Leaders from more than 190 nations are in Lima, Peru for COP20, the UN's annual climate conference. Their collective remit during the two-week session: to galvanize a global movement toward a long-awaited treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions and curb the long-term effects of climate change.

We spoke with Carol Browner, former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about recent progress made to address the issue, and to get her thoughts on steps government, business and average citizens can take to continue this momentum. 

How has the global climate change conversation evolved over the last few years? 

I think the recent joint announcement from China and the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions signaled a tremendous shift. What we’re seeing is a significant developed country and a significant developing country stepping up together and saying “this problem is real and we all need to be doing something about it.”

How has social media impacted the debate? Has technology fueled actionable solutions?

The good news about social media is that it helps us understand that there are cost-effective, common-sense solutions to climate change, and that progress is possible. And also that companies like Coke are leading the way and taking steps to reduce their emissions while continuing to meet their customers’ needs and business demands.

On the flip side, has social medial perpetuated the spread of misinformation?

Sadly, yes. There is a lot of misinformation about the science behind climate change, and that’s not helpful in terms of having a conversation about how we all can work together to address the problem. The good news is we’re continuing to see progress because of leadership from President Obama, the business community, and more and more Americans who are saying, “We get that something’s happening. We see it in our backyards, in our parks and in our communities, and we want to be part of the solution.”

Can you cite recent milestones or wins in the energy and climate space?

A really big win is the work the Obama administration did with the environmental NGO community, the State of California and the auto companies. If you buy a car today, a tank of gas will go further than ever before. And that means consumer savings. As cars get more and more efficient, ultimately we’ll have an average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon. That’s good news for the environment and for the consumer.

Is that the sweet spot? Finding solutions that simultaneously relate to consumers – and their wallets – and benefit the planet?

It always has been, yes. We need more solutions that are cost effective and fit into people’s complicated lives – and that take advantage of American innovation and ingenuity by bringing forward new technologies. American businesses, and global businesses, have great ideas on how to solve this challenge. And the government is creating opportunity to bring those solutions forward in ways the public can really embrace.

Where are we compared to, say, where we were this time last year on the issue?

We’ve had a lot of great discussion over the last several years, but under this president we’re seeing concrete action. President Obama laid out a plan, and he has been implementing that plan. What that means is we can see a positive trend line in measured reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. It started with working with the auto industry to ensure cars and trucks are more fuel efficient, and with manufacturers to make the appliances we use more efficient. Now the government is looking at power plants to ensure they’re cleaner and not releasing dangerous pollutants.

Climate change is a divisive issue. What, in your opinion, are the most common misconceptions surrounding it?

The first is that there is not enough science supporting the reality of climate change. The fact is we have more science on climate change than we’ve ever had on an environmental issue. The data is clear: We have a problem and need to take action.

The second misconception is that somehow the steps we are taking will wreck the economy and disrupt our lives. These solutions will actually create opportunities that will create jobs and save companies and families money. 

What have Millennials added to the climate conversation?

Millennials are great because they’re so open to new solutions and new technologies. One good example is that most Americans, historically, haven’t thought much about our monthly electric bills. Millennials are using apps to control their thermostat from their smartphones and, thankfully, other generations are following their lead. Now, if I forget to turn down my thermostat before leaving town, I simply pick up my phone. It’s a cool, easy-to-use technology that reduces pollutants and puts money back in your pocket. As cars, appliances and more continue to get “smarter,” these technologies are making it easier for us to be better consumers of energy.

Studies show that women, especially in the developing world, are often on the front lines of, and suffer disproportionately from, the impacts of climate change. What steps must be taken to protect them?

It’s true that women and children suffer more from exposure to pollution for a variety of reasons. We must work with women to educate them and to find solutions that keep their children and communities healthy, such as adopting clean cook stoves. Coca-Cola sets a good example, I think, of working with women to develop programs that help reduce pollution while also ensuring a better quality of life.

What roles do business, government and civil society play in combating climate change, and how can they work together to drive progress?

It takes everyone at the table. We get the best answers when we work together. What government can do is look at the science and set standards to give businesses the flexibility to meet those standards in a cost-effective manner and engage communities in helping to design solutions. As I mentioned earlier, a great recent example is the work President Obama did with the car companies, environmental NGOs and the State of California.

Today’s consumers are more environmentally conscious than ever before, and are voting with their wallets. Are brands doing a good job of responding to this sentiment?

We’re seeing more and more companies embrace climate-friendly policies, from evaluating their own energy use, to thinking about the materials they use, to exploring how they transport and distribute their products. Waste is waste and pollution is waste, so every time a company can figure out how to reduce pollution, they’re saving money.

What steps can the average citizen take every day to make a difference?

It starts with awareness. The most important thing is to become informed – to take the time to understand the facts about climate change and what they mean for community – and to become engaged in the process to develop and advance solutions. You can think carefully about the products you buy, and how you use energy. No one is saying you shouldn’t live a comfortable life, but being informed and engaged is part of our responsibility.