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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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.