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The big climate-change disconnect

Illustration of a see saw with frustrated emoji on one side and a money emoji on the other
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

More people around the world say they’re worried about climate change — but that concern is not translating into a willingness to pay more for energy or vote for candidates supporting aggressive action on the issue.

Driving the news: At least 3 recent developments show this stark disconnect: In Australia, Washington state and France.

  • Australians voted against politicians campaigning on addressing climate change in their national elections last weekend. This is despite polling showing desire for immediate action at 61%, a near record high and close to where it was a decade ago.
  • In the 2018 midterm elections, Washington state voters rejected — for the second time — a proposal to price carbon emissions. Washington is one of America’s most liberal states and polling shows a record-high 45% of Americans say climate change is a serious problem and supports immediate action.
  • Protests in Paris over high gasoline and diesel costs compelled the French government to scrap increases that were part of its climate agenda. This is despite 83% of the French population saying climate change is a threat to their country, up from 54% in 2013.

My thought bubble: Expressed concern doesn’t necessarily equate to action. Just ask someone worried about eating right and exercising enough — but who doesn’t actually make it to the gym or opt for salad over fries.

  • The magnitude of these problems are different, but the basic issues — prioritizing short-term preference for certain things over long-term improvement of other things — are the same.

What we’re hearing: “Instinct and adrenaline have been propelling humanity through acute danger for millennia, but we tend to normalize and ultimately ignore chronic danger,” says Kevin Book, managing director of the nonpartisan research firm ClearView Energy Partners.

  • Be smart: That’s climate change — and your diet and exercise regime!

But, but, but: Exceptions exist to this rule, just like there are a minority of people who exercise regularly and eat healthy.

  • Australia’s former prime minister Tony Abbott, who doesn’t acknowledge the scientific consensus on climate change, lost his race in a wealthy Sydney suburb where people did appear to vote their concern about climate change.
  • Some U.S. state legislatures are addressing the issue, such as Washington that recently passed a clean-electricity bill after its carbon tax proposal failed.
  • California is one of the few economies in the world tackling the climate impacts of a broad swath of its economy.

What we’re watching: Whether this disconnect just needs more time to, well, connect, as warming’s impacts worsen and the cost of addressing the problem drops more as clean-energy technologies become ever more affordable.

What’s next: To what extent this year’s reelection campaign of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is shaped by that nation’s debate about climate change and its newly installed carbon tax.