Spring 2023 Bulletin

Identifying Barriers to Climate Action

Commission on Accelerating Climate Action
A meteorologist reviews the weather in Washington D.C., varied soil color shows the loss of water from Lake Mead, and a construction worker holds a tool to the base of a wind turbine.
Left: Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images. Middle: Photo by United States Bureau of Reclamation, Christopher Clark. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license. Right: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images.

By Kelsey Schuch, Hellman Fellow for Science and Technology Policy at the Academy

It’s 8 am on a sunny day in Miami, Florida, and the former chair of Shell is discussing mitigation with Indigenous leaders over arepas. Nearby, a reverend and youth activists chat about sea walls as they enjoy their coffee outside in the 70-degree weather. The diversity of these individuals, who are members of the Academy’s Commission on Accelerating Climate Action, speaks not only to the convening power of the Academy, but also to the growing interest in climate from sectors across America.

In January 2023, Commission members gathered in Miami, a community on the frontlines of climate change, to discuss ways in which the United States can accelerate action and policy to mitigate and adapt to climate change. While in Miami, Commission members saw climate change impacts firsthand and met with local advocates committed to protecting their communities.

Four members of the Commission on Accelerating Climate Action sit in a row and watch a presentation during the commission’s meeting in Miami.
Christopher Field, John Paul Mejia, Kealoha Fox, and David G. Victor participate in discussions at the Commission meeting in Miami. Photo by Angel Valentín.

The Commission, chaired by Mustafa Santiago Ali (National Wildlife Federation), Christopher Field (Stanford University), David G. Victor (University of California, San Diego), and Patricia Vincent-Collawn (PNM Resources), aims to answer two key questions: 1) How can the United States accelerate climate mitigation and adaptation strategies for all Americans regardless of race and socioeconomic background? 2) What policies would most effectively and equitably remove barriers to climate action?

To answer these questions, the thirty-one members of the Commission laid out a comprehensive plan to understand the barriers preventing whole-of-society climate action. These initial conversations in the fall of 2022 led to the formation of three working groups in key areas: Communication, the Private Sector, and Human and National Security. Following seventy interviews with climate professionals with a broad diversity of expertise and disciplines, the working groups produced white papers and briefs outlining hurdles to climate action.

The Communication working group’s brief and white paper on Proven Principles of Effective Climate Change Communication identify key principles of climate communication and evaluate real-world examples that embody these principles. The publications examine how to communicate climate issues more effectively to the broader public, with emphasis on how media and identity can shift perceptions. Climate messengers that are trusted and relatable can more effectively connect with their audiences. Tailoring aspects of identity to highlight nonscientific personas is critical, particularly for scientists and experts who typically are perceived as elite. For example, broadcast news plays an important role. Trusted local figures like meteorologists and news anchors have demonstrated success when prioritizing and framing climate issues in a locally relevant way. By following the best practices identified by the working group, climate communicators can better reach new audiences and overcome misinformation.

The Private Sector working group’s brief, Barriers to Private Sector Action, investigates factors preventing businesses and companies, whose resources and influence will be essential, from taking climate action. The brief identifies five barriers: profitability, political fragmentation and polarization, limited expertise, underrecognition of investment opportunities, and ineffective corporate structure. With many companies being risk averse, these perceived barriers and costs to taking climate action often obscure the potential benefits. Embedding climate expertise within a company’s workforce connects the benefits of climate-friendly actions to an organization’s broader strategy and can help incorporate these actions into practice.

The Human and National Security working group’s brief and white paper on Climate Change Security Risks and Opportunities focus on how climate change threatens national security, including failing infrastructure, food insecurity, public health problems, and concerns about military and training facilities. These publications explore the interconnectedness of climate factors and how cooperation between different levels of government and affected frontline communities is necessary for planning and decision-making. Case studies focusing on the Colorado River Basin and the Gulf Coast exemplify the complexity and range of issues that must be considered at regional scales when addressing climate risks to human and national security.

All of the publications of the working groups take an important first step in addressing the climate crisis by diagnosing specific barriers to action. They represent a unique and wide-ranging audience that leverages the diversity of the Commission and helps suggest a novel way forward for climate action that will be just, pragmatic, and accountable. With this research, the expertise of the Commission members, and their experiences working together and with climate advocates like those in Miami, the Commission has made considerable progress in thinking about how to overcome these barriers. The final report of the Commission on Accelerating Climate Action, to be released in fall 2023, will take the crucial next step and provide recommendations for overcoming these barriers.

To learn more about the Commission on Accelerating Climate Action, please visit the Academy’s website.