on Prince Charles for his views on climate issues also fits the pattern. 

For too many people, action on climate change has come to represent an elitist attempt to take away their jobs and to impose new taxes and higher prices on products that are part of their lives — not just fuel but also plastic straws and packaging.

Despite an increased vote in the European Parliament elections in May and their current strength in Germany, the Greens remain only a minor party across the rest of the EU.


Behind this is the distrust of “experts”, resistance to political correctness and a dislike of being lectured by 16 year olds. There is also deep scepticism about some countries’ commitments that promise to create islands of cleanliness while ignoring the challenge of others such as China and India that will be the main polluters of the next several decades. None of this is based on a sophisticated analysis, but then neither were the votes to elect Mr Trump or to take Britain out of the EU.

If Brexit teaches us anything it should be that policies reliant on the support of an elite, neglectful of the views of the wider majority of voters, are unsustainable. 

We are reaching the stage where fundamental change will be necessary to remove the risks of climate change. Decades on from the Kyoto meeting that put climate issues on the international agenda, hydrocarbons still provide 80 per cent of the world’s daily energy needs. Emissions are still increasing. If we are to avoid destructive global climate shifts, the ways we produce and consume energy will have to alter beyond recognition. 

Change on that scale will need the support of the mass of the global population. Ms Thunberg should not waste time in the US talking to the already convinced elites. Much better to open a dialogue with the “deplorables” — as Hillary Clinton described half of Mr Trump’s supporters in the 2016 presidential campaign. Unless their views and votes can be won over, all the campaigning on the climate agenda will be futile.

The writer is an energy commentator for the FT and chair of The Policy Institute at King’s College London

Get alerts on Energy sector when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article