Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.

(John Lewis, The late American Congressman and Civil Rights Leader)

World leaders are not feeling enough pressure to take bold action against climate change. They should. They should feel intense moral pressure. They should feel pressure because they are best positioned to prevent a catastrophic future for all humanity. They should be under intense and unrelenting pressure from the people who will have to survive in that future.

If they had felt enough pressure, they would have prevented the climate crisis long ago. Now researchers think they know why leaders haven't acted boldly enough. I'll explain, but first, let's review the history of inaction.

It has been 30 years since world leaders agreed to do something about global warming. The science was still relatively young, but it knew enough. Pollution from burning fossil fuels lingered in the atmosphere like a blanket around the Earth, trapping the sun's heat. That was causing the Earth's surface to warm, and the higher temperatures were changing the planet's climate. The consequences would be devastating.

Twenty-three years passed before diplomats finally agreed on a goal and a process. Meeting in Paris in 2015, they resolved to hold global warming well below 2 °C, or less than 1.5 °C if possible, compared to preindustrial temperatures. The world economy would have to become carbon neutral by 2050. In other words, the international community could put no more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than nature and technology could remove.

To get there, each of the world's nearly 200 countries agreed to come up with plans to dramatically reduce fossil-fuel pollution. But to protect their sovereignty, nations would consent only to voluntary measures. Their plans would not be legally binding, and there would be no penalties for failing to achieve them.

Seven more years have passed since Paris, and the process isn't working well. Coal, oil and natural gas still provide 80% of civilization's energy. Greenhouse gases choke the atmosphere. The safe concentration of these gases is 350 parts per million (ppm). It's now above 412 ppm and rising.

The Earth's surface has already warmed about 1.1 °C with no sign of slowing down. The years from 2013 to 2021 were the hottest on record. Ocean water is expanding as it warms, causing sea levels to rise. Combined with water from melting glaciers, rising seas already threaten the existence of at least 39 low-lying island nations, including the Maldives, Bahamas, Belize, Cuba, Fiji, the Dominican Republic, and Singapore. Scientists predict 340 million people will experience annual floods by mid-century, rising to 630 million within the lifetimes of today's babies.

The world's 20 most industrialized nations (the G-20) agreed in 2009 to phase out government subsidies of fossil fuels. They've had nearly 13 years to do it, but they haven't. Direct and indirect subsidies amounted to almost $6 trillion in 2020, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF expects subsidies to rise even more, to 7.4% of global GDP in 2025.

The money nations spent on economic stimulus during the pandemic could have given a major boost to carbon-free energy. Instead, more than $230 billion went to fossil fuels while only $150 billion to clean energy.

That is our precarious situation today: We have nearly all the technologies we need to make the global shift to clean energy, but nations lack the political will.

Weak social drivers

Now, researchers from several disciplines at Universitat Hamburg (UH) think they know why. The problem is weak "social drivers." Although our technologies make it possible to achieve deep decarbonization by 2050, weak drivers make it implausible. What's necessary is a "radical boost" in 10 specific drivers.

Political activism and "grassroots mobilization" are at the top of the list. Not that there have been none. Large public demonstrations have taken place around the world to demand climate action. Protests rocked 4,500 locations in 150 countries on September 20, 2019. A second wave of protests drew more than 2 million people in 2,400 events a week later. More than 300,000 protestors marched in New York City in 2014.

Swedish student Greta Thunberg launched "Fridays for the Future" in August 2018. Millions of school children around the world responded by skipping classes on Fridays to demand that political leaders take action. Organizers claimed 250,000 demonstrators packed the streets around New York's City Hall for a "climate strike" in 2019. But by the end of the year, Ms. Thunberg concluded the strikes had "achieved nothing."


National leaders meet yearly to discuss climate action. Some 100,000 protestors marched at the 26th of these Conferences of the Parties, known as COP26, in Glasgow last November. Thunberg bluntly dismissed the talks as blather. "Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah," she said. "This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises."

The Hamburg researchers acknowledged Covid subdued climate protests. They noted pubic protests were gaining momentum before the pandemic began, but the coronavirus created political, social, and economic constraints on activism. "It is plausible that the momentum will return to pre-pandemic levels soon, but it is also plausible that the pandemic will hamper activism dynamics for a long time to come," they concluded.

Protests come, protests go

However, history shows most protests make some noise, grab some headlines, and go away. The "Occupy Wall Street" movement in late 2011 and early 2012 was an example. Protestors created encampments in 122 U.S. cities around the world; 8,000 participants were arrested in the United States alone. But they eventually packed up their tents and went home. Whatever work happened after the camp-outs was not visible. None of the Wall Street Bankers who brought the global economy to the brink of collapse in 2007 was prosecuted.

In contrast, the civil rights movement during the 1960s and the simultaneous Vietnam War protests in the United States were relentless and aggressive. Their objectives were crystal clear. Anti-war protests began in 1964 and continued until 1973. They included nationwide teach-ins and sit-ins, massive demonstrations, civil disobedience, and strikes on hundreds of university campuses. Famous musicians wrote songs that became antiwar anthems, keeping the spirit of the movement alive. Families saw soldiers in brutal combat and watched the coffins arrive night after night on TV. Stopping the war became a moral crusade. It eventually succeeded.

The civil rights movement burst into painful public view in the 1950s and 1960s. It, too, was a moral crusade, with Black and white protestors beaten, bloodied, and attacked by dogs on national television. The movement has never ended because racism hasn't.

Power struggle

The other social factors identified by Universitat Hamburg are climate-related regulation, international cooperation, the United Nations' ability to create "climate governance," legal action against governments and corporations, corporate responses, divestment in fossil fuels, consumer consumption patterns, the dissemination of accurate knowledge, and journalism's role in separating fact from fiction about climate change.

Like movements in the past, the urgent need to retire fossil fuels is a battle between wealthy and entrenched vested interests who keep profiting from business as usual, and the "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" available to our children in the years ahead. The masses must convince government leaders that voters are a greater threat to their jobs than fossil energy companies.

Fossil energy companies need to know they will lose this battle and their "social license to operate" unless they take part in the shift to a clean energy economy. Utilities must feel relentless pressure from policymakers, regulators, shareholders, and customers to replace coal and natural gas with solar, wind, and other renewable power technologies.

Boosting other drivers

What else can people do to "radically boost" social drivers? Most tactics are obvious and time-worn but must be intensified.

  • Donate time and/or money to organizations on the front lines of climate activism.
  • Elect younger people to local, state, or national public offices. In the United States, the average member of Congress is over age 60; the median age of delegates at COP16 was over 60. Senior citizens in public offices won't have to live with the decisions they make or don't make. Young people should have a much stronger voice in determining their futures. Several "boot camps" are available in the U.S. to train people to campaign for public office.
  • Testify consistently at relevant public hearings by government organizations—legislatures, regulators, city councils, and so on.
  • Work on the election campaigns of candidates dedicated to climate action and against politicians who still deny global warming and/or support fossil fuels.
  • Join the divest/invest movement. Pull your money from the fossil energy sector and invest it in clean energy. Push major investors like pension funds, banks, and university endowments to do the same. An organization called DivestInvest reported in 2021 that 1,485 organizations and 58,000 individuals with combined assets of nearly $40 trillion had divested from fossil fuels. "Mazaska Talks," a coalition of indigenous people in America, campaigns to shut down bank branches that invest in fossil fuels. It persuades community groups and churches to change their investments and lobbies cities to pass socially responsible banking ordinances. Some individuals and organizations decline to divest, saying they can have more impact as shareholders in energy companies, and shareholder pressure seems to be having results. Two of the biggest oil companies, ExxonMobil and Chevron, experienced shareholder rebellions last year because they hadn't established low-carbon strategies for the future.
  • File, join or support lawsuits against governments and fossil energy companies whose policies and business models result in carbon pollution and damage from climate impacts. The United Nations reports at least 1,550 climate-related lawsuits were underway in 38 countries and the European Union at the end of 2020, nearly double the number three years earlier. Climate litigation was most common in high-income countries, but cases were also underway in Colombia, India, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, and South Africa. "Citizens are increasingly turning to courts to access justice and exercise their right to a healthy environment," one UN official observed.
  • Support local action. Individual citizens typically have more opportunities to influence state and local energy policies than those at national and international levels. Thirty states, Washington, D.C., and two U.S. territories have established "Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards" (RPSs) that set minimum requirements for utilities to generate electricity with renewable resources. Most of the rapid growth in solar and wind energy in America is attributed to these policies. Communities can pass energy-efficiency and renewable energy building codes, employ sustainable urban designs and traffic patterns, use urban forestry to mitigate heat waves, put solar energy on municipal buildings, purchase only low-carbon products, and so on.
  • Promises are not progress. If you are in a position to influence climate negotiators, tell them that time is short and seven years are enough to test the efficacy of promises that are neither enforceable nor legally binding. At minimum, nations should be required to submit not only aspirational goals, but also detailed plans, timelines, and internal enforcement mechanisms to achieve them. Countries that underperform should be sanctioned, possibly with tariffs on their exports.

I led this essay with a quote from the late American civil rights leader John Lewis, who bore more than his fair share of scars from the civil rights marches of the '60s. It was he who talked about the need for people to get on the right side of history by making "good trouble." If we don't, we will get the future we deserve.