Pay Now, Pay Later: The Political Dilemma of "Sequencing" Action on Climate Change

This Argument appears in vol. 75, no. 1, "Insecurities: The 75th Anniversary Issue, 1947-2022" (Fall/Winter 2022).

By Jesse Young

In the minds of many liberal reformers, the summer of 1965 was to be one of renewed hope for Black America. Lyndon Johnson, bolstered by landslide congressional majorities from the 1964 election, enacted the most sweeping program of civil rights legislation in the history of the country. The Supreme Court, led by Earl Warren and now with Johnson’s former legal Svengali Abe Fortas on the bench, confidently affirmed Congress’ broad expansion of civil rights protections in decisions like South Carolina v. Katzenbach. After more than a century of unkept promises, Black Americans finally had a federal government more committed to the promotion of their liberties.

And still, America’s cities burned.

The rioting and fires that paralyzed the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in August 1965 were not the first such events of the 1960s, but they were some of the most shocking for many White Americans. Accelerating throughout the rest of the decade and peaking in 1968, rioting, fires, and civil unrest wracked African American neighborhoods all across the country.[1] While many reactionary commentators blamed ill-defined “black anger” as the source of the destruction, we now recognize that it was the fury of unmet expectations that helped set the torch to many cities. “Legislative successes at the federal level with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were not reflected in the daily lives of African-Americans facing police misconduct, economic inequality, segregated housing, and inferior educations,” noted William S. Pretzer, a senior curator for history at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.[2] Despite major civil rights legislation being written “into the books of law,” most Black Americans led lives that were largely unchanged.[3] By 1965, their horizons appeared no brighter than they had been in 1955, or in 1945. That vast gulf between the triumphal rhetoric of federal civil rights legislation and the unaltered indignities of daily life could be measured in burning buildings.

Big change often takes time. The history of the United States is replete with testaments to the fact that foundational reforms sometimes move at a glacial pace. To rephrase Dr. King: while the arc of history may eventually bend towards justice, it is still long. The civil rights movement claimed great legislative and judicial victories in the 1960s that took decades to bear real fruit—and many of their goals remain elusive even today.

Looking back at history, 1965 offers a possible lesson for 2023. As we tackle climate change, a global existential threat of our own making, we need to shed our illusions about what is needed to fix it. When it comes to structural change, there is a time lag between crafting solutions and actually feeling their impact. Nowhere is this more acute than with climate policy, where the full benefits that come with action may not be felt for decades.

Climate change presents the greatest social and economic challenge that the world has ever faced. The long-settled science behind global warming has demonstrated—with ever-increasing detail—the myriad ways in which man-made pollution threatens our lives and livelihoods.[4] We also know the policy measures needed to meet the challenge, and the vast measure of political will required to translate them into reality.

I’ve spent my career in government and civil society working in and around this complex problem, attempting to translate the moral urgency of climate change into real action. In that time, I have grown concerned that members of the climate community are failing to adequately grapple with an under-appreciated facet of the climate challenge: doing the right thing today will still take decades to bear its fullest and most tangible results. When it comes to climate policy, there is no instant gratification.

Massive and overwhelming measures need to be taken now to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change impacts. However, even if the world managed to miraculously reduce global carbon emissions to zero starting today, our planet would still suffer decades’ worth of irreversible consequences. This is because carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere, continuing to exist there long after it has left the smokestack or tailpipe, trapping and amplifying heat on a planetary scale.[5] While it’s true that other greenhouse gasses remain in the atmosphere for shorter timespans, much of planetary warming is now simply baked into the system. Even under so-called “negative emissions” scenarios, whereby we actively remove carbon pollution from the atmosphere, a measure of atmospheric warming is probably here to stay.

This suggests that we confront a substantial sequencing problem when it comes to enacting meaningful climate change policies. Having taken all the hard but necessary steps to halt carbon pollution, much of the world will still be saddled with climate change’s impacts for decades to come. 

Recall the opening analogy to the civil rights movement: if the historic steps taken to solve the problem don’t appear to have any palpable near-term impact, it can undermine their credibility. Sequencing matters in public policy—namely, the order by which we deliver the benefits of social change, and the cause-and-effect arguments we use to justify them. Sequencing of this kind just doesn’t work with our planetary climate system.

Heatwaves will leave parts of the world uninhabitable. Coastal regions will be inundated by rising sea levels, forcing communities and even entire countries to relocate. Food systems will collapse due to lack of rain. Even if the world is successful in meeting the ambitious goal of limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, science tells us that our new and warmer world will be a permanently less-hospitable planet. I say this not to engage in pessimism or defeatism, but only to point out that addressing this grave problem now does not spare us altogether from its consequences.

This presents a quandary for decisionmakers and political leaders. How do you sell the public on a solution to a problem, when that problem will appear to get worse long before it gets better? The cost of mitigating climate change is vastly smaller than the price of coping with its impacts after the fact, especially if and when we’ve lost any and all chance to control its spiraling consequences.[6] Unfortunately, rescuing the public from some averted future horror rarely wins elections. Counterfactuals don’t move minds or hearts. While the transition to more socially-equitable, low-carbon economies promises to pay profound dividends in both health and wealth, it will not alter the base reality that the planet’s atmosphere is a big ship: it takes time to turn, much less to reverse course. Our climate will grow hotter and more volatile for decades, even under the most optimistic of scenarios.

Part of the job description for successful reformers is linking desired reforms to past efforts along similar lines, as if to say, “We’ve done this before, and it wasn’t so bad.” Herein lies yet another challenge for climate action: our relevant precedents are all misleading. We cannot point to any prior instances that neatly approximate the scale and scope of the needed change. Past environmental policy victories, whether it be the fight to stop acid rain or the global effort to protect the ozone layer, are dwarfed in complexity by the climate challenge.[7] Climate change is different from other problems confronting the world because it subsumes and exacerbates almost every other social and economic ill. Writers more eloquent than myself have noted how climate change preys on people’s weaknesses with its intangible and diffuse nature.

Positive, can-do visions for change tend to move people more than doomsday predictions of impending calamity. This has long stymied messaging about climate action, as the prospect of environmental ruination is so grimly overwhelming that many advocates and experts can’t help but dwell on it. Climate change deeply alarms many people, but those anxieties need to be harnessed to drive action and not encourage feelings of passivity and helplessness.[8] Resistance to climate change-inspired fatalism is more important than ever.[9]

We know that presenting plans for big, bold policies to tackle climate change won’t be politically sellable unless they uplift and promise hope. Building a cleaner economy has tangible growth and job benefits.[10] Hence the proven popularity of promoting renewable energy across party lines. Row after row of shiny, futuristic-looking solar panels are an easy-to-grasp manifestation of the promised “clean energy future” that people like me want to promote. It’s tougher to apply the same optimistic gloss to the construction of seawalls and storm surge barriers, the gradual relocation of storm-prone coastal communities, or ramped-up asthma prevention efforts in cities suffering from poor air quality. Nonetheless, both these solution sets are essential to the policies needed to grapple with climate change. We can’t pick and choose among them—we have to do them all.

Too many climate advocates begin and end their arguments with the moral case for climate action. In our zeal to make the most forceful and emotionally-charged case, we sometimes skip persuasion altogether. The need for climate action is not self-evident. It is complex and opaque— especially for people more often concerned with inflation, health care, and education. And that’s where we will win or lose this fight. Equally important is the fact that for many Americans, “climate change” is now a signifier of tribal political identity.[11] Liberals, urbanites, and “coastal elites” are those doing all the hand-wringing about climate, some believe. But climate isn’t yoga or organic produce. It is a sobering reality, and one that is already impacting all the other issues that capture public attention.

What are we to do? I argue for three broad mandates.

First, we should not be shy about discussing climate impacts or sugarcoat them in an effort to project blind, Pollyannaish optimism. We have to be honest with the public. This is challenging, especially when most political systems reward short-term thinking driven by the next electoral cycle. Addressing climate change will take patient, decades-long policies that promise greater prosperity—but it will also carry real costs. That fact can’t and shouldn’t be avoided. Zealous opponents of climate action have left many in the climate movement with a kind of political advocacy PTSD: we’re loath to make any arguments that suggest any hint of future sacrifice or difficulty in breaking with our attachment to fossil fuels. Hence the myriad climate proposals that affix the “green” label to past government-led triumphs like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan. Instead, we should be honest that this fight is a marathon and not a sprint. Taking action now to protect future generations means thinking on a generational timescale. There are real, valuable gains to be made in the near-term, but the ultimate benefits can only be reaped in the coming years.

Second, we always need to return to the science and the credibility it affords us. It is the issue on which opponents of climate action are at their weakest. It’s also a tall order, given that the COVID-19 pandemic pushed science and public health to the frontlines of American partisan and cultural warfare. Using science to bolster one’s agenda has become a fraught endeavor in our present politics.

We should also confront the immorality of the head-in-the-sand crowd for who they are: defeatists. They don’t want to argue the science because they know that’s a losing proposition. For these anti-science revanchists, it is safer territory to demonize the costs of fighting climate change. After all, action on climate is future-oriented. Most electorates favor forward-looking candidates and policies. Meanwhile, the people standing in the way want us to cling to a range of energy technologies originating in the 19th and early 20th centuries—namely, lighting coal, gas, and oil on fire. As the old saying goes: if the facts and the law aren’t on your side, pound the table and yell like hell. At present, there is no shortage of yelling and table-pounding from people opposed to climate action. And their agenda makes no sense: they’re arguing for the equivalent of dial-up internet when the world is using fiber-optic, making the case for rotary telephones when everyone now has smartphones.

Of course, a basis in science is not the sum total of effective argumentation. While keeping manmade carbon emissions below the warming threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius is important, it is also a goal that is hard to understand. Most people don’t know or care about global temperature limits in the abstract. Talking loudly about science doesn’t make it intelligible for the public—we need to be far better about contextualizing and shaping that information in a way that feels urgent, relevant, and empowering.

Third, confronting climate change can’t be argued on the basis of climate change alone. We need fact-based arguments that amply demonstrate there’s no greater threat to the other values about which we care—livelihoods, health, and the economy—than climate change. In addition to being compelling, it has the added advantage of being true.

This underscores the broader need to frame this problem as one that is not solely focused on climate change itself. After all, electorates are not always moved by climate change in isolation. There is not yet a single-issue voting plurality in many countries when it comes to climate—although it remains a paramount issue of concern for left-leaning and moderate voters alike.[12] That’s understandable: we know that much of the country will remain more concerned with healthcare, job creation, and other more immediately salient voting issues.

Instead, we need to present climate action as a workable solution set for those same bread-and-butter voting issues. How can we harness action on climate to make people safer and healthier and make the economy fairer and more robust? After all, climate change threatens large swaths of the U.S. public and their livelihoods. Many won’t respond to arguments making the case on climate action for climate’s sake. Rather, they need to be sold on the subsidiary benefits that will address the climate-driven threats to their lived, daily experiences. Leading health researchers are telling us that one of the chief impacts of a warming world is increased rates of heart failure and that declining air quality is directly linked to strokes, heart disease, and lung cancer.[13] Want to make people healthier and wealthier? Fight climate change. And do it now.

Brighter minds in the climate community have already grasped this notion, and I’ve had a front-row seat for this evolution in the environmental movement. In roles in the U.S. Senate, the State Department, and the nonprofit sector, I contributed to the case for the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. That pact was a landmark accomplishment and a true triumph after more than twenty years of near-misses in landing a global deal on climate change.

However, we failed to adequately explain and sell the public on the value and virtue of the pact, one that finally committed developing economies like China and India to real climate action over time. In the U.S., the Paris Agreement was a topic of elite concern and public disinterest. Again, we assumed that the value of a strong global agreement on climate change was self-evident. But it wasn’t. That made it easy pickings when President Donald Trump took office in 2017 and swiftly moved to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement, doing his best to handicap global climate efforts in the process.

None of this is easy. Translating climate impacts into winning voting issues is often case-specific and highly-variable, depending on the voting population in question. Here in the U.S., that task should now be less difficult with the passage of dramatic federal climate legislation in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act. There is now real-world progress to showcase, in a way that wasn’t always possible recently during the long years of federal inaction. Selling action on climate to the public doesn’t mean managing despair. But it does require an adult conversation about costs and impacts that our political system is ill-equipped to handle. We only make that process harder when we fail to acknowledge that tackling climate must be a sustained, generational effort. No one law at any level of government will get us over the line, and the day-to-day lived impacts of climate change will continue to reshape our lives in unpredictable ways. As we learn to live with the new normal of a warmer world, we can’t lose sight of the fact that a better and more climate-safe world is still possible.[14]

When it came to the civil rights victories of the mid-1960s, progressive campaigners of that era learned a similar set of lessons. Namely, that federal legislative victories are only one element of success; that the buy-in and consent of affected communities are indispensable; and that contending with organized “backlash” political movements—manifested in the form of the 1966 and 1968 elections—can be just as consequential to the project’s long-term sustainability. We face a vastly different problem when it comes to tackling climate change, but some of the echoes across the decades are nonetheless instructive.

Winning the battle for public hearts and minds on climate—both at home and abroad—now has more energy, enthusiasm, and campaigning know-how behind it than at any point in a generation. As this movement matures and absorbs the many hard-won lessons of its recent past, I hope we can also be honest about the real, thorny problems it will pose for everyone. Just as the urgency has never been greater, so has the importance of leveling with the voting public about the strides needed to achieve a more livable planet. It’s often hard to look past the present partisan climate wars here in the U.S. and all the tactical compromises that it sometimes requires. The climate fight is here with us to stay, and that means we need to do a better job of explaining—and sequencing—the work ahead.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.

[1] William J. Collins and Robert A. Margo, “The Economic Aftermath of the 1960s Riots in American Cities: Evidence from Property Values,” The Journal of Economic History 67, no. 4 (2007): 849-883.

[2] Alice George, “The 1968 Kerner Commission Got It Right, But Nobody Listened,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 1, 2018,

[3] Lyndon B. Johnson, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress, November 27, 1963,” National Archives, October 10, 2020,

[4] Raymond Zhong, “5 Takeaways From the U.N. Report on Limiting Global Warming,” The New York Times, April 4, 2022,

[5] Alan Buis, “The Atmosphere: Earth’s Security Blanket,” NASA Global Climate Change, October 19, 2019,,timescale%20of%20many%20 human%20lives.

[6] Andrew Freedman, “New report highlights the steep costs of climate inaction,” Axios, May 23, 2022,

[7] “Acid Rain Program,” U.S. EPA, June 24, 2022,; Justin Gillis, “The Montreal Protocol, a Little Treaty That Could,” The New York Times, December 9, 2013,

[8] Stephanie Collier, “If climate change keeps you up at night, here’s how to cope,” Harvard Health Publishing, June 13, 2022,

[9] Cara Buckley, “‘OK Doomer’ and the Climate Advocates Who Say It’s Not Too Late,” The New York Times, March 22, 2022, referringSource=articleShare/.

[10] “DOE Report Finds Energy Jobs Grew Faster Than Overall U.S. Employment in 2021,” U.S. Department of Energy, June 28, 2022,

[11] Holly Fuong and Geoffrey Skelley, “Do Democrats And Republicans Agree On Anything About Climate Change And Immigration?,” FiveThirtyEight, September 29, 2022, features/democrats-republicans-climate-change-immigration-ipsos-poll/.

[12] Anthony Leiserowitz, Edward Maibach, Seth Rosenthal, John Kotcher, Jennifer Carman, Liz Neyens, Teresa Myers, Matthew Goldberg, Eryn Campbell, Karine Lacroix and Jennifer Marlon, “Politics & Global Warming, April 2022,” Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, July 7, 2022,

[13] Marina Romanello et al, “The 2022 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: health at the mercy of fossil fuels,” The Lancet, October 25, 2022, lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(22)01540-9/fulltext.

[14] Bryan Walsh, “‘Shifting baseline’ are changing what normal means,” Axios, July 6, 2021, https://www.