The Key to Winning the Climate Debate

Updated: May 7

Perhaps somewhat implausibly, Arnold Schwarzenegger appears to have the answer to tackling the climate emergency. Don’t hype the economic damage, he says, just say we need to “terminate pollution”. The argument: emissions create pollution – and pollution is bad for our health.

Child holding up a sign saying: Save the Planet

It may seem odd to pick the former bodybuilder and actor turned Republican politician as someone with the answer to the most important issue of the 21st century. But Arnie’s focus on pollution as California’s governor, and that of his successor, the Democrat Jerry Brown, means that since 2008, by wide agreement, the Golden State (which has the world's fifth largest economy) has enjoyed the longest economic expansion in its history, while also cutting emissions.

The contrast with other parts of the world – including much of the US, where climate change is discussed in the gloomiest terms, and usually as a massive cost to businesses and households – is stark.

When it comes to debating climate change, the key argument is not “the economy, stupid”, or the decline in biodiversity. The answer is to focus on pollution and its impact on everyone’s health.

To illustrate the point, Ipsos Mori found in a poll of public attitudes, timed to coincide with Earth Day last Friday, that concerns about climate change were beaten into eighth place by “not having enough money”, fears of terrorism and the threat of crime. Top of the list, in a poll covering 31 countries and 23,577 adults aged 16 to 74, was the subject “your health and your family’s health”.

This suggests that if climate action can be linked to wellbeing, the campaign to reduce emissions is on to a winner.

That’s not to say that economics cannot play a role in convincing households that the way we make and sell goods and services needs to change. But if 'health' was put front and centre, perhaps we could radically speed up climate positive solutions.

This approach is somewhat re-enforced by new study in the Science Journal that says that green lifestyles lead to greater happiness. And that this is true for people living in both rich and poor countries, raising the tantalising prospect that people could live better (for both planetary and personal wellbeing) by consuming less.