Climate action is about creating a new normality

This interview by Hanne May is featured in The Beam #11 – Power in People. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


Dena’s Chief Executive Andreas Kuhlmann talks to Professor Jutta Allmendinger, PhD, President of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center: To what extent is society willing to deal with the transformation required by the energy transition and climate action? And who plays which role in this change process?

The location for our discussion about climate change and society is both historically relevant and highly topical: Berlin’s natural history museum (Museum für Naturkunde) regularly plays host to the Fridays for Future activists, who come here to talk with scientists and other experts. The movement’s demands starkly contrast with what German policy – such as the climate action package that the government presented in September 2019 – claims to be able to actually implement.


What is the best way to deal with this situation?

Jutta Allmendinger: Firstly, I’d like to challenge that basic premise, since it was politicians who committed themselves to the climate targets for 2020 and 2050. We won’t achieve the 2020 climate target because policy has failed. Fridays for Future are therefore merely demanding what politicians themselves decided.

Andreas Kuhlmann: But it’s still an odd situation. One side is urgently and persistently calling for things to be done that politicians have already promised and signed up to. On the other side, we have politicians who, given the size of the problem, can appear quite helpless at times. The result is deep socio-political polarisation over a very fundamental issue. How can we resolve this?

JA: Everyone agrees that something needs to be done. Even the goals are largely similar. This is what makes climate action different to many other social movements. The decisive issue is the speed of the implementation, and opinions are deeply divided about what politicians must do and what can be asked of the public.

Politicians argue that they are responsible for social balance and must convince all segments of society. Do you share this view?

AK: I think that society’s willingness to change is greater than political decision makers think. Fridays for Future and other movements have significantly improved the foundations for acceptance of political decisions. We need to harness this momentum and boldly move things forward.

JA: Of course politicians must ensure social balance and make the case for this important project. In this sense, Fridays for Future is the best thing that could have happened to them. The movement calls for widespread participation and explains what it’s about in plain language. It excites people and makes it absolutely clear that we must finally do something. I’m therefore extremely thankful for this unexpected movement.

Professor Allmendinger, one of the questions that you and your institute examine concerns the changes that society or particular segments of society are willing to make. In your latest Legacy Study, the respondents assume that their social circumstances won’t change much in the next ten years. How does this fit with the willingness to change that is needed if society is to become climate neutral?

JA: Our studies show that people no longer aspire to climb the social ladder. This makes them different from their parents and grandparents. One could see this as an expression of dissatisfaction, as a perceived lack of opportunities. But when asked about their personal circumstances, most respondents say they are satisfied. Politicians can start from here. They must set goals and lead the way to achieving them. It has to be about enabling people to organise their lives differently. This isn’t happening at the moment. Too many people are living in educational poverty, and many don’t earn enough to live on. If we are to confront climate change and empower people to change, we have to give them more security.

AK: These people are also unhappy with the state of society itself. To me, this seems entirely unrelated to the transformation that would occur through processes such as achieving the climate targets.



And how do we reach a point where behaviours can change as quickly as possible and in all segments of society?

JA: Firstly, even if we all change our behaviour, that still won’t be enough. The entire infrastructure has to be rearranged, manufacturing as a whole, and all trade relations. That’s an enormous task for politicians. To come back to your question, of course politicians must also set standards that change behaviours. Let’s look at a controversial but necessary political measure: the smoking ban in bars and restaurants. The scientific findings were conclusive, there was a political debate and then a decisive implementation. There was an outcry at first, but now people barely mention the ban. Scientists must present their findings to the public, and civil society can support politicians in making these types of reform. The media must also report transparently and make their sources very clear.

AK: More and more people are starting to see that there is clearly a fundamental problem. There is a growing certainty that we have reached a limit in the way we run our economies, use nature and consume resources. In our daily lives, though, we find it hard to make the right decisions because we don’t know, for instance, if a given product’s environmental performance is good or not. That’s also why it’s so important to have an economic framework that promotes climate-friendly technology and products, and makes others more expensive.

JA: Behavioural economics shows that rewards and incentives are more effective than bans. We call this “nudging”. The environmental footprint should be clearly visible on all products, and pricing must be proportional to the size of the footprint.

How can we get to grips with topics that are harder to manage, such as refraining from flying or avoiding transportation per se? 

AK: I don’t think it’s right to leave people on their own to deal with these extremely complicated issues. The role of each individual is certainly very important. But it is the politicians elected by the people who must establish the right framework, using analyses, facts and good judgement.

JA: I agree. At the moment, individuals are being asked to do many things that are actually the responsibility of politicians. People’s behaviour alone won’t sort out climate change. And their behaviour in itself depends heavily on the political and social context.

AK: That’s true, but I’d also say that the problem lies in the implementation. Personally, I believe that extreme measures are needed to achieve the Paris climate goals. The transport sector needs to change immensely.

JA: Yes, of course. And failure to achieve the goals definitely won’t be caused by people being stubborn and saying, “There’s no way I’m doing that!” I don’t think we are making full use of the potential that lies in what we can ask of the public.

AK: I agree. It bothers me that people keep saying we need to be more radical. The goal itself is radical enough. What’s missing is consistency in the efforts to achieve it – and boldness and creativity in designing the best possible ways of getting there.



Consistency in climate policy and climate action has to last for a very long time. How can we make this long journey, and what will be our shared vision? 

JA: It’s basically about creating a new normality. I think that people are willing to leave the destructive path that we are currently on.

AK: The desire to live in harmony with the planet’s limits, nature’s limits and the limits of the resources that we have available is growing. We failed to do this in the past because we were using measures and objectives that could not show how our normality is exceeding limits and, far from being normal or rational, is therefore causing immense damage. Above all, many people today see the economy and the environment as being incompatible. This has to be our starting point for finding a new normality that is reconcilable with the limits I just mentioned.

JA: I also agree on this point. The economy and the environment shouldn’t be played off against each other. We have a goal and not much time to achieve it.

AK: I do find some arguments against growth peculiar, though. Instead of helping with the search we’ve outlined, they wrongly pin every problem on a single factor. Nevertheless, it’s clear that we’ve spent far too long living in a way that sees nature as just an economic variable. What we should be doing is designing our economies so that, overall, they benefit nature, to which humans also belong.

JA: Behavioural economics is a major research focus at the WZB. Our experiments show that morals often triumph over the market. In one, participants were asked to throw chickpeas into a bowl. A lot of the chickpeas landed on the floor. The question was: Who’s going to clean up the mess? Interestingly, most of the participants wanted to clean it up themselves – even though they had been told that a special team would perform the task. Morals were more important to the participants than the market arrangement.

AK: People very obviously act according to a broader set of motivations than those that are generally covered by the primarily utility-maximising homo economicus. As well as pursuing their own utility, people are also guided by questions of fairness and consider a variety of social relationships. Our everyday lives are dominated, sometimes at a subconscious level,  by social needs. If we try to describe the economy with mathematical models, it is often difficult to include these complex motivations and orientations, which results in them being ignored.

JA: Perhaps that’s actually the problem – that they’re just mathematical models.

AK: Yes, something’s taken on a life of its own there. Ultimately, the economic models almost always assume that nature…

JA: … is our slave.

AK: That’s mainly because this dimension of social needs is not so easy to grasp; you can’t easily quantify and communicate it.

JA: But wouldn’t you say that people today have a much clearer view than they did ten years ago of how much the frameworks of their lives have changed?

AK: That’s the hope. Now we have to make something of it.



Jutta Allmendinger has been President of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center since 2007 and is Professor of Educational Sociology and Labor Market Research at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. She has received numerous awards for her work on social policy.

Physicist Andreas Kuhlmann has been dena’s Chief Executive since 2015. He believes that frameworks which promote an openness to all types of technology and create an innovation-friendly market environment are the key to an integrated energy transition and effective climate action.