“There is room for a climate-committed right. Bush was one”

The German Elke Weber (1957) holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from Harvard University, and is a professor of Energy and Environment, as well as Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton. Winner of the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in humanities and social sciences from the BBVA Foundation, she is the first psychologist to have participated in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

—Are we tired of talking about climate change?

—We don’t have to talk about the “phenomenon” of climate change anymore. It used to be a scientific theory that would happen in 2030, the effects of which we saw from a distance in countries like Bangladesh, but now it has reached our backyards, both in America and Europe. Nobody needs to be told that climate change exists, and we have pretty much agreed that it is based on human activity, on greenhouse gas emissions. But people don’t really understand what the solutions are. We think the problem is so big and the solutions so small that it is actually insoluble, which makes it daunting. I think that’s where the media, and also scientists and communicators, really have an important role to play. Helping people understand that yes, there are solutions.

—Do you think that part of the scientific discourse has failed?

—It’s a good question with no easy answer. Climate change is a serious problem, and I think the seriousness of the problem needs to be communicated. But it doesn’t help to say “this is the last year we can take action” and then, when that year comes and nothing happens, to say “next year is the last year we can take action.” Which brings us back to the idea that we need to move beyond the discussion of what climate change is and focus on what we can do. There is a deficit of information about effective solutions. We need to hear about projects that have made a difference, so that we can be proud of being part of the solution, rather than feel guilty about being part of the problem.

—Many labels have appeared to identify different currents of climate action: collapsing, techno-optimistic, delayist… Do you think they help the debate?

—I’m not sure labels really help. My message has always been this: we all have a role to play; it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. Our actions can make the world better, whether through personal, collective or political action. I think two simplistic labels that pigeonhole people into specific corners probably don’t help much.

Is it a mistake to believe that the rest of the world does not care about climate change?

—Very serious. Any study I have seen in the last 5-10 years, located in any region of the world, indicates that the vast majority of people want their governments and the private sector to do “something” about climate change, but when you ask how many people in their country or even in their circle of friends feel the same, they say: “At most 30-40%.” However, the real problem is that if you ask politicians what percentage of the population wants them to do something, they also talk about 30%-40% and not the 60% to 80% that the studies indicate.

—Actually, isn’t the problem that it seems too far away?

—When it comes to climate change, the kinds of decisions we make often have very long time horizons. That brings with it a lot of uncertainty, and uncertainty cannot be easily resolved. Not saving enough for our own retirement has some of the same characteristics. You understand that you have to sacrifice now; giving up something now to benefit later. But at least you see the consequences of saving on your pension; the benefits go back to your own future. In the kinds of sacrifices we make with respect to climate action, the consequences may flow back to the well-being of future generations, to people in far-off places; not to you.

Could “eco-anxiety” lead to a generational clash?

—Yes, and it makes rational sense. People of my generation have 20 or 30 years left on this planet. People born now have 80 to 90 years left. We are burdening the next generation with our excessive lifestyles. So, yes, I think there could be a generational clash in the future. To avoid it, we need to understand that anxiety comes from feeling that the problem is big and the solutions are small. That anger is better than fear because it is motivating. When you are angry, you want to change something. When you are depressed, you withdraw into yourself. That is why Greta Thunberg’s anger is valuable.

Is every action valid?

—The protest actions of some youth groups who go and throw red paint at buildings or pictures, who stick them on airport runways or roads, are not helping the cause. If anything, they are turning the older generation against the younger generation. In Germany or Sweden there are some youth groups who express their anger, but turn it into positive actions for change, such as helping older people install solar panels on their balconies or on their roofs. On the other hand, I also think that young people should get involved politically, even start political parties.


—Because important solutions will probably have to come from the top down. We need political, economic and legal solutions.

That the problem lasts longer than our life, is that the problem?

—We can plan for tomorrow, we can plan for next year, but we don’t even plan very well for our own retirement… Let alone what the world will be like in the year 2100. That’s why we have developed institutions. For long-term strategic planning we have the government, right? Well, our governments and officials are failing at their job. They don’t run things by technical analysis, but by public opinion polls. But public opinion is not set in stone; it changes often.

—So you don’t think that restrictive measures (such as carbon taxes) create aversion in people towards climate change?

—They may generate aversion, but if the measure is well studied and is positive in the long term, the public ends up applauding it. Our analyses of various real-life political cases (such as the approval of the first carbon tax in Canada or the Bloomberg administration’s tobacco ban) indicate that, from the announcement of a measure, there is a period of acceptance that lasts 400 days and 600 days. Therefore, this period occurs within the re-election cycle of public officials. So, the moral is that our politicians should not be afraid. Public opinion may not always be with them, but if there is evidence based on rational analysis that the initiative really has positive consequences and increases public welfare, whether for health or environmental issues, they should go ahead and implement it. Because that is what the public wants them to do. Going back to our earlier discussion, 60 to 80% of people want our governments to address climate change.

Is there room for a committed right that works on the climate crisis?

—Yes. 20-25 years ago, Republicans were pushing for public action against the climate crisis in the US. Bush was committed. There are different political philosophies to advocate for climate action for different reasons. Energy independence and economic development of companies based on renewable energy, for example, is something that resonates much more with right-wing ideologies than with left-wing ones. We are not doing things for the environment, we are doing them for ourselves; for our survival on this planet.