Crashing the Party

Human Rights Activists Shake Up UN Climate Talks

Senior officials representing nearly 200 countries gather in Lima, Peru this week for the final stages of United Nations-led climate change talks. The meetings, which began December 1, are intended to lay the final groundwork for a major international agreement to be reached a year from now in Paris, France.

Key issues, however, continue to divide countries.

The US prefers that nations make non-binding commitments to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, whereas the European Union urges legally enforceable pledges. New tensions have also surfaced over funding for climate adaptation efforts – protection measures to help poorer nations cope with the impacts of climate change.

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The Age of Us

Can People Power Drive Action on Climate Change?

In a new  "Age of Us" column launching this week at The Conversation, I will be writing about research, ideas, and trends that shed light on why we disagree so strongly about climate change and other environmental problems. A major focus will be on the strategies that can promote political cooperation on our tough, new planet. You will encounter not only my thoughts and ideas but also the voices and arguments of leaders in the fields of communication, journalism, political science, sociology, and the policy world. 

Just as importantly, as readers and commenters, you will be sharing your own thoughts and conclusions, often challenging my ideas and those of others. At The Public Square, in combination with regular original essays, I will be expanding on columns at Age of Us as they are debated and discussed.

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Climate of Extremes Part Two

Dialogue – Not Diatribes – Needed for Bipartisan Action

This is the second of two articles on climate activism and political polarization. The first can be viewed here.


As Bill McKibben has focused on building a new progressive grassroots movement, Tom Steyer and his political advisors have sought to spend his vast wealth to influence key U.S. Senate and Governoratorial races. This strategy is intended to lay the groundwork for climate change to be a dominant issue during the 2016 presidential election, while positioning Steyer as a candidate for future electoral office.

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Climate of Extremes: Part One

How Polarizing Global Warming Strategies Backfire

This is first of two articles on climate activism and political polarization, the second of which can be found here.

In August 2011, writer-turned-activist Bill McKibben along with a few dozen other environmentalists spent several nights in a Washington, DC jail. They were the first among thousands who would be arrested in front of the White House as part of a series of intensifying protests against the Keystone XL oil pipeline. In jail, McKibben’s “mind was running fast: things I needed to tweet or blog, messages I needed to get to the media,” he would later recall. The protests organized by his advocacy group, he believed, marked “a turning point, the moment when insider, establishment environmentalism found itself a little overtaken by grassroots power.”1

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The Polarization Trap

A Disappearing Center is Bad News for Liberals

With the GOP threatening in November to gain seats in both the House and the Senate, many liberal activists and commentators are likely to continue to point to changing demographic trends as a sign that the electoral setback is a temporary blip, reflective of the predictable electoral swing against an incumbent President's party during his second term and a particularly unfavorable mix of world events and domestic conditions.

Many will also continue to blame a perceived political spending advantage on the part of conservatives including the growing network of groups funded by the billionaire Koch brothers.

For these liberal activists, donors, and fundraisers, November's electoral defeats will just be another point of evidence that they need to dedicate themselves to raising ever greater sums of money and invest in even more aggressive forms of "in your face" activism on issues ranging from climate change to social inequality.

Among the perceived encouraging trends that liberals are likely to point to are survey findings this past summer from the Pew Research Center showing that over the past twenty years the number of Americans who can be rated as "consistently liberal" in their worldviews has increased four fold, from 3 percent in 1994 to 12 percent today.

In a country considered center-right, 34 percent of Americans today score as consistently/mostly liberal in their outlook compared to 27 percent as consistently/mostly conservative, a reversal from 20 years ago.

Moreover, those in the middle (e.g. who can't be classified in either ideological camp,) have declined over the past decade by 10 points to 39 percent.

It's not only that Americans have grown more divided in their worldviews, but the constant demonization and outrage expressed at liberal and conservative media outlets, blogs, and by political leaders and commentators has cultivated deeply unfavorable views of the "other," to the point that according to Pew, a third of Democrats and Republicans believe that the other side is a "threat to the future of the country."

For liberals, who have purposively invested over the past 15 years in an ideological message machine of closely aligned media organizations, think tanks, bloggers, donor networks, and activist groups to rival that of the Right, the Pew poll findings are likely to be perceived as demonstrating the effectiveness of such echo chamber efforts.

To be sure, demographic changes and geographic sorting/mobility play a role, but for many liberal strategists and activists the intense polarization and antipathy for the "other side" reflected in the Pew findings will likely be cited as an example of successful movement building.

But such an attribution overlooks how the liberal and conservative movements fundamentally differ. For liberals, the more polarized the country becomes, the more difficult it will be to enact major policy changes or to hold together a successful electoral coalition.

For conservatives, on the other hand, increasing polarization favors their goals of downsizing government, blocking policy reforms, and limiting political participation among young people and minorities.

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Making Social Science Relevant Again

Engaging Students Via Politicized Social Problems

Over the past decade, among the most frequently voiced criticisms of higher education is that universities are not adequately preparing students to be successful professionals, engaged citizens, and/or informed consumers of information. The social sciences and the humanities are among the most vulnerable to these charges; as fields like communication, sociology, and political science are charged with lacking rigor and or relevance.

In these fields students are inundated with intensive-reading about jargon-heavy theories or statistically driven bodies of research related to, for example, the psychology of media effects or public opinion formation. The dynamics of political controversies such as those over climate change, childhood vaccination, or obesity are reduced to convenient opportunities to run ever more advanced experiments or survey analyses that test or replicate a theory, rather than analyzed as significant social problems worthy of study in their own right.

As a consequence, students learn (often reluctantly) about a multitude of theories or research methods, but are left unable to critically apply this knowledge to their lives as professionals, advocates, or consumers. There is also a cost for communication scholars, sociologists, and political scientists as the design of these courses reflects the approach to their own research, an approach that is increasingly viewed as politically tangential, intellectually obscure, and unworthy of funding by policymakers, philanthropists, journalists, and the public more broadly.

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Dot Earth, Vox and The Upshot?

Why We Need Knowledge-Based Journalism

Over the past several decades, a growing body of research has informed our understanding of why political leaders, activists, and the expert community disagree so strongly about climate change and other environmental controversies, providing insight on strategies that might broker greater political cooperation. 

As I detailed in a recent series of essays, this research on what the U.S. National Academies calls the “science of science communication,” has focused on topics including the communication strategies of the expert community; the impact of worldviews on acceptance of expert advice; and the relevance of the media to public opinion.

Yet largely overlooked by this growing body of research are the specific journalistic practices and media structures that might enable more constructive public debate relative to climate change and other issues.

In a co-authored paper that will appear in a forthcoming special issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, my colleague Declan Fahy and I detail the role that journalists and their news organization can play as influential knowledge professionals in the climate change debate and other environmental controversies.

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Pathways to Progress on Climate Change, pt 4

Diversifying Policy Options and Promoting Public Debate

This week's release of the U.S. National Climate Assessment report has sparked headlines at news outlets across the country. Much of that coverage has highlighted what specific states, cities and communities can do to defend against climate change-related risks and impacts.

This past month has also brought increased attention to nuclear energy, natural gas fracking, and carbon capture and storage as important technological options for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, points strongly emphasized in the latest UN IPCC report.

Yet in contrast to the recent focus, these two policy paths -- investing in climate adaptation and promoting innovation in "hard" energy technologies -- were virtually ignored as part of national debate during the period 2007 to 2010.

Instead, environmentalists and their allies pushed to pass cap and trade legislation and a binding international treaty; strategies designed to put a price on carbon and promote solar, wind, and energy efficiency as solutions.

The recent shift to include a broader menu of policy actions and technologies is representative of the necessary role that the expert community must play in balancing the well intentioned efforts of environmentalists, who historically as advocates have restricted debate on climate change to just a few politically favored policy actions and technologies.

As Roger Pielke Jr. argues in his 2007 book The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Politics and Policy, in the face of intense lobbying and political mobilization on climate change, experts and their organizations can act independently as “honest brokers” to expand the range of policy options and technological choices under consideration by elected officials and the public.

As I review in this essay, we will also need experts and their organizations to take the lead in convening debate about the actions best suited to protecting local communities against climate impacts and the technologies that can enable a cleaner, more abundant energy future for specific regions of the country.

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Pathways to Progress on Climate Change, pt 3

Telling Stores about Human Security and Ingenuity

Frustrated by the political paralysis on climate change, in recent years, many environmentalists have focused their efforts on building a more powerful movement in support of action. Among the most notable efforts, in a 2012 cover article at Rolling Stone magazine, writer and activist Bill McKibben called for a new sense of moral outrage directed at the fossil fuel industry, a plea that helped launch the divestment movement on college campuses.

Given the urgency of climate change, “we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light,” he argued. “It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization."

A year earlier, in a cover article at The Nation magazine, fellow activist Naomi Klein urged progressives to copy the strategies of the U.S. conservative movement: “Just as climate denialism has become a core identity issue on the right, utterly entwined with defending current systems of power and wealth, the scientific reality of climate change must, for progressives, occupy a central place in a coherent narrative about the perils of unrestrained greed and the need for real alternatives.”

Though in the short term, these calls to action from voices admired by progressives might bring much needed pressure to bear on targeted decision-makers and elected officials, in the long term such strategies if not also balanced by alternative investments in civic engagement by the expert community may only intensify polarization and gridlock.

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Pathways to Progress on Climate Change, pt 2

Wicked Psychology and Ideological Message Machines

Few issues in the United States reflect as deeply polarized divisions as climate change. Most explanations for the intense political conflict tend to blame the conservative movement. These arguments are understandable given the longstanding efforts by many conservative groups and leaders to dispute the urgency of climate change, to attack and ridicule advocates for action on the issue, and to even outrageously assert that climate change is a "hoax."

Yet, as I review in a series of essays this week, for scientists and the expert community to successfully navigate this polarization requires a broader understanding of the factors that have seeded political dysfunction and the strategies available for restoring cooperation in support of effective policy actions.

Today, I examine the special attributes of climate change that make the issue so politically divisive and analyze how early definitions of the problem may have helped inadvertently set in motion the polarization that exists today.

I also take a look at the psychological roots of our disagreement on the issue and the many ways in which our contemporary media system feeds on and amplifies our diverging opinions.

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Pathways to Progress on Climate Change, pt 1

Research on the Politics of Technical Decisions

In recent years, advocates arguing for action on climate change have invested in ever more aggressive confrontation of their longstanding opponents among conservatives and the fossil fuel industry. These activists argue that such strategies are the only way to achieve progress in the face of dire stakes and some have called on the expert community to join them in the fight.

Recently, Bill McKibben even went so far as to argue that scientists should “go on strike,” no longer talking about the science as reviewed and synthesized in the IPCC reports. “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.

Yet even though such efforts may be an essential feature of social change, for scientists and their organizations, other strategies are needed if some semblance of political cooperation is to be achieved.

In this regard, for experts to successfully navigate the terrain of the political debate over climate change requires a careful understanding of the factors that seed polarization; and the strategies available for restoring cooperation, for decreasing the perception of entrenched group differences, and for building support for a portfolio of policies and energy technologies.

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Shifting the Health Care Debate

Insights from Science Policy Controversies to Inform Public Engagement

Along with climate change and social inequality, the struggle in the United States to contain rising health care costs stands out as among our most "wicked" and polarized problems. Not surprisingly then, many experts and organizations working within the health care services field are currently searching for new strategies that engage the public and policymakes in a manner that helps diffuse, rather than strengthen political disagreement.

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Fossil Free Movement as Learning Process

Respectful Dialogue and Negotiation at American University Sparks Opportunities for Constructive Debate

To mark Earth Day and pegged to a meeting of the Board of Trustees at American University, students involved in the Fossil Free AU movement are sponsoring today (April 22) a class walk out and rally on the campus quad. Several students involved in the movement have been active participants in my course this semester on "Communication, Culture and the Environment." As my class has debated and discussed paths forward on climate change, their perspective has been a very important one for others in the course to consider (the professor included).

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Mixing Diet Advice and Climate Advocacy?

Projecting Personal Values Can Backfire

I very much enjoyed the first episode of the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously and I have been rooting for the series' success. In part, the cable network production directly speaks to my own outlook as someone who is deeply concerned by climate change and who leans more liberal than centrist. But as a social scientist studying the climate debate for the past decade, I also believe that Ted Nordhaus' and Michael Shellenberger's recent New York Times op-ed and subsequent essays have raised a number of questions that are well worth considering, especially by fans of the series.

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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 US 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 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, Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. 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, including those on Environmental Politics, Communication, and Advocacy; and Health, Debates, Communication, and Culture. Follow him on Twitter @MCNisbet and Google +.

Click here to view his recent articles.