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Against climate change tribalism

Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma may be best known today for its picturesque lakes and trails, but for three weeks in 1954 the park was also the setting for one of the most famous experiments in social psychology. In the Robbers Cave experiment, Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues at the University of Oklahoma recruited twenty-two boys, all fifth graders from similar social backgrounds, to attend what they billed as a specially designed summer camp.

The boys were immediately split into two groups: the Eagles and the Rattlers. For the first week, the teams were kept on separate ends of the camp while they participated in a variety of bonding activities. The boys didn’t find out about the other team’s existence until the start of the second week. Having never met each other, the boys quickly began to refer to the other team as “outsiders” and “intruders.”

Following a series of competitive games, the boys’ rivalry grew more intense. They started hurling insults, calling each other “pigs,” “sissies,” and “cheaters.” Their perception of reality shifted. When researchers asked the Eagles and Rattlers to gather up beans from the ground and compare photos of how many each group collected, the boys bragged that their team outmatched the other.

In reality, the photos showed the same number of beans for each group. Fueled by competition and social isolation, the teams raided their rival’s cabins late at night. The Eagles burned the Rattlers flag; some boys started collecting rocks to throw at the others. Worried about physical injury, the experimenters called off the competitions.

More than sixty years later, the Robbers Cave study stands as a metaphor for today’s hyperpartisan politics. Seemingly every policy debate is a competition between two intensely hostile teams.

Those on the right and left oppose compromise by their political leaders, view the other party as extreme and uncivil, and believe that their side should benefit the most from any decision.

Dehumanizing opponents

A recent study by Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, political scientists at Louisiana State University and University of Maryland, found that more than 40 percent of Americans surveyed viewed the opposing party as “downright evil.”

Incredibly, 20 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans said they believed on occasion that the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposition died. In other extreme examples, party loyalists dehumanized their political adversaries.

In the case of both parties, nearly one out of five survey respondents agreed with the statement that their political opponents “lack the traits to be considered fully human–they behave like animals.” According to their study, if the opposing party won the 2020 election, 18 percent of Democrats and 14 percent of Republicans reported they believed violence would be justified.The best-educated and informed partisans tend to be the most intensely tribal, engaging in “my side” reasoning that prioritizes victory over a desire for the greater good.

Research shows that the most well-informed partisans are quick to endorse their party’s policy positions–not as a matter of principle but, as New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall writes, “as a public act designed to signal their tribal loyalty as a Democrat or Republican.”

On no other issue are such animosities, prejudices, and biases more prevalent — and more problematic — than on climate change.

Finding comfort in tribalism

For those of us who advocate for action to address climate change, we are often told to be more like how we perceive our political opponents: more ruthless, more cunning, more aggressive, more willing to bend facts to our side, and more committed to the most audacious and ambitious policies regardless of their flaws. We are all too quick to rally around the banner of those voices that emphasize “us versus them,” “good versus bad,” and “winning versus losing.”

We view those opposed to action on climate change as extreme but seldom apply the same label to those on our side. Green New Deal advocates, for example, have framed the choice for Americans in starkly binary terms: Either join us in a Utopian quest to transform the United States into a social democracy or face the catastrophic consequences of a dystopian climate future.

There are no other choices. Their battle is equally against moderates and pragmatists as it is against conservatives.

As a community of advocates, we have become obsessed with the psychology and communication strategies of conservative “deniers,” with many scholars striving to expose the faults in conservative psychology, the duplicitous nature of fossil fuel companies, and the many ways in which Fox News and right-wing think tanks seed “denial” and engage in a “war on science.”

This research has in turn infected mainstream journalism and commentary, in which readers at outlets such as The Guardian and The Washington Post are consistently left with the impression that “anti-science,” “denier” Republicans may in fact be cognitively incapable of reason or compromise on behalf of clean energy policy, similar in nature to Holocaust deniers.

Only seven years ago scholars were actually debating the wisdom of calling those who oppose action on climate change “deniers.” Geographers Saffron O’Neill and Max Boykoff in a letter to the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS) raised concerns about an earlier study at the journal that had divided experts into “convinced” and “unconvinced” camps, interchangeably using the terms deniers, skeptics, and contrarians to refer to the unconvinced.

“Continued indiscriminate use of the terms will further polarize views on climate change,” warned O’Neill and Boykoff, “reduce media coverage to tit-for-tat finger-pointing, and do little to advance the unsteady relationship among climate science, society, and policy.”

Their warnings, however, had little impact on the direction of scholarship, strategy, or journalistic coverage. Today’s ubiquitous branding of Republicans as the party of “denial” greatly exaggerates the intensity of opposition to climate and clean energy solutions among those on the center-right, creating a self-reinforcing spiral of false perceptions.

The more we become angry and the more we catastrophize about the future, the less likely we are to find common ground or even be able to treat our political opponents as human beings. And social media is only making everything worse.

For the past few years, polling has consistently shown that majorities of registered voters, including Independents and moderate Republicans, believe that global warming is mostly caused by human activities and say that they support climate regulations and clean energy policies.

Beyond this general voter sentiment, according to the Yale Climate Opinion Maps project, most adults in every Congressional district across the country say they support fossil fuel companies paying a carbon tax, regulating CO2 as a pollutant, and setting strict restrictions on emissions from coal power plants.

But research also indicates that many Republicans who privately support solutions to climate change refrain from publicly doing so out of an exaggerated fear of retaliation from their peers, a fear that has been magnified by efforts among some scholars and journalists to socially stigmatize the supposedly mass number of deniers among their ranks.

The more we become angry and the more we catastrophize about the future, the less likely we are to find common ground or even be able to treat our political opponents as human beings. And social media is only making everything worse.

Playing to the most basic elements of human nature, social media has done great damage to the climate change movement, destroying our ability to think collectively and discuss productively across lines of difference.

Artificial intelligence-driven platforms serve up a constant stream of news and commentary that reflects our existing biases and beliefs rather than content that might challenge them.

Those specializing in the dark arts of social media “engagement” have used these platforms to hack our brains, training our focus on conservatives and the evildoings of the fossil fuel industry while the end times loom.

Because it kidnaps our attention, the most inflammatory, most outrageous, and most catastrophic content is rewarded by social media algorithms, ensuring that it travels the furthest. Since social media is a place where we find comfort in our tribal identity, posting, liking, and spreading ideologically affirming content generates social value, regardless of the source, quality, or veracity of the content we may be sharing.

When claims are challenged, such as the viability of a 100 percent path to renewables or the political feasibility of the Green New Deal, climate advocates often respond by digging in their heels and attacking the critic, further demonstrating their loyalty.

In doing so, they follow the lead of a climate blogger or “Twitter celebrity,” who through their commentary make it easy for us to remain loyal to ideas or policies that have come to symbolize what it means to be a “climate hawk” or activist.

More thoughtful conversations

“Moderation is not an ideology; it is a way of being. It stands for humility of the head and ardor in the heart,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. “When you listen to your neighbor, you see how many perspectives there are and you’re intellectually humble in the face of that pluralism. When you listen to your neighbor, you see that deep down we’re the same and you hunger to deepen that connection.”

There can be no progress on climate change until we rebuild our civic capacity to discuss, debate, and disagree in ways that do not turn every aspect of climate politics into an identity-driven tribal war between good and evil.

We must harness our organizational resources and personal gifts to serve not as partisan persuaders but as partners in face-to-face dialogue with other Americans and decision-makers, embracing our common humanity.

But to embrace our common humanity, we must adopt and encourage the practice of what Georgetown University’s Cal Newport calls “digital minimalism,” a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life.

It is impossible to resist the siren song of climate tribalism if, like the average American, you spend several hours a day on your smartphone swiping, scrolling, skimming, liking, hearting, retweeting, forwarding, and responding to other people’s thoughts, especially if they apply to climate change politics.

When a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is released or the proposed Green New Deal is announced, your first thought in today’s news feed culture of righteousness is not your own original idea but almost inevitably someone else’s appealing to your worse biases.

Spending less time on social media and your smartphone will free up mental energy for contemplation and deep reading of a diversity of high-quality sources, alone with your thoughts, wrestling with uncertainties and complexities, scrutinizing your assumptions and beliefs.

Minimizing social media usage will also enable you to be more present and less judgmental during face-to-face discussions.

The initial focus of a conversation about a contentious topic such as climate change with a neighbor, community member, or elected official should be to simply recognize and affirm shared identities, ideals, and beliefs. Reframing climate change in terms of public health or religious duty, for example, may help foster a more thoughtful conversation.

Still, there are no magic messages capable of overcoming false beliefs or converting someone to your side. Yet with trust and relationships established, further dialogue can focus on working together toward common goals related to energy decarbonization and societal resilience.

If common goals on a specific topic may not exist, investing in more thoughtful conversations and the forums to engage in those conversations can at least help reestablish the norms of civility that have been lost in our society, enabling climate change advocates and those we disagree with to come to respect the nature and reasons for our differences.

*This article is adapted from a speech given at the 2019 U.S. Climate Leadership Summit held in Washington, D.C. A version was also published previously at Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Citation | PDF

Nisbet, Matthew C. “Against Climate Change Tribalism: We Gamble with the Future by Dehumanizing Our Opponents.” Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 44, no. 1, Jan.-Feb. 2020.

Public beliefs about science and tech across the world

Photo by Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash

To better understand these dynamics, in a new research paper co-authored with Erik Nisbet and published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, we analyzed the 2010-2014 World Values Survey, evaluating public beliefs about science, technology, and society across fifty-four countries and 81,000 survey respondents.

In our study, we assessed country-level and individual-level factors predicting survey measures related to optimism about the ability of science and technology to improve society (“scientific optimism”) and those related to reservations about the impact of science and technology on traditional values and the speed of change (“scientific reservations”).

These two mental models, as previous research suggests, serve as cognitive shortcuts for quickly evaluating the social implications of specific science and technology-related issues and for estimating the trustworthiness of experts and their institutions as sources of information.

To measure scientific optimism, respondents to the World Values Survey were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as “Science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier, and more comfortable” and “Because of science and technology, there will be more opportunities for the next generation.”

To assess scientific reservations, respondents were asked to agree or disagree with statements including “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith” and “It is not important for me to know about science in my life.”

To predict survey respondent scores on scientific optimism and scientific reservations, our statistical models allowed us to control for country-level factors such as the degree of economic development, democratic development, scientific development, and the cultural history of a country, while also examining individual-level factors such as those related to socioeconomic status, personal beliefs and values, religiosity, and forms of institutional trust.

Our findings are consistent with those from a recent report conducted by Gallup and commissioned by the Wellcome Trust UK which employed slightly different survey measures to map trends in science attitudes across countries.

But our analysis goes beyond describing public opinion trends to dig more deeply into why nations, cultures, and individuals differ in their beliefs about science, technology, and society. We also discuss the relevance of our findings to strategies aimed at addressing rising public anxiety in an era of startling advances and disruptive innovations.

The post-industrial paradox

Each of the fifty-tour countries we evaluated in the World Values Survey rated relatively highly on scientific optimism, with the combined mean score for respondents from each country ranging from 6.0 to 8.8 on a ten-point scale. In comparison, scores were relatively lower in terms of scientific reservations.

Per country, sample means ranged from 4.0 to 6.5 on a ten-point scale with a higher score meaning greater reservations. On both scientific optimism and reservations, the United States ranked about mid-tier among the fifty-four countries. Importantly, however, the U.S. mean score of 7.2 on optimism was considerably higher than the mean score of 5.0 on reservations.

In our statistical models, after controlling for a variety of factors, people living in less-developed countries were generally more optimistic about science and technology, expressing fewer reservations. People living in economically advanced countries, in contrast, were generally less optimistic and more likely to express stronger reservations.

Our findings can be explained by past theorizing on the “post-industrial paradox”: In contrast to less-developed countries, citizens in more-advanced economies may no longer idealize science and technology as necessary to economic growth and human security.

Populations living in more advanced economies are still likely to expect benefits from science and technology, but they may also be more sensitized to the moral trade-offs or risks posed by technological breakthroughs and scientific discoveries.

Cultural context matters

Seventeen of the nineteen countries that scored highest in terms of scientific optimism were post-Soviet/former Eastern Bloc or Muslim-majority countries, and most of these same countries score at the bottom scale on scientific reservations, a trend that remained significant when controlling for a variety of factors in our statistical models.

We interpret these findings as consistent with a long-standing emphasis in former Communist countries on science and technology as a vehicle for progress and the admiration that Muslim publics have expressed when asked in polls about Western science, medicine, and technology.

Interestingly, even when controlling for economic modernization, people living in countries with greater scientific and technological output as measured in terms of scientific publications, patents, and citations tend to be more optimistic about science and technology and to hold fewer reservations.

In this case, however, it remains unclear whether a national culture of scientific optimism that expresses fewer social reservations drives scientific ambition and productivity or whether national ambition and productivity boosts public optimism and limits the expression of reservations.

Turning to individual-level factors, religious individuals living in more-advanced countries with greater political freedom were more willing to express their reservations about science and technology than their similarly devout counterparts living in countries that lack such freedoms. Several related processes may account for these findings.

First, as people living in more-advanced countries achieve greater personal and societal security, they appear to be no longer willing to overlook the potential risks, economic costs, or moral trade-offs associated with scientific advances and innovations.

To the extent that individuals living in more-advanced countries also enjoy greater political freedom, they can also express these reservations about emerging issues, such as gene editing, without fear of political sanction.

In contrast, those living in less-developed countries may not only view science and technology in terms of social progress and enhanced security but also as a source of national pride and global competitiveness.

To the extent that they live in a country with fewer political freedoms, even if they did hold reservations, they may not be willing to express them for fear of reprisal.

Liberal values and authority

Across countries, those individuals who share classical liberal values oriented toward free enterprise, free inquiry, and the pursuit of knowledge, networks, and information, and who have thrived in a globalized market economy also tended to be among the most optimistic about science and technology and to express fewer reservations.

There were, however, important caveats and contingencies to these relationships based on the country-context in which an individual lived.

Specifically, the least educated residing in the richest countries tended to express much higher levels of scientific reservations than the least educated living in poorer countries. For wealthier optimists, scientific advances and innovations are likely to enhance their careers, fuel gains in their stock portfolios, and provide benefits that they can afford.

But many other members of the public are justifiably concerned that advances such as automation or gene editing may displace their jobs, remain beyond their ability to afford, and/or conflict with cherished values.

In wealthier countries, such as the United States and those of Western Europe, individuals expressing greater skepticism of traditional forms of authority, such as the family, nation, and state, were less optimistic and held stronger reservations about science and technology than their counterparts in poorer countries.

In advanced economies, those skeptical of traditional forms of authority may be more prone to view the close association between scientific research, technological innovation, militarization, and surveillance as operating in the service of elite control rather than economic growth and progress, as their counterparts in developing countries might still primarily view science.

No communication fix

On the topic of morally fraught issues that challenge traditional values, major investments in public dialogue across advanced economies are needed. But to lead a national and global conversation about such powerful scientific advances, scientists will need help not only from their colleagues in the humanities, social sciences, and creative arts but also from journalists and philanthropists.

Informed public discussion about scientific advances and innovations is not possible without high-quality, sustained reporting from journalists with deep knowledge of the subject. New initiatives to understand public attitudes, improve public dialogue, and report on the complexities of these emerging technologies will not be possible without financial support from government and philanthropists.

There is no clear “communication fix” for the deep-seated reservations that many individuals have about science and technology. Apart from traditional values, these reservations are also rooted in widening levels of inequality and the role that innovation plays as a main driver of such disparities.

Publicly financed scientific research has generated vast wealth for professionals at the top of the knowledge economy, just as those same innovations have eliminated millions of jobs among people at the bottom, transforming entire industries and regions.

Scientists and engineers, therefore, have both a strategic and an ethical imperative to help society cope with the negative effects of globalization and automation, forces that their advances and innovations have helped set in motion.

We need broader strategic thinking about the handful of policy goals and investments that scientists and engineers can join with others in pursuing that would help alleviate inequality and the threats posed to the scientific enterprise if such policies are not pursued.

The ability of scientific expertise to be leveraged on behalf of public solutions to problems such as climate change is limited by waning public trust in government and almost every other major institution, including the news media, business, the legal system, universities, elites generally, and even capitalism itself.

As with economic inequality, there is no communication fix for this widespread erosion in trust. Rather, the scientific community must join with the leaders of other sectors of society to pursue strategies for restoring the health of our civic culture.

Related posts:

Divided Expectations: Why we need a new dialogue about science, inequality, and society

Climate philanthropy and the four billion (dollars, that is)

At the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, thousands of delegates representing local governments, businesses, philanthropies, and nonprofits gathered to send a message to the world. With Washington, DC, and other national capitals paralyzed by political disagreement and besieged by populist movements, the “real action is happening in cities, states, and the private sector,” declared billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the summit’s co-organizer.

Globally, more than 9,000 cities and municipalities along with 245 state and regional bodies have pledged their commitment to the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. These subnational governments are joined by 6,000 companies and 1,400 multinational corporations that have factored a price for carbon into their business plans. In the United States, even as the Trump administration planned to withdraw from the climate treaty and to roll back federal pollution regulations, the leaders of states and cities were “positioning the U.S. to uphold our end of the Paris Agreement, no matter what happens in Washington,” Bloomberg noted.

A few dozen US-based foundations are the main force behind this surging coalition of civil society leaders. By framing the challenges and defining the priorities, funders have promoted a specific way of thinking about climate change, focusing otherwise disconnected advocates and experts on shared approaches to the problem.

In this decades-old rendering, climate change is primarily an environmental pollution problem, solvable by setting a price on carbon and by deploying other market forces. These actions, in the words of an influential 2007 report from a group of major philanthropies, titled Design to Win, will “prompt a sea change that washes over the entire global economy,” accelerating the transition toward solar and wind power, energy efficiency practices, sustainable agriculture, and clean transportation.

As endowments at the world’s biggest foundations rapidly grow, and as wealth continues to concentrate among a few politically active billionaires, philanthropists are likely to surpass national governments in their ability to define the agenda on climate change. At the 2018 Climate Action Summit, 29 of the world’s largest foundations pledged $4 billion in grant funding over the next five years to accelerate efforts to limit greenhouse emissions and to transition to clean energy.

Framing the options

Yet with big philanthropy moving to the center of influence on climate change and similarly intractable problems, we are heading toward a future in which a few hundred unelected trustees, families, and individuals seek to exercise global power in a manner that is accountable to no one.

Current laws allow foundations as nonprofit charities to operate without transparency, making decisions at closed-door meetings, under the cover of opaque announcements and press releases. The only legal obligation for US foundations is that they spend 5% of their net assets annually, file a financial statement with the Internal Revenue Service, and conduct an annual audit.

In the past, when scholars and journalists have focused on climate change-related philanthropy, they have justifiably written about the efforts of the conservative donors Charles and David Koch to block policy action and spread doubt about climate science. But such efforts have largely ignored the need to also shine a spotlight on the actions of left-of-center foundations and donors.

One reason is that grant makers and donors on the left are among the major patrons for academics and their work and are the main supporters of the rapidly growing nonprofit journalism sector. Many scholars and journalists therefore have reason to be cautious in their assessment.

Another reason is that as funders have invested in a common road map for tackling climate change, their preferred framing has become so pervasive, so deeply embedded in consciousness, and so invisible to critical analysis that most advocates, journalists, and academics no longer perceive the road map as a set of imperfect and incomplete ideas, or that there might exist alternative interpretations and courses of action to consider.

The lack of scrutiny enjoyed by climate-change funders has allowed them to take bold risks that are beyond the scope of governments or corporations, to make these big bets without political interference from outside groups, and to stay the course with their decisions over many years.

But the insularity of these same funders has also fostered group think, leaving civil society at risk of a dangerous path dependency, prioritizing the funding of renewable energy and the support of carbon-pricing policies to the exclusion of a wide range of other technological and policy tools that could not only help decarbonize the world economy, but also expand the range of interests who would see benefit in doing so. Insularity has also cultivated a bunker mentality among some funders in which legitimate criticism and challenging ideas have at times been met with open hostility.

A market-driven theory of change

Since the 1990s, major foundations have distributed several billion dollars in grants intended to influence US federal, state, and international policy. The most notable priorities have been the failed effort in 2010 to pass federal cap and trade legislation, and the years of negotiations that eventually led to the 2015 UN Paris treaty. They have also spent heavily on influencing the direction of specific geographic regions and industry sectors, including backing efforts to pass renewable energy mandates in dozens of states; supporting the growth of the wind sector in the Midwest; nurturing the West Coast solar industry; and promoting the adoption of renewables and efficiency practices among utilities, municipalities, and companies.

To achieve their goals, foundations have spent their money on behalf of policies and practices that shift markets, industry, and consumers in the direction of renewables and efficiency practices. They have bet heavily on market-driven engineering solutions, relying on economic signals that make carbon-energy sources more expensive in order to achieve cuts in emissions.

My analysis of $556 million in US-focused grants awarded between 2011 and 2015 by 19 influential foundations shows that they continued to invest in efforts to shape federal climate and energy policy but redirected much of their funding to support actions at the regional, state, or municipal level, prioritizing the West Coast, Midwest, and Northeast regions.

The largest environmental grant makers remained committed to their decades-old policy and technology road map on climate change, investing in familiar approaches, strategies, and goals. In this case, one out of every four dollars invested ($140.3 million) was dedicated to promoting renewable energy and efficiency-related actions across states and various industry sectors, with an additional 27% ($151 million) going to communication and mobilization efforts, much of this focusing on influencing public sentiment in politically strategic Midwest states.

Funders also responded to past critics who had argued for investment in climate change resilience, and for greater financial resources devoted to opposing the fossil fuel industry. More than $55 million was dedicated to building sustainable and resilient cities and local economies, with $17.2 million focused on the needs of low-income and minority communities. Philanthropists were also aggressive in targeting the fossil fuel industry, spending $69.4 million to limit coal power, ban or restrict fracking, and hold the industry accountable for pollution and legal violations.

Source: Nisbet, M.C. (2018). WIREs Climate Change, 9, (4), e524.

Foundation investments and strategies have led to several important successes. Many of the market and social forces propelling renewable energy today are a result of the decades-long road map pursued by major climate funders. The 99% decline since the early 1990s in the cost of solar panels, concludes a recent study published in Energy Policy, would not have happened without the types of market-stimulating policies long favored by philanthropies. But early spending by governments on research and development was also essential, as were the enormous economies of scale achieved by Chinese overproduction and dumping of cheap panels on US markets.

Although the grant investments intended to influence voter opinion in Midwest states did not pay off during the 2016 presidential elections, the efforts have likely altered consumer and opinion-leader sentiment across several major cities and municipalities in favor of renewable energy. In 2018, one of the Midwest’s largest utilities announced plans to cut carbon emissions from electricity production by 80% over the next dozen years and to rely on 100% zero net carbon electricity by mid-century.

Yet California is the brightest philanthropic success. Influencing the direction of the world’s fifth biggest economy has been a top priority for foundations. Not only have statewide improvements in energy efficiency decreased the demand for electricity in California even as the economy and population have grown, but the sharp drop in the price of solar panels combined with state renewable energy mandates have accelerated the transition from reliance on natural gas plants to clean energy sources. At the 2018 Climate Action Summit, outgoing Governor Jerry Brown announced the signing of an executive order committing the state’s entire economy to net zero carbon emissions by 2045.

Many challenges, however, remain for California, according to a 2018 Los Angeles Times analysis of state agency data, challenges that also apply to most other states. Emissions from cars and trucks, already the biggest source of carbon pollution in the state, continue to increase. Lower gas prices have not helped, nor has consumer preference for bigger, less-efficient cars and the relatively slow adoption of electric vehicles.

The scheduled shuttering of California’s last remaining emissions-free nuclear power plant may also shift some electricity generation back to natural gas, with renewables currently not able to take up the slack. Similarly, at the national level a glut of cheap natural gas also threatens the country’s 100 nuclear power plants, which generate 20% of all US electricity and 50% of the country’s carbon-free electricity. In most states, solar and wind power will not be able to make up for lost nuclear generation. Instead, emissions-free nuclear will be replaced by carbon-polluting natural gas or in some cases coal.

Looming over the momentum achieved by philanthropists and their grantees are the conclusions of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The authors of the report estimate that in order to meet the Paris climate treaty’s more ambitious goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, world carbon dioxide emissions would need to be cut 50% by 2030 and entirely by 2050. To achieve this historically unprecedented societal shift, most of the IPCC scenarios along with numerous other expert projections call for not only the massive expansion of renewable energy, but also major investments in nuclear energy, carbon capture and storage, negative emissions technologies, and research evaluating geoengineering options.

Such scenarios directly challenge the foundation world’s deeply institutionalized patterns of spending. In the years leading up to the 2016 elections, funders almost exclusively backed grantees that aligned with their long-standing commitment to renewable energy, channeling more than half of the $556 million in grants distributed to just 20 organizations. As a consequence, only $1.3 million in grants supported development of carbon capture and storage. And out of 2,502 grants, not a single one focused on keeping existing US nuclear energy power plants open or on boosting development of advanced nuclear technologies. Nor did a single grant finance efforts to establish federal funding for geoengineering research or negative emissions technology.

Over the next few years, foundations will also face difficult political choices in their grant making. Campaigns waged by their grantees among environmentalists and progressives opposing natural gas fracking, oil and gas pipelines, and nuclear energy plants, along with new “intersectional” causes related to race, ethnicity, and gender, are likely to amplify political polarization and serve as potent rallying points for Republican donors and activists opposed to climate change action. These issues also divide liberals and centrists and will be a major source of contention during the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries and national convention.

Within the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, the progressive caucus has proposed a Green New Deal legislative agenda that has sparked widespread excitement among liberal activists, thinkers, and donors. The package of proposals tying together greenhouse gas emissions cuts with a government job program, infrastructure spending, universal health insurance, income inequality, and anti-discrimination efforts has elevated the political agenda status of climate change, yet each of these causes has proven to be politically divisive in its own right.

The New Green Deal also calls for a transition to 100% renewable energy within the span of a decade, a transition that almost every expert believes is technically impossible. In line with IPCC projections, experts see a path for US states and utilities to shift to 80% renewable energy for electricity production by 2030, but the final 20% is likely to rely on other technologies such as nuclear energy and carbon capture, which progressive House Democrats tend to oppose. A highly implausible decade long timeline is also proposed for decarbonizing the transportation sector, which accounts for nearly 30% of US emissions.

There are, however, important signs of change among a few influential funders, acknowledging the realities and challenges ahead. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has over the past few years provided grants to the Energy Reform Innovation Project and similarly focused groups to work “on energy solutions that resonate with center-right interests, including mitigation technologies such as carbon capture and storage and advanced nuclear.” Larry Kramer, the president of Hewlett, is on record as saying he takes seriously criticism that past investing on climate change has been too narrow. “We are in a position of spreading our bets,” he told Inside Philanthropy. Hewlett is also working to diversify the types of funders committing money to the problem. Despite the billions spent by philanthropy on climate change, this funding still only accounts for 1% of all foundation giving, noted Kramer.

Similarly, in 2018, the president of the MacArthur Foundation, Julia Stasch, in a coauthored statement with the chief executive officer of the Exelon Corporation, the largest operator of nuclear power plants in the United States, announced that her organization would begin to support work related to nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage. The two leaders urged greater collaboration between environmentalists and the energy industry. “The climate challenge is so steep and urgent that we will need to be prepared to deploy all available tools to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, not just renewable energy,” they wrote.

The question moving forward is whether other philanthropists will join Hewlett and MacArthur in recognizing not only the need for a broader set of technological options, but also the need to build a broader political coalition that seeks out nontraditional allies and welcomes challenging ideas. Much of the climate philanthropy world remains fiercely partisan. Absent the checks and balances of democratic institutions or even the competitive marketplace, who will scrutinize this insulated world’s activities, shining a critical light on its decisions, evaluating its successes and mistakes?

A version of this article was previously published at Issues in Science and Technology magazine.

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Nisbet, M. C. (2019). Climate Philanthropy and the Four Billion (Dollars, That Is). Issues in Science and Technology, 35(2), 34-36.

Talking science and society at church

Over the past two decades, high profile debates over human origins, abortion, and stem cell research have distracted from the opportunities that scientists, skeptics, and religious Americans have to forge relationships built on common values and goals.

Though topics such as the teaching of evolution may generate disagreements, other areas of science (such as health, sustainability, climate change, and food security) may not. Even in the face of disagreements, dialogue-based efforts can help break down stereotypes between scientists, skeptics, and people of faith, cultivating mutual respect and personal relationships, leading to collaboration on society’s most pressing problems.

These are some of the main points emphasized in a recent report Scientists in Civic Life: Facilitating Dialogue-Based Communication, which I authored on behalf of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (Nisbet 2018).The booklet provides an overview on relevant research, practices, and examples that scientists, skeptics, and their partners can draw on to encourage more thoughtful dialogue about science and society.

As one of the world’s largest scientific societies, AAAS has long emphasized the importance of public dialogue to its membership and the scientific community at large. “[Scientists] need to engage the public in a more open and honest, bidirectional dialogue about science and technology … addressing not only the inherent benefits, but also the limits, perils, and pitfalls,” wrote former CEO Alan Leshner in a 2003 Science editorial.

Consistent with this mission, the aim of the new booklet is to empower scientists and their institutions to play a more active role in bringing Americans of diverse backgrounds together to spend time talking to each other, contributing to mutual appreciation and collaboration. Churches are a vital place to begin.

Networks of engagement

When I moved in 2014 with my family from Washington, D.C., to a small city north of Boston, I was surprised to find that my new community had a locally based group of volunteers who were working to promote climate change resilience efforts along the city’s riverfront and ocean coastline. The hub for this group was a centuries-old church at the center of town, where members would meet during evenings and after Sunday services to plan their efforts and recruit new volunteers.

Religion, as this example shows, is more than just a belief system that shapes how people understand or prioritize a problem such as climate change. Churches are communication centers where information is shared and conversations can take place about complex science-related issues.

For these reasons and others, it is important for scientists and other experts to build deep relationships with their local churches, temples, and mosques. Congregational leaders rely on strong interpersonal bonds and norms of stewardship to encourage their members to participate in civic-related activities. These networks are further strengthened by the moral framing of issues by church leaders, the conversations that churchgoers have with others, and information provided directly when at church (Lewis et al. 2013).

Even today, research shows that churches remain the social context where Americans are most likely to receive requests to become involved in their communities (see Figure 1). Specific to science-related issues, they may be called upon to help people recover from the impacts of climate change, to work on actions to educate their communities about public health, or to voice their opinions to elected officials on topics such as evolution or biomedical research.

Dialogue in a turbulent world

In facilitating productive dialogue about science topics that intersect with faith and religion, all scientists and academics have a role to play. Regardless of their personal beliefs, when engaging in conversations with faith communities, scientists can connect around common values and interests.

Every scientist is also likely to find something in common with people and groups who live and work in their local community. As fellow residents, scientists can build connections by way of their identification with local pastimes, sport teams, entertainment choices, favorite businesses, economic trends, school districts, cultural traditions, natural resources, and climate/weather events.

Consider E.O. Wilson’s (2006) approach to facilitating a dialogue with religious leaders and their communities. In his book The Creation, Wilson described environmental stewardship as not only a scientific matter but also one of personal and moral duty. Wilson’s aim in writing the book was to engage a religious audience that might not otherwise pay attention to popular science books or, for that matter, appeals on the environment. Wilson passionately believed, as he told Bill Moyers in a 2007 interview:

[If atheists and religious folk] sat down and talked about our deepest beliefs together, we’d come up with more agreements, than disagreements. …Science and religion are the two most powerful social forces in the world. Having them at odds at each other all the way up to the highest levels of government and the popular media all the time is not productive.

Scientists who are themselves already a part of faith communities may be particularly well-positioned to serve as trusted dialogue brokers. By one 2011–2012 survey estimate, approximately 11 percent of U.S. biologists and physicists say they attend church services at least weekly, and a similar proportion say they hold no doubts about the existence of God. More than one third claim a religious affiliation (Ecklund et al. 2016) (see Table below).

Through their shared beliefs and community membership, these boundary spanners are likely to be effective at facilitating conversations between their fellow scientists and those members of the public who share their faith. In doing so, they can draw on their own experience to share insights on the relationship between science and their personal faith. A leading example is Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who as a Christian evangelical regularly speaks to congregations about climate science, drawing on her faith to connect to audiences by way of a shared identity and language.

Science in seminaries

Many religious leaders and clergy are also interested in facilitating constructive conversations among their congregations and faith communities about scientific topics. Unfortunately, clergy have historically not been likely to have formal training in how to lead thoughtful dialogue about the social implications of science. To address this gap, the AAAS DoSER program has partnered with Christian seminaries and theological schools to include more science in their core curricula as part of an ongoing “Science for Seminaries” project.

Each partner seminary, in consultation with AAAS, integrates science articles, books, films, guest lectures, laboratory and research site visits, and other content into core course offerings such as biblical studies, church history, and theology. These resources are developed in collaboration with local scientists to build and strengthen relationships with local science institutions. A program called Scientists in Synagogues is a similar grassroots initiative designed to equip Jewish clergy, scientists, and laypeople with the knowledge and skills to engage in dialogue and learn about society’s biggest questions, drawing on science and religion as sources of wisdom and inspiration.

At synagogues and Jewish community centers, the program sponsors adult education courses, lectures, and events on topics exploring the intersections among Judaism, neuroscience, astronomy, evolutionary science, moral psychology, and other scientific fields.

Talking faith and climate

Specific to climate change, research conducted by the U.K.-based nonprofit ClimateOutreach has examined the narratives, metaphors, imagery, and frames of reference that can be used by scientists and religious leaders to engage people of faith by way of informal conversations, public statements, popular articles, and sermons. This research and similar studies recommend presenting a commitment to climate change as representing a moral responsibility to God, our children, neighbors, the “least of us,” and “all of creation.” Climate change can be discussed as part of a story arc that encompasses a challenge, an action, and a resolution—a narrative style familiar from scripture (Roberts and Clarke 2016).

Yet even when framed in such terms by the highest religious authorities, scientists and science communicators should recognize that this approach has limits, especially outside of a localized, dialogue-focused framework. For example, an analysis of responses by Catholics to Pope Francis’s 2015 Laudato si encyclical on climate change found, somewhat predictably, that liberal Catholics tended to assign the pontiff greater credibility on the issue, while more conservative Catholics assigned the pontiff less credibility. In this case, the political identity of these Catholics tended to trump their faith-based one (Li et al. 2016).

Looking ahead, as more and more scientists and their institutions turn to locally focused dialogue activities to engage publics on the biggest science and society questions, a first step toward improved relations with religious Americans and their churches may be simply to recognize and affirm shared values, beliefs, and goals. With this established, further dialogue can be structured in such a way as to encourage working together toward common goals on climate change and other pressing problems.

Related posts


Nisbet, M.C. (2019). Talking Science and Society at Church. Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, 43 (1), 22-24.


  • Ecklund, Elaine Howard, David R. Johnson, Christopher P. Scheitle, et al. 2016. Religion among scientists in international context: A new study of scientists in eight regions. Socius 2: 2378023116664353.
  • Leshner, A.I. 2003. Public engagement with science. Science 299(5609): 977.
  • Lewis, Valerie A., Carol Ann MacGregor, and Robert D. Putnam. 2013. Religion, networks, and neighborliness: The impact of religious social networks on civic engagement. Social Science Research 42(2): 331–346.
  • Li, N., J. Hilgard, D.A. Scheufele, et al. 2016. Cross-pressuring conservative Catholics? Effects of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the US public opinion on climate change. Climatic Change 139(3–4): 367–380.
  • Nisbet, M.C. 2018. Scientists in Civic Life: Facilitating Dialogue-Based Communication. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science. Available online at
  • Roberts, O., and J. Clarke. 2016. Faith & Climate Change – A guide to talking with the five major faiths. Oxford: Climate Outreach. Available online at
  • Wilson, E.O. 2006. The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. New York: WW Norton & Company.

The Ecomodernists: A new way of thinking about climate change and human progress

A futuristic vision of an ecomodernist Sydney, Australia.

Nov. 1, 2018 Scientists expect this year globally to be the fourth-hottest on record, with the only warmer years being the three previous ones. Since 2001, we have lived on a planet that has experienced seventeen of the eighteen hottest years ever observed.

The alarming temperature records set over the past two decades are consistent with a century-long pattern, rigorously confirmed by multiple lines of scientific evidence: the burning of fossil fuels has driven a rise in heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, which has already caused nearly a 1 Celsius (C) degree rise in global temperatures.

The impact from destabilizing Earth’s climate system are being felt by people living in every country of the world. This summer, record heat in Japan and elsewhere caused dozens of deaths. Firefighters in California struggled to control the largest forest fire on record, one of about twenty that ravaged the state. Forest fires also raged across Canada and even in the Arctic. In Europe, where fires led to deaths in Greece, record-setting heat also severely damaged crops and caused other freakish events. Rivers were so warm in some places that some nuclear reactors had to shut down because the water was too hot to cool them.

“This summer of fire and swelter looks a lot like the future that scientists have been warning about in the era of climate change,” wrote Somini Sengupta (2018) in a front-page story in The New York Times. “It’s revealing in real time how unprepared much of the world remains for life on a hotter planet.”

Teasing out the unique role played by human-caused climate change in contributing to extreme weather events (in comparison to natural fluctuations) has long been a scientific challenge. But in recent years research in the area of “attribution science” has developed into a mature field. To date, scientists have published more than 170 reports covering 190 extreme weather events around the world, according to an analysis by the journal Nature. About two-thirds of extreme weather events studied were determined by scientists to have been made more likely, or more severe, by human-driven climate change. Heat extremes accounted for 43 percent of these events, followed by droughts (18 percent) and extreme rain or flooding (17 percent) (Schiermeier 2018).

Acknowledging the threats posed by human-caused climate change, in 2015 almost all of the world’s countries pledged as part of the United Nations climate treaty to keep global temperature rise this century to lower than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to strive for a 1.5 degrees C. But to achieve this goal, greenhouse gas emissions would need to be cut by at least 70 percent by 2050 (Tollefson 2018).

As the shift away from fossil fuels to low carbon energy moves at a snail’s pace compared to what is needed, in 2017 emissions worldwide rose by nearly 2 percent, the first increase in four years. In an August 2018 lead editorial at The Economist, the typically optimistic magazine put the state of progress in the bluntest of terms, running the headline: “The World is Losing the War on Climate Change” (“The World” 2018).

In countries around the world, to replace fossil fuels the massive deployment of solar and wind power will likely need to be supplemented by thousands of advanced nuclear power plants; natural gas plants that capture and bury their emissions; and a gigantically bigger, more powerful, and vastly more complicated energy transmission and storage system. These are just the challenges in decarbonizing the electricity sector. Equally daunting obstacles exist in the agriculture and transportation sectors (Temple 2018).

As countries struggle to limit their greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonize their economies, there has emerged a space in public life for new ways of thinking about climate change, energy, and politics. In books, essays, and research, a group of intellectuals and scholars calling themselves “ecomodernists” or “ecopragmatists” have put forward a set of ideas that break from conventional thinking, challenging longstanding paradigms about nature, technology, and progress (Fahy and Nisbet 2017; Nisbet 2014).

The Decarbonization Challenge

Most of today’s rise in greenhouse gas emissions is driven by energy-hungry Asian nations seeking to rapidly grow their economies and improve the standard of living for billions of people. Between 2006–2016, energy consumption in Asia rose by 40 percent. In India, where emissions are growing the fastest, the country remains highly dependent on coal to produce three-quarters of its electricity. In 2017, the country’s use of the world’s most polluting fossil fuel grew by 5 percent (“The Year” 2018).

In Germany, even as the country has made unprecedented gains in the deployment of solar and wind power, emissions over the past two years have slightly increased. In 2011, Germany made the rash political decision to phase out its seventeen emissions-free nuclear power plants, which at the time accounted for 25 percent of the country’s electricity generation. In doing so, Germany has remained strongly dependent on some of the dirtiest coal power plants in the world for more than 40 percent of its electricity. Efforts to cut emissions have also faltered because of unexpected growth in the economy and lower oil prices, which encouraged greater use of home oil heating and car transportation (“Germany” 2017).

In the United States, the good news is that emissions have declined since their historic peak in 2007, though they still remain above 1990 levels, according to official government estimates. The decline has been driven primarily by the revolution in shale gas drilling or “fracking,” which lowered the cost of generating electricity from cleaner burning natural gas power plants, putting many dirtier and more expensive coal power plants out of business (Barboza and Lange 2018).

Questions remain, however, about how much methane is leaked into the atmosphere from natural gas production and transport. A recent study estimated that the leakage rate was 60 percent greater than the U.S. government had previously estimated. Such a discrepancy is important to evaluating the benefits of natural gas, since the atmospheric warming impact of methane during the first two decades after its release is more than eighty times more potent than carbon dioxide (Guglielmi 2018).

A glut of cheap natural gas also threatens the country’s 100 emissions-free nuclear power plants, which generate 20 percent of U.S. electricity. Because the United States does not have a national carbon tax or fee, the climate change benefits of nuclear power plants are not factored into their operating costs. Since 2013, five nuclear plants have closed and six more are scheduled to shut down by 2025, even though these older plants could still operate for decades. In most states, solar and wind power will not be able to take up the slack in electricity generation. Instead, nuclear power will be replaced by dirtier natural gas (Plumer 2017).

A bright spot may be California, the fifth largest economy in the world. Even as the state’s population has surged—its economy has grown by 40 percent over the past two decades—the carbon intensity of California’s economy (the amount of carbon pollution per million dollars of economic growth) has declined by 38 percent and is now below 1990 levels. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, carbon intensity declined 6 percent even as the economy grew by 3 percent (Barboza and Lang 2018).

The shift is driven by a major decline in emissions from the electricity sector. Not only have state-wide improvements in energy efficiency decreased the demand for electricity even as the economy and population have grown, a sharp drop in the price of solar panels combined with state renewable energy mandates have accelerated the transition from natural gas plants to clean energy sources. Rain in the state after five years of drought also boosted electric generation from hydropower (Barboza and Lange 2018).

Many challenges remain for California. The scheduled shuttering of the state’s last remaining nuclear power plant may shift some electricity generation back to natural gas. Emissions from cars and trucks, already the biggest source of carbon pollution in the state, continue to increase. Lower gas prices until recently have not helped, nor has consumer preference for bigger, less efficient cars and the relatively slow adoption of electric vehicles (Barboza and Lange 2018).

Continued success in California and the United States also hinges on U.S. federal policy. But the Donald J. Trump administration since taking office has installed at major regulatory and scientific agencies fossil fuel industry lobbyists and conservative operatives who have spent their careers casting doubt on climate science and opposing any policies to cut emissions. According to one recent study, the fossil fuel industry and other sectors that are major emitters enjoy a ten-to-one lobbying advantage over environmental groups and the clean energy sector (Brulle 2018). At such a disadvantage, even if Democrats were to win back control of the White House and Congress, any successful climate change–related legislation will not only need some Republican support but also the backing of major players from the fossil fuel industry.

But such concessions are likely to be opposed by many environmentalists, who have gained considerable sway within the Democratic party. To win party primaries, Democrats running in districts and states where liberal voters dominate have pledged to promote a “100% renewables” platform that opposes all new fossil fuel infrastructure, seeks a ban on natural gas “fracking,” and demands the closure of nuclear power plants (Nisbet 2015).

The Rise of Ecomodernism

The roots of ecomodernism can be traced to a handful of influential books, articles, and policy papers first published a decade ago. In 2009’s Whole Earth Discipline, ecologist and futurist Stuart Brand laid out a range of innovation-driven strategies for achieving a sustainable society. His ideas were captured effectively by the subtitle: “Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary.”

Brand correctly warned that “soft energy path” technologies such as solar and wind favored by environmentalists were unlikely to be able to overcome the problems of intermittency, storage capacity, and cost and be scalable in time to alter the dynamics of fossil fuel energy use and dependency worldwide. He and other ecomodernists have pointed to the demand for growth in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe and the sunk costs that these regions are putting into coal power and other fossil fuels.

During the 1960s and 1970s, as North American and European countries achieved economic security and prosperity, their citizens began to put pressure on their governments to accelerate efforts to reduce pollution, slow rates of deforestation, and limit land use, thereby conserving nature rather than destroying it. A similar pattern is occurring in China, which through state-managed economic growth has achieved a rising, affluent middle class.

But for growth to continue in China, and for India and other developing countries to also gain access to abundant forms of energy, transformative innovations in “hard energy” path options such as nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage are required, along with similar advances in high-tech solar, energy transmission, and energy storage technologies. These advances would be needed to not only meet the demand for growth in these regions but also limit emissions from the thousands of coal plants already in place and scheduled to be built around the world.

In 2009’s Why We Disagree about Climate Change, University of Cambridge geographer Mike Hulme argued that climate change had been misdiagnosed as a conventional environmental problem. Instead, it was what policy scholars referred to as a uniquely “super-wicked” problem, not something society was going to end or solve; like poverty or war, it was something that we were going to do better or worse at managing over time. As a super-wicked problem, argue other ecomodernists, climate change is so complex in scale with so many different drivers that a single omnibus solution such as a national carbon tax or an international emissions agreement is unlikely to be either politically enduring or effective. Instead, policies would be needed to be implemented at the state, regional, and bilateral levels and through the private and nonprofit sectors (Prins and Rayner 2007; Verweij et al. 2006).

At the international level, examples include focusing more narrowly on reducing especially powerful, but easier to tackle, greenhouse gases such as black carbon (or soot) from diesel cars and dirty stoves and methane from leaky gas pipes. At the national and state levels, examples of smaller scale policies include government technology procurement programs; major investments in climate change resilience to protect cities, people, and industries; subsidies for renewables, nuclear energy, and carbon capture; funding for clean energy research; and investments in climate resilience efforts. As these smaller successes are achieved, argue ecomodernists, we not only gain more time to deal with the bigger policy challenges but also start to rebuild networks of trust and cooperation across lines of political difference while experimenting with new solutions and technologies (Nordhaus et al. 2011; Prins and Rayner 2007).

These ideas and others have been researched, expanded on, and promoted by the Breakthrough Institute, a left-of-center think tank founded by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. In 2015, the two brought together sixteen other similarly minded thinkers to author An Ecomodernist Manifesto. They argued that climate change and other environmental crises are not reason to call into question the economic policies and technological advances that have enabled human society to flourish over the past century. Indeed, halting the many societal gains we have achieved through technological innovation, they argue, rules out the best tools we have for combating climate change, protecting nature, and helping people. The urgent environmental problems we face are evidence in favor of more modernization, not less (Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015).

Hope for a better future, they contend, starts with advanced technologies that intensify rather than weaken our mastery of nature. High-tech crops, advanced nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, aquaculture, desalination, and high-efficiency solar panels all have the potential to not only reduce human demands on the environment but also spark the economic growth needed to lift people out of extreme poverty. These advances will enable more people to live in bigger cities that are powered and fed more efficiently. People in cities also tend to have fewer children, slowing population growth. From this perspective, technological advances and urbanization will free up more space on the planet for nature, “decoupling” human development from fossil fuel and resource consumption.

To achieve this future, ecomodernists warn that we have put too much faith in carbon pricing, social-impact investing, venture capital, Silicon Valley, and other market-based “neoliberal” mechanisms to spur technological innovation and social change. We need to instead focus more intensively on understanding how technological advances happen and the role of government planning and spending—rather than the market—as the main driver of innovation and societal change. Once there are technologies available that make meaningful action on climate change and other problems cost less, ecomodernists predict, much of the political argument over scientific uncertainty will diminish. The challenge is not to make fossil fuels more expensive but to make their technological alternatives cheaper and more powerful.

Under these conditions, it will be easier to gain political cooperation from across the ideological spectrum and from developing countries. National leaders and their constituents are far more likely to spare nature because it is no longer needed to meet their economic goals than they are for any ideological or moral reasons. Over the past year, ecomodernist ideas have received a boost from Harvard University cognitive linguist Steven Pinker (2018), who in his best-selling book Enlightenment Now devotes his chapter on the environment to advocating on behalf of the philosophy and the need for technologies such as nuclear energy.

Pinker is part of a parallel genre of “New Optimist” authors who have been inspired by the work of Hans Rosling and affiliated data scientists. In TED talks, a recent book, and vividly illustrated graphs available at the website Our World in Data, Rosling and colleagues have shown the many ways in which human societies are flourishing in the age of climate change, countering a powerful cultural narrative that the world for decades has been in a state of escalating crisis, decline, and suffering (Rosling et al. 2018).

Valuing Dissent

For ecomodernists, technological and political progress also require respectful engagement with a diversity of voices and ideas. “Too often discussions about the environment have been dominated by the extremes, and plagued by dogmatism, which in turn fuels intolerance,” they write in the Manifesto.

At their core, ecomodernists believe in applying the Enlightenment principles of skepticism and dissent, which are essential to wise and effective decisions, especially in relation to wickedly complex problems such as climate change. Numerous social science studies demonstrate that in situations where groupthink is closely guarded and defended to the exclusion of dissenting voices, individuals and groups tend to make poorer decisions and think less productively.

In contrast, exposure to dissent, even when such arguments may prove to be wrong, tends to broaden thinking, leading individuals to think in more open ways, in multiple directions, and in consideration of a greater diversity of options, recognizing flaws and weaknesses in positions. “Learning and good intentions won’t save us from biased thinking and poor judgments,” notes UC-Berkeley psychologist Charlan Nemeth in 2018’s In Defense of Trouble Makers. “A better route is to have our beliefs and ways of thinking directly challenged by someone who authentically believes differently than we” (Nemeth 2018, 191).

Acting on these principles, the Breakthrough Institute has invested in twice yearly “Dialogues” in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., creating the rare forum where progressives, liberals, conservatives, environmentalists, and industrialists come together to debate ideas and to connect over civil, cross-cutting conversations. To elaborate on these ideas, the Institute also publishes the Breakthrough Journal and produces the podcast series Breakthrough Dialogues.

On the road to managing the many threats we face from climate change, grassroots activism and political reforms that hold the fossil fuel industry accountable are important, as is the quest for a more advanced arsenal of technological options and a reconsideration of our economic goals. But so too is investment in our capacity to learn, discuss, question, and disagree in ways that constructively engage with uncomfortable ideas (Nisbet 2014).

Unfortunately, most academics and journalists avoid challenging the powerful forms of groupthink that have derailed our efforts to combat climate change. In this regard, attacks on those who question cherished assumptions have had a powerful chilling effect. We therefore depend on risk-taking intellectuals such as the ecomodernists to lead the way, identifying the flaws in conventional wisdom and offering alternative ways of thinking and talking about our shared future.


Nisbet, M.C. (2018). The Ecomodernists: A New Way of Thinking about Climate Change and Human Progress. Skeptical Inquirer, (42) 6, 20-24.


Asafu-Adjaye, J., L. Blomqvist, S. Brand, et al. 2015. An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Oakland, CA: The Breakthrough Institute. Available online at

Barboza, T., and J.H. Lange. 2018. California hit its climate goal early—but its biggest source of pollution keeps rising. The Los Angeles Times (July 23).

Brulle, R.J. 2018. The climate lobby: A sectoral analysis of lobbying spending on climate change in the USA, 2000 to 2016. Climatic Change: 1–15.

Fahy, D., and M.C. Nisbet. 2017. The ecomodernist: Journalists who are reimagining a sustainable future. In P. Berglez, U. Olausson, and M. Ots (Eds), What Is Sustainable Journalism? London: Peter Lang.

Hulme, M. 2009. Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

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Guglielmi, G. 2018. Methane leaks from US gas fields dwarf government estimates. Nature 558: 496–497.

Nemeth, C. 2018. In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business. New York: Basic Books.

Nisbet, M.C. 2014. Disruptive ideas: Public intellectuals and their arguments for action on climate change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 5(6): 809–823.

———. 2015. Environmental advocacy in the Obama years: Assessing new strategies for political change. In N. Vig and M. Kraft (Eds), Environmental Policy: New Directions for the Twenty-First Century, 9th Edition. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 58–78.

Nordhaus, T., and M. Shellenberger. 2007. Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

———. 2013. How the left came to reject cheap energy for the poor. The Breakthrough (July 10). Available online at

Nordhaus, T., M. Shellenberger, R. Pielke, et al. 2011. Climate Pragmatism: Innovation, Resilience, and No Regrets. Oakland, CA: The Breakthrough Institute. Available online at archive/climate_pragmatism_innovation.

Pinker, S. 2018. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. London, UK: Penguin Books.

Plumer, B. 2017. Glut of natural gas pressures nuclear power, and climate goals, too. The New York Times (June 14): A17.

Prins, G., and S. Rayner. 2007. Time to ditch Kyoto. Nature 449(7165): 973.

Rosling, H., A.R. Rönnlund, and O. Rosling. 2018. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. New York: Flatiron Books.

Schiermeier, Q. 2018. Droughts, heatwaves and floods: How to tell when climate change is to blame. Nature 560(7716): 20.

Sengupta, S. 2018. The year global warming made its menace a reality. The New York Times (August 9): A1.

Temple, J. 2018. At this rate, it’s going to take nearly 400 years to transform the energy system. MIT Technology Review (March 14). Available online at

Tollefson, J. 2018. Can the world kick its fossil-fuel addiction fast enough? Nature 556(7702): 422–425.

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Funding the News: Summary of Shorenstein Center study on foundations and nonprofit media

June 18, 2018–In a new Shorenstein Center study conducted with colleagues at Northeastern University, we assess major patterns in foundation support for nonprofit journalism and media in the half decade leading up to the 2016 election, focusing specifically on support for digital news nonprofits.

Launched over the past fifteen years, digital news nonprofits at the national and state/local level such as ProPublica and Texas Tribune, along with their public media peers, have aimed to fill gaps in coverage created by the dramatic decline of the newspaper industry. Most news nonprofits rely heavily on foundation funding as a primary or major source of revenue. Assessing foundation investments is therefore crucial, since they remain the financial backbone of nonprofit news, playing a behind-the-scenes role in guiding the direction of the field, including the types of subjects covered, organizations supported, and regions prioritized.

We assessed 32,422 relevant grants totaling $1.8 billion distributed by 6,568 foundations supporting journalism and media-related activities between 2010 and 2015. About a third of this funding or $570 million was dedicated to journalism higher education, the Newseum, journalism fellowships, and journalism research, legal support, and technology development. An additional 44% or $795 million supported public media and 5% or about $81 million backed nonprofit magazines.

In comparison, 20% or about $331 million directly supported national, local/state, and university-based digital news nonprofits. In evaluating direct support for digital news nonprofits, we conclude that many innovative projects and experiments have happened and continue to take place, but that grantmaking remains far below what is needed, even in an era of increased journalism giving following the 2016 elections. Our analysis identifies sharp geographic disparities in foundation funding, a heavy concentration of resources in a few dozen successful digital news nonprofits and on behalf of coverage of a few issues. At the national level, there was also the granting of money to a disproportionate number of ideologically-oriented outlets.

Although there are some success stories, neither the digital news nonprofit sector, nor any other form of commercial media have yet been able to meaningfully fill the gaps in coverage created by the collapse of the newspaper industry. A major challenge is that despite more than 6,500 foundations supporting journalism- and media-related activities during the first half of this decade, just a few dozen foundations have provided the bulk of direct support for news gathering. At the state and local level in particular, digital nonprofit media funding depends heavily on the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and a few other philanthropies. Several trends since 2016, however, offer reason for optimism, including the launch of the NewRevenue Hub and NewsMatch, along with the considerable “Trump bump” in revenue at ProPublica, which has used the funds to expand its operations at the state and local level.

Key Findings

Several funding categories assessed in the Shorenstein study were not directly related to news nonprofits but represented activities or initiatives intended to enhance the field of journalism generally and its public understanding. These other categories of grants reflect the tough choices that funders face, as prioritizing one of these areas, even if to improve the practice and reach of journalism in society, may take away from direct support for nonprofit news production. Specific to these other activities:

  • Journalism and communication programs at universities along with the Newseum received $369 million or 21% of the $1.8 billion in relevant funding distributed over the six-year period.
  • Journalist professional development received an estimated $122 million or approximately 7% of the $1.8 billion in funding analyzed. These grants supported journalist associations, awards, training workshops, and fellowships.
  • Journalism-related research, technology development, legal support, and philanthropic coordination received approximately $79 million or 4% of all funding during the six-year period analyzed.

Relative to direct funding for non-profit news production, among the study’s key findings:

  • Public media received approximately $796 million or about 44% of the $1.8 billion in grant money analyzed. Much of this funding supported non-news content such as programming related to the arts, music, culture, or entertainment. Twenty-five public media stations and content producers accounted for 70% of all funding, with grant money going primarily to stations or content producers based in 10 states. Such concentration means that public media organizations across the great majority of states lack the funding necessary to evolve into digital news hubs producing local reporting that fills gaps in newspaper coverage.
  • Magazines generated an estimated $80.1 million in grant support over the six years assessed, accounting for about 5% of all funding. The nonprofit magazine field has winnowed to the degree that a few dozen publications received 99% of foundation funding with a similar number of foundations providing most of the support. Grant making also flowed heavily in the direction of ideological perspectives, with nine liberal/left wing magazines and five conservative/right wing counterparts ranking among the top 25 grant recipients.
  • National news nonprofits were backed by approximately $216 million in foundation funding or about 12% of the $1.8 billion analyzed. Eight out of 10 foundation dollars supported just 25 news nonprofits, with four investigative journalism units topping the list. The leading two dozen recipients were also notable for featuring six deep-vertical news organizations that specialize in coverage of topics like the environment, and six nonprofits that have a clear ideological perspective. Overall, national news nonprofits are highly dependent on about two dozen institutional funders for nearly 70% of the grants distributed over the 6-year period analyzed.
  • Local/state nonprofit news organizations received approximately $80.1 million or about 5% of the $1.8 billion analyzed. As foundations pursued strategies designed to fill gaps in local newspaper reporting, they focused primarily on 11 state/local public affairs news sites, six state/local investigative news units, and coverage specific to health care and the environment. Other major investments backed the Institute for Nonprofit News and related initiatives aimed at building capacity and collaboration across the nonprofit news sector. Local/state news nonprofits also depended on a limited pool of funders for their support, with the Knight Foundation driving most of the growth in the area, accounting for 20% of funding during the six-year period we analyzed.
  • University-based journalism initiatives that produce either local or national coverage of public affairs were backed by an estimated $35.9 million or about 2% of the $1.8 billion analyzed. Just five universities accounted for half of all foundation funding, and 16 of the top 25 grant-receiving campuses were based in either California or the Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. metro areas. In terms of major grantmakers, 25 foundations provided 91% of the funding in the area, with the Knight Foundation accounting for nearly a third of all grant dollars distributed.