Environmental activists of Swiss Klimastreik Schweiz movement hold banners, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in front of the opera house on the Sechselaeutenplatz square in Zurich, Switzerland, April 24, 2020.

What history tells us about building climate coalitions

Author Matto Mildenberger examined how politics have shaped decades of climate policy in his new book, "Carbon Captured." He spoke to The World's host Marco Werman for this week's climate solutions segment. 

The World

Massive programs of green public investment would be the most cost-effective way both to revive virus-hit economies and strike a decisive blow against climate change, top US and British economists said in a study published last month. 

With co-authors including Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz from Columbia University and prominent British climate expert Lord Nicholas Stern, the findings are likely to fuel calls for "green recoveries" gathering momentum around the world.

Related: Amsterdam’s coronavirus recovery plan embraces ‘doughnut economics’ for people and the planet

"The COVID-19 crisis could mark a turning point in progress on climate change," the authors wrote, adding that much would depend on policy choices made in the next six months.

With major economies drawing up enormous economic packages to cushion the shock of the coronavirus pandemic, many investors, politicians and businesses see a unique opportunity to drive a shift toward a low-carbon future.

But meaningful action on climate change will take a lot of political will.

Author Matto Mildenberger has examined how politics have shaped decades of climate policy in his new book, "Carbon Captured: How Business and Labor Control Climate Politics."

Related: Mutual aid groups respond to double threat of coronavirus and climate change

Mildenberger is also a professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He spoke to The World's host Marco Werman for this week's climate solutions segment. 

Marco Werman: Why is thinking about the politics of climate so important? What lens does it offer that is missed when we focus on the technical challenges of solving climate change? 

Matto Mildenberger: Collectively, countries around the world are not doing what it's going to take to solve the climate crisis. Too often, we focused on not having the right technologies to solve the problem, or saying those technologies are too expensive, neither of which is really true anymore. We know we need to do it, and it's cheap and profitable to do it. What matters is the politics of climate change now. 

So, you focused on Norway and Australia in your book. Why those two? And what did you learn about what works and what doesn't work when it comes to building political coalitions to address climate change?

In Norway, we have really early action. They really started having a carbon tax, a carbon price, early in the 1990s; whereas, I think Australia is seeing the most political conflict over climate change than basically anywhere in the world. But here's what you do learn, if we think about Norway, we think about Australia, and frankly, if we think about the United States: In all these countries, climate change actually disrupts some of the existing political coalitions that are out there.

We have workers on the left who depend on carbon-intensive jobs, and we also have businesses that depend on carbon pollution. And the same is true on the right when we have more business-friendly parties. A lot of the conflict over climate change actually plays out within the left and within the right. It happens within existing political parties and coalitions.​​​

Here in the US though, it does feel really left and right. I mean, the US has politicized climate change probably more than any other country on Earth. With the world's strongest economic power in that position, isn't that a huge barrier to action? 

A possible upside of the type of polarization we see in the United States is that when the Democrats are in power, there might be more appetite to undertake the type of disruptive climate reforms that are necessary to really solve this problem at the scale that we need to. It's still an open question whether slow and steady, incremental progress that works at the margins is that going to be a better strategy, or might there actually be more opportunity in a polarized political system where, once in a while, the pro-climate actors seize control of power and really try and push forward on this issue.​​​​​​

So, we can talk about whether certain climate policies work from a technical perspective, but for talking solutions to climate change, what type of policies are the most politically successful?

For about 20 years now, carbon pricing has been one of the main tools in the climate policy toolkit. The idea of carbon pricing is that you, in some way, make companies and polluters pay for the costs associated with the harm they're doing by releasing this pollution into the atmosphere. From a political perspective, this is a really, really difficult policy. It makes consumer costs really visible and the benefits of acting — all of the avoided climate catastrophe that's going to happen in the next 10 or 15 years — is totally hidden.

And so, I actually think that there's a lot of sense to foreground benefits and try and pass policies that are more like the Green New Deal that really focus on providing economic opportunities to workers in new industries. That's really going to help generate a coalition that actively wants and desires change. And it's also going to help split apart workers and businesses who have previously been opposed to climate policies by giving workers in fossil fuel industries new opportunities that will sort of bring them into a pro-climate coalition.

So, what gives you hope for the future when it comes to political solutions to climate change?

If we look at the extraordinary response that's happened right now to the coronavirus pandemic, it's helpful to think that the world can come together and sort of take the type of action they're taking on COVID-19 right now, but applying it to the next big looming crisis. Go back a couple of months to the Democratic primary — presidential candidates who were proposing a $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion climate plan over 10 years were dismissed as fanciful.

And we've spent more than that in a couple of weeks under the CARES Act. I think that type of effort and renewed political response to crisis is happening all around the world. And if we can redirect some of those energies to the climate crisis, I think that we have a fighting chance over the 2020s to bring this problem under control.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Reuters contributed to this report. 

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