What Role for Experts in the Climate Debate?

Balancing Trust, Advocacy, and Social Change

--Guest post by Greg Alvarez

The release this week of the latest United Nations report on climate change has generated renewed debate over the role that scientists should play in mobilizing support for policy action. Some scientists are hesitant to enter this arena, fearing that such advocacy has the potential to undermine their credibility and objectivity, while eroding the public’s confidence in their work.

Others believe that the scope and immediacy of the climate crisis compels them to become advocates for political action, and that if done appropriately, such a role does not conflict with their work as scientists. Bill McKibben even went so far as to argue this week that scientists should “go on strike,” no longer talking about their science. “At this point the white lab coats would be better used drawing attention to sit-ins and protests than drawing yet another set of ignored conclusions,” he wrote. 

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Our Biopolitics Future

Public Debates Will Blur Left/Right Differences

If you follow the rapid pace of advances in biomedicine and the life sciences, you may have wondered why more politically liberal countries like Germany and Canada have stronger restrictions on embryonic stem cell research than the more politically conservative United States. To be sure, history and happenstance play a role, but these differences also reflect public concerns that blur traditional left/right distinctions, suggesting the need for experts and their institutions to invest in a new type of public and media conversation about what scientific innovations mean for society.

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Food Biotech Gridlock

Why Allowing Labeling May Assuage Public Skepticism

--Todd Newman and Matthew Nisbet

In November, Washington state voters rejected Initiative 522 that would have required foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) to be labeled. If the vote passed, Washington would have been the first state in the nation to require such labeling. With roughly $30 million in total spending, the ballot fight was the most expensive in the state’s history, making Washington the latest public stage for the ongoing conflict over GMOs that pits industry and many scientists against an increasingly well-funded coalition of media-savvy advocates. 

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Barriers to Climate Legislation Following the 2016 Election

Political Dysfunction Requires a New Paradigm for Climate Advocacy

Political forecasts are always difficult to make. But given the dysfunction in Washington and the fall out from Obamacare, as I write in a column at Ensia magazine this week, environmentalists would be wise to reflect on what are quickly appearing to be tough barriers to passing a major climate bill following the 2016 election. Even assuming that an experienced leader like Hillary Clinton is elected president, let’s take a moment to consider how these barriers are likely to shape up.

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Our Super Zip State of Mind

Engaging with Life in Communities Not Like Our Own

Chances are if you are reading this blog, you live and work in a “Super Zip,” one of America’s most affluent neighborhoods and zip codes. Super Zips rank in the top 5 percent nationally in education and earnings, according to the American Enterprise Institute's Charles Murray who coined the term. On average, households in Super Zips earn $120,000 annually with 70 percent of adults holding college degrees.

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The McKibben Doctrine

How Deep Green Politics Undermine Climate Action

In the two decades since he first wrote about global warming, Bill McKibben has become the most visible environmental activist in the United States, pioneering new methods of social protest, and redefining the way environmental groups practice politics. Today he is at the center of the US climate movement.

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Greenpeace Inc.

The $336 Million-a-Year Multinational Organization Turns its Focus to the U.S. and Global South

A March 9 profile on The Observer spotlights writer and activist Mark Lynas, who has gained notable attention for arguing that environmentalists need to reconsider their longstanding opposition to nuclear energy and genetic engineering. As Lynas told The Observer, during his days as an activist, he had viewed the Green movement as a brave, scrappy underdog – a little David battling the Goliaths of industry, government, and conservatives. 

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Partisans, the Weather, or the Economy?

The Dynamics of Public Opinion about Climate Change

In a report released today, the Pew Center for People and the Press details the issues that Americans view as the "top priority for the President and Congress," with the economy and jobs dominating the list for the fourth straight year (the national debt is a close third). Out of 21 possible priorities, protecting the environment ranks #12 and dealing with global warming -- for the fourth straight year -- ranks last. 


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America’s Honest Brokers

How Scientists Can Effectively Engage Society

In 2009, I contributed a chapter to an edited volume that was a first attempt on my part to dig deeper into the the normative and ethical dimensions of science communication, particularly many of the questions that had been raised by the growing attention to communication research over the decade and the correlated attention to the role of scientists in high-profile political debates over stem cell research, climate change, evolution and other policy controversies.  In doing so, I drew on on my experience in discussing and giving talks specific to the role of framing in science policy-debates.  I also drew on the contributions of science policy scholars, most notably Roger Pielke Jr.'s and Daniel Sarewitz's work on "politicization" and the different roles that scientists and their organizations can play in managing policy conflict.

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Diversifying the Climate Movement

New Narratives and Investments Needed to Engage Minority Communities

At Politico today, there is an important article focusing on the inability of the environmental movement -- for the most part -- to move beyond a primarily white, liberal base and to engage minority communities.  As Politico's Talia Buford reports, many greens blame the failure of the cap and trade campaign to engage minority communities on opponents who warned of the damaging economic costs to low income communities.  Yet this rationale overlooks the differential costs that cap and trade would have placed on minority communities -- one reason why some greens were pushing for a cap and dividend program.  The explanation also overlooks the failure of greens for the most part to make an issue like climate change relevant to minority communities, or to even devote significant resources and staff to engagement.

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The Signal and the Noise

In Obsessing Over Polls and Models, We All Lose

If you are a Democrat, you were likely feeling good on Election Day about President Obama’s chances.  Many pollsters and forecasters predicted an Obama victory, with The New York Times’ Nate Silver pegging his chances at 90.9%. Not surprisingly, conservatives voiced skepticism about Silver’s prediction, making the science and art of modeling the subject of considerable attention at cable news and blogs.

Silver provides a useful and powerful new resource for understanding the cascade of polls that have come to dominate discussion of elections.  Yet it’s the news media’s very obsession with polls and models that hinders our ability to talk about substantive issues.  When advocates, for example, deservedly complained that we had gone months without talking about climate change only to be woken from our slumber by a tragic storm, we can thank in part the media’s infatuation with polls and modeling.


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Our Unproductive Climate Debate

Broadening and Diversifying Public Concern

Public opinion about climate change, observes the New York Times' Andrew Revkin, can be compared to “waves in a shallow pan,” easily tipped with “a lot of sloshing but not a lot of depth.” In a chapter published last year at the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, I review research that provides several explanations for the complex nature of U.S. public opinion. Environmental, political and media conditions will change over time, but the basic processes by which individuals and social groups interpret climate change will remain generally the same, and it is these processes that I highlight in the chapter.

I discuss studies identifying an "issue public" of Americans supporting political action and a similarly sized segment of Americans opposing action. Between these tail-end segments, more than 2/3 of Americans still remain relatively ambivalent about the importance and urgency of climate change. I also discuss how research is being used to identify and develop communication initiatives that empower and enable these publics to reach decisions and to participate in societal debates. Scholars are examining how values, social identity, mental models, social ties, and information sources combine to shape judgments and decisions.

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Winning the Future

How Obama Can Defy Critics and Shift Momentum

As President Obama prepares for tomorrow’s night Presidential debate, he faces the most important public appearance of his political career. Obama’s poor performance in the first debate, combined with Romney’s successful appeal, has contributed to a tightening of the national and battleground polls, and a sizable enthusiasm differential that favors Republicans.  In the second debate, delivering at least a draw might help Obama stem the momentum gap with Romney, and the erosion of support among likely women voters. 

To do so, many commentators have argued that the President has to be more confrontational, going on the attack against Romney, calling him out on what they perceive to be the major “lies” of his campaign.  MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in the moments after the first debate went so far as to argue that the President needs to watch more of his program and network: "We have our knives out…We go after the people and the facts. What was he doing tonight? He went in there disarmed."

Yet a lack of confrontation is not what has hurt Obama.  To the contrary, it is the Obama campaign’s one-dimensional negativity that has helped Romney close the gap in the polls and that has elevated the success of his first debate performance.  In the second debate tuesday night, defying the expectations of pundits and his base, Obama can reverse momentum by returning to the style and narratives that not so long ago made him a transformational political leader.

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Questioning the Wisdom of Denier Discourse

Labels as a Barrier to Action on Climate Change

It's difficult to imagine today, but only four years ago, we were debating the wisdom of calling those who oppose action on climate change "deniers." In a 2008 interview with PRI The World, I suggested that the term "denier" was counter-productive. Resorting to extreme language and name calling in the climate debate not only inflames tensions among opponents, but for a wider spectator public struggling to come to terms with climate change as a societal priority, resorting to "denier" rhetoric misses the opportunity to more persuasively connect the issue to commonly shared values, or to fashion compromise around policy approaches.

As we look past the election to what might be possible on climate and energy policy during the next Administration, we would be well served to reflect carefully on the labels and rhetoric we all-too-easily come to adopt in reference to opponents and allies alike.

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Diffusing Public Anger Over Climate Change

Study tests emotional reactions to different frames

If you live in an American city, chances are this summer you have experienced the health effects of climate change.  As Richard Harris reported at NPR News earlier this month, people who live in cities -- where there are far fewer trees and lots of pavement -- are more vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat. Rising temperatures associated with climate change not only put people at risk directly, but can also lead to more severe asthma and allergies.

Focusing on the human health effects of climate change -- and the benefits to health if we take action -- opens the door to an important new way of communicating about climate change, a strategy that can inspire hope among those disengaged on the issue, while diffusing anger among those otherwise opposed to action.  As Richard Harris reported in a follow-up story at NPR News, research that I have been conducting with Edward Maibach and colleagues shows that people across the political spectrum respond more favorably to warnings about climate change when the issue is framed as a public health problem rather than as an environmental threat. 

As I told Harris about the strategy: "Not only does it lead to emotionally engaging responses among a broad cross section of Americans, it also helps to localize the issue for people and to view the issue as more personally relevant."  The research offers evidence of a frame of reference that could help define common ground on the issue:  "The idea of protecting people, the innocent especially, from harm, and caring for the innocent, is a value that's widely held across the political spectrum,"

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Reflections on Mann and Ornstein’s Quest for Democratic Accountability

Liberals Should Lead on Rebuilding Our Civic Culture

Earlier this year, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein published It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.  As they detail, to the extent that both parties have become more ideologically consistent in their makeup, hyperpartisanship in Congress has collided with a Constitutional system that depends on compromise and collaboration to get things done. But as they also argue, things are made much worse by an asymmetry in American politics, as the Republican party has veered far to the right relative to a Democratic party that has moved more modestly to the left.

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In Defense of Obama’s Compromise Strategy

The Burden of Proof Rests with Liberal Critics

In a speech Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick admonished viewers across the country that “it’s time for Democrats to stiffen our backbone and stand up for what we believe.”  His remarks were aimed at mobilizing Democrats to rally in defense of President Obama’s achievements, particularly passage of health care reform. 

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Rebuilding America’s Public Square

With three months to go, the 2012 election campaign, as FactCheck.org recently editorialized, can best be summed up “by the cavalier disregard for facts on both sides,” and by a “bitter and trivial” focus that fails to “engage the public in a fact-based discussion of the hard choices” that face the country.
Sadly, things are only likely to get worse.

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About Matthew Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication at American University, Washington, DC. You can read about his research and various studies at the Climate Shift Project and at Google Scholar, or find out more about his courses at American University, including those on Communication, Culture and the EnvironmentMedia, Technology and Democracy; and the Civic Science Lab, a short course for scientists. Follow him on Twitter @MCNisbet.

Click here to view his recent articles.