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.

Cite this:

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.

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.

Download PDF


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

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.

Germany is missing its emissions targets. 2017. The Economist (November 9).

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.

Verweij, M., M. Douglas, R. Ellis, et al. 2006. Clumsy solutions for a complex world: The case of climate change. Public Administration 84: 847–843.

The world is losing the war against climate change. 2018. The Economist (August 2). Available online at

The year global warming made its menace a reality. 2018. The Economist (August 2).

Strategic philanthropy in the post cap-and-trade years: Summary of new paper on U.S. foundation funding

In a paper published this week,  I review the history of U.S. philanthropic strategy relative to climate change, before assessing the important 5-year period following the defeat of the 2010 cap and trade bill and leading up to the 2016 elections. I analyze $557 million distributed across 2,502 grants by 19 major foundations, detailing the financial support for specific strategies and solutions, noting longstanding patterns in funding, but also evidence of new directions. Today, major foundations are once again identifying next steps and possible new directions related to Federal and state policy. In the conclusion to the paper, I emphasize the implications for strategic philanthropy during the Donald J. Trump presidency and beyond. The peer-reviewed article appears at Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews Climate Change, a leading forum for analysis of the scientific and social dimensions of climate change, published in association with the UK Royal Geographical Society and Royal Meteorological Society.

Key Findings

Between 2011 and 2015, the 19 foundations I assessed 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. In doing so, the largest environmental grantmakers remained committed to their decades-old policy and technology roadmap on climate change, investing in familiar approaches, strategies, and goals:

  • Large national organizations continued to be favored over smaller groups, with just 20 grantees receiving more than half the money distributed ($230.4 million).
  • Similarly, 1 out of every 4 dollars invested ($140.3 million) was dedicated to promoting renewable energy and efficiency-related actions across states and various industry sectors.
  • In comparison, only $10.5 million (~2%) was granted specific to promoting other low-carbon energy sources or innovation in these areas.
  • Of this amount, $8.4 million focused on making natural gas production safer and cleaner. Other grants went to evaluate carbon capture and storage ($1.3 million); to promote R&D spending ($573,000), and the role of government in fostering innovation ($100,000). No grants were dedicated to promoting nuclear energy, though $175,000 in grants were devoted to opposing nuclear energy for cost and safety reasons.

However, funders also responded to calls for new directions. Some of this shift occurred on the part of the Energy Foundation and other major funders such as the Hewlett foundation, but much of the change was also driven by smaller funders investing in complementary or counterbalancing strategies:

  • Of the $91.4 million in grants dedicated to climate mitigation and adaptation actions, more than $55 million was invested in building sustainable and resilient cities and local economies with $16.2 million of this total 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/restrict fracking, and hold the industry accountable.
  • Responding to calls to more effectively shape public opinion and influence voters, philanthropists devoted a combined $151 million to climate-, fossil fuel industry- and renewable energy-related communications, media, and mobilization efforts.

Climate Philanthropy in the Trump Era

 In coming years, as the endowments of major foundations continue to grow, providing philanthropists with ever greater resources, they are likely to play an even more active and strategic role in funding actions to address climate change in the United States and elsewhere. In 2017, the Hewlett foundation, for example, announced it would spend $600 million over the next decade to combat the problem.

By framing the challenges and defining the solutions to climate change, as they did in the years following the defeat of the cap and trade bill, Hewlett and other major philanthropies are likely to deepen their ability to bind together organizations and leaders into shared approaches and strategies. In an era of political dysfunction and diminished public spending, many will look to philanthropy and their resources for answers. But as foundations consider next steps, several considerations are merited.

First, philanthropists and their grantees may want to reconsider their opposition to support for nuclear energy, their reluctance to consider carbon capture and storage, and the absence of funding to explore scientific and policy challenges related to geoengineering research. Analysts warn that the United States and many states will not meet their emissions goals if current nuclear power plants close, and if new plants are not built in the future. Several expert projections on decarbonizing the world and U.S. economies define an important role for nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage, and intense scientific debate continues over the technical feasibility of a 100% renewables pathway to decarbonization. Over the next few years, there is also likely to be considerable debate over geoengineering, as more scientists evaluate various methods and their risks, and as political leaders consider the option. However, during the post cap-and-trade years, not a single grant from among the 19 foundations focused on geoengineering research or its governance, a trend that should be addressed.

Second, In the post cap-and-trade years, the $151 million devoted by funders to climate change-, fossil fuel industry- and renewable energy-related communication activities were complemented by a combined $150 million spent by the billionaire Tom Steyer in successive elections to mobilize climate voters on behalf of Democratic candidates. Yet in 2016, despite the stark differences on climate change between Trump and his rival Hillary Clinton, Trump won a majority of the decisive Midwest battleground states. Nationally, Republicans retained control of Congress and strengthened their hold on state governments. Today, polling shows that although liberal Democratic voters consider global warming among the most important issues influencing their vote, among moderate-leaning Democrats and Republicans, global warming ranks as a mid- to bottom-tier priority. During the Trump years, similar to the post cap-and-trade period, given the challenges faced and the evolving political dynamics, critical evaluation of communication and mobilization strategies are needed.


To review the climate and energy-related funding choices of major U.S. foundations in the post Cap-and-Trade years, during Spring/Summer 2016 I compiled a database of 2,502 U.S. grants distributed by 19 foundations between 2011 and 2015. I selected the 19 foundations based on their track-record of grant giving on the issue, their association with specific funding approaches, and the availability of grant specific information provided by way of their web sites or tax filings.

These 19 foundations represent the major agenda-setting funders in the U.S. on climate change and energy, with their history of funding stretching in many cases back to the 1990s, influencing the decisions and focus of many other grantmakers, shaping the direction of much of the non-profit and advocacy sector.

To inform analysis and conclusions, available white papers, strategy documents, calls for proposals, and annual foundation reports were also reviewed. For each of the 19 foundations, Table 1 in the paper summarizes the sources of grant information per foundation available at the time of data collection, the strategies used to identify climate change- and energy-related grants, years where missing data might exist, and other details on why they were included as part of the analysis.

Given the scope and breadth of U.S. climate and energy-related funding, I was not able to include all relevant grant makers as part of my analysis.  But in selecting the 19 foundations to analyze, as highlighted in the previous sections, I focused on grant makers that have historically been among the largest and most influential funders of climate and energy-related policy options and technologies. For example, given the significance of the Design to Win alliance of funders, as summarized in Table 1, I began by including eight of the nine original allied funders. The ninth funder, the SeaChange foundation, was not included due to a lack of publicly available grant information. Further justifying their inclusion in the analysis, six of these eight Design to Win funders also rank among the top 50 environmental grant makers as tracked by the U.S. Foundation Center. These include the Hewlett Foundation (#1 in environmental giving), Packard Foundation (#2), Doris Duke Foundation (#15), Kresge Foundation (#16), Oak Foundation (#20), and the McKnight Foundation (#41). The other two original Design to Win aligned funders included in my analysis were the re-granting organizations Energy Foundation and ClimateWorks. I selected three other foundations because they rank among the country’s leading environmental grant-makers, and they have been recognized by scholars for their influence on the environmental movement. These three funders are the MacArthur Foundation (#17), Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation (#3), and Ford Foundation (#12).

Compared to these 11 major grant makers, I selected the other 8 foundations because of their comparatively unique focus, approach, or influence. The Skoll Global Threats Fund prioritizes investments in climate change communication, engagement, and media initiatives. The Surdna Foundation prioritizes a “next generation infrastructure” approach that emphasizes localized climate change mitigation and adaptation actions that serve the needs of low income and minority communities, with the goal of promoting justice and fairness. The Park Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund (#28 environmental grantmaker) are notable for supporting strategies that directly target the fossil fuel industry by way of communication, media and mobilization campaigns. The Wallace Global Fund has played a key role in coordinating the fossil fuel divestment movement. Along with Park, both the Heinz Endowments (#26) and Schmidt Family Foundation have prioritized stricter regulation and/or bans on natural gas fracking. The Bloomberg Foundation has prioritized the funding of litigation and advocacy to limit or shut down coal fired power plants. In sum, my analysis includes 8 of the 9 Design to Win alliance members for which public records are available, 3 of the top 5 U.S. environmental grantmakers, 8 of the top 20 such funders, and 10 of the top 50.

Once grants from each of the foundations were entered into a database, to record the focus of each grant, I developed and refined categories by reviewing foundations’ mission statements, call for proposals, annual reports, program descriptions, white papers, and other relevant information. I categorized each grant by the main focus as determined by the description available for the grant, by cross checking with the web site of the grant recipient, and by way of the relevant program description for the foundation. These categories include a focus on Federal, state, or local climate change policy actions and research including those related to agriculture, transportation, adaptation; and human dimension such as health, equity, or jobs; actions related to energy policy, technologies, and efficiency practices including their human dimensions; forms of climate change and energy-related communication, mobilization, media; and actions specific to regulating, restricting, or opposing the fossil fuel industry. To inform my review, I report combined funding trends from among the 19 foundations and across the five-year period 2011-2015, detailing the aggregate patterns by way of a series of main tables. In some cases, drawing on the compiled database, foundation specific totals for a particular organization or focus area are also referenced.


Nisbet MC (2018). Strategic philanthropy in the post-Cap-and-Trade years:  Reviewing U.S. climate and energy foundation funding. WIREs Climate Change. 2018;e524.


The Ecomodernists: Journalists reimagining a sustainable future

Sept. 3, 2017 — In The Planet Remade (2015), journalist Oliver Morton imagined a future scenario where the Earth’s climate has been changed by geoengineering. A collective of countries with little power in world affairs secretly agrees to a low-cost plan to cool the planet. With funding from a billionaire, the collective flies several planes a day to spray tonnes of aerosol into the stratosphere, creating a veil that reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth, thereby dramatically slowing global warming. After eighteen months, the collective of countries discloses its activities – to massive uproar – at a United Nations (U.N.) climate summit, framing the veilmaking as an act of international civil disobedience. A U.N. resolution calls for a Convention on Climate Engineering and Protection. “Down on the ground,” wrote Morton (2015: 352), “people scrutinize sunsets with a new attention, comparing them in their imaginations with those they remember from their youth, or from just a few years ago.”

A version of this essay appears in a new edited volume by Peter Berglez et al. titled “What Is Sustainable Journalism?”

Morton, a veteran journalist who is currently editor of The Economist’s Briefings articles, said he wanted to craft a utopian vision of a climate future. It has been easier and more common, he wrote, to imagine catastrophic visions. His scenario allowed him to explore what he called “useful truths” about geoengineering, especially the belief that the application of a new technology should develop hand-in-hand with the governance of that technology (2015: 359). Morton discussed the potential negative consequences of the veilmaking scenario he outlined, such as the potential decision by some countries to see this climate cooling as a license to burn more fossil fuels. But, Morton concludes, there is a radical end to the scenario: “It works” (2015: 369).

The Planet Remade reflects a new direction in environmental journalism. This way of reporting on the environment is underpinned by the philosophy of ecomodernism, which argues that government-driven technological innovation, entrepreneurship, and ingenuity are the principle means by which societies can hope to achieve sustainable development. The distinguished environmental journalist Fred Pearce identified several of the ecomodernists’ core beliefs. “The modernists,” he wrote (2013), “wear their environmentalism with pride, but are pro-nuclear, pro-genetically modified crops, pro-megadams, pro-urbanization and pro-geoengineering of the planet to stave off climate change.”

The application of these ideas, ecomodernists argue, would set societies on the path of sustainable development. Ecomodernism, in a vital first step, offers a foundational set of ideas and practices that define the broad concept of sustainable development itself. As Nature (2015: 407) has editorialized, sustainable development is a “catchphrase that neatly defines what the world must ultimately achieve, but nobody knows precisely what it looks like at full scale.” Such ambiguity presents a major barrier to collective action in support of specific policy actions or goals, since under such conditions, decision-makers and the public lack clear organizing principles or a paradigm by which to define and coordinate actions or solutions. Ecomodernism, more broadly, aims to reshape how citizens think about the relationship between society and the environment. As environmental journalist Keith Kloor (2012) wrote in Discover, the philosophy aims to “remake environmentalism: Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency.”

Journalism informed by ecomodernist ideas, we argue in this essay, fulfills a vital need in public and political debates over sustainable development. Ecomodernist journalism offers a particular vision of what sustainable development looks like and how it can be achieved. Ecomodernist journalism also critiques what its advocates view as faulty assumptions that underpin competing policy proposals for a sustainable future. And ecomodernist journalism brokers dialogue among different parts of society about realistic paths forward.

In this essay, we analyze the work of Oliver Morton and several other high-profile journalists writing on the environment and climate change who draw on and apply principles of ecomodernism to offer a distinct framing of sustainable development. We demonstrate how the philosophy informs the work of these writers and thinkers, and the particular approaches they take in assessing expert knowledge, evaluating policy proposals and technological options, and in brokering cross-cutting dialogue. Our analysis of these prominent writers and thinkers demonstrates that ecomodernist journalism has successfully gained global audiences, been assimilated into mainstream reporting, and has the potential to be the animating worldview that distinguishes the coverage of individual journalists and news organizations as they report on sustainability.

 Ecomodernism and Environmental Journalism

Ecomodernism shares fundamental characteristics with ecological modernization, a distinct view of sustainable development described by European sociologists in the early 1980s. This perspective argues that economic growth can proceed in tandem with environmental protection. But in order for this to happen, modern economic and political systems, including market economies, industrial production, centralized welfare states, agricultural production, and scientific and technological institutions, must be restructured to achieve ecological reforms. As environmental policy scholar John Dryzek (2013) argues, the perspective is distinct from sustainable development more generally because it has specific ideas about how the state and government should be restructured. A central part of that social vision is the ability of governments to catalyze technologies that, by reducing resource consumption, stretch environmental limits, enabling economic growth to continue indefinitely. The key agents in ecomodernism are governments, companies, scientists, and moderate environmentalists, all motivated by “the common good or the public interest, defined in broad terms to encompass economic efficiency and environmental conservation” (Dryzek 2013: 174).

Ecological modernization also puts forward specific ideas about policy and governance. Governments, from this perspective, integrate environmental considerations into all public policies, set strong industrial regulations, and provide companies with incentives to innovate. Policies are forged in a consensus-based decision-making process, with governments, businesses, scientists, and environmentalists involved in planned policy interventions. While ecological modernization does not advocate for a system-wide overhaul, it does note that investment patterns, planning decisions, research funding, and policy decision-making will change significantly because of ecological reforms (Mol and Spaargaren 2000). Ecological modernization presents a third way between command-and-control environmental regulation and free market fundamentalism, offering “realistic utopian models for the future,” argues the sociologist Anthony Giddens (1990 cited in Mol and Spaargaren 2000: 38).

Following the failure of the 2010 U.N. climate change negotiations and emissions trading legislation in the U.S., there emerged a space in public life for new ways of thinking about environmental problems. A group of U.S. and U.K.-based scholars, writers, and advocates put forward ideas that broadly conformed to, but expanded on, ecological modernization. In Whole Earth Discipline, ecologist and futurist Stuart Brand (2009) laid out a range of innovation-driven strategies for achieving a sustainable society, his ideas captured effectively by the subtitle: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, And Geoengineering Are Necessary. Other prominent ecomodernist thinkers include green campaigner Mark Lynas who in The God Species (2011) similarly argued in favor of nuclear power and genetically modified crops as solutions to climate change and other problems. Science writer Emma Marris in Rambunctious Garden (2011) advocated for embracing the human-altered landscapes of cities, farms, and parks, challenging traditional conservation ideals of a pristine wilderness walled off from human interference. In Why We Disagree about Climate Change (2009), geographer Mike Hulme argued that climate change had been misdiagnosed as a conventional environmental problem. Instead it was a uniquely “super-wicked” problem, not something societies were going to end or solve, but a problem societies were going to do better or worse at managing over time.

These ideas and others have been researched, expanded on, and promoted by The Breakthrough Institute, a U.S.-based think tank founded by the environmental activists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. In 2015, the two brought together 16 other similarly-minded thinkers including Lynas and Brand to author An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Calling themselves “ecopragmatists and ecomodernists,” they argue that current environmental problems 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. For ecomodernists, the urgent environmental problems we face are evidence in favor of more modernization, not less (Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015: 7; Nordhaus et al. 2011).

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 resource consumption. For ecomodernists, progress also requires 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 wrote (Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015: 31).

Not surprisingly, ecomodernist ideas are difficult for many journalists to accept or to apply to their coverage, since the philosophy is at odds with core tenets of the environmental movement, a tradition that has shaped the thinking of generations of writers, documentary filmmakers, and other media professionals. Inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), environmental journalism developed in the U.S. in the late 1960s, coinciding with the birth of the environmental movement (Fahy 2017). Carson’s seminal work created an entire genre of books, articles, news reports, and films that warned of the negative environmental and health impacts of industrialization, consumption, and technological advances, casting into doubt the claims of their promoters and defenders.

From this origin, two dominant discourses in journalistic coverage of environmental issues emerged. The first, as embodied by writers like Bill McKibben and many journalists writing for left-wing publications, framed problems like climate change as looming catastrophes, symptomatic of a capitalist society that in prioritizing economic growth and consumerism had dangerously exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. This framing emphasizes the need for a new consciousness spread through grassroots organizing and social protest that would dramatically transform society, ending our over-consumption and material greed, replacing global capitalism with small-scale economies reliant on locally-owned farms and renewable energy sources. The second discourse, as embodied by writers like The New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman and most mainstream journalists, also emphasizes that limits to growth must be respected, but assumes that environmental limits can be stretched if the right market-based mechanisms such as carbon taxes are implemented. These market mechanisms would catalyze the transition to renewable technologies, conservation policies, and energy efficiency practices, enabling global economic growth to continue indefinitely (Nisbet 2014).

These two discourses are strongly reflected in U.S. and U.K. news coverage of the 2015 Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). There is near universal agreement among scientists that human-driven climate change is happening and that it is an urgent problem, but there are considerable uncertainties about the severity, timing, and location of climate change impacts (Painter 2013). Yet journalists around the world usually present future climate scenarios in the darkest of terms, warning of devastating disasters and catastrophes (Weingart et al. 2000; Painter 2013). Indeed, in coverage of the 2015 IPCC report, the dominant framing was that climate impacts would be disastrous, with journalists neglecting alternative possible climate futures. In comparison to the risks posed by climate change, the section of the report that dealt with actions to reduce emissions generated far less news coverage, even though it concerned apparently newsworthy topics such as the future of energy or whether energy should be produced or consumed in a more equitable and just way (O’Neill et al. 2015).

When journalists have covered potential solutions to climate change, they have tended to favor solutions consistent with the two dominant discourses. For example, when sixty-four journalists from Germany, India, Switzerland, U.S., and the U.K. were asked to rate various solutions to climate change, the reporters ranked highest energy policies that stressed renewable energy sources. They ranked lowest policies that advocated the expansion of nuclear power and carbon capture and storage technologies (Engesser and Brüggemann 2015). These findings suggest that many journalists embrace the idea that addressing climate change requires rapid technological innovations, as ecomodernists argue. But at the same time, they have a bias in favor of so-called “soft path energy” technologies, such as solar, wind, and geothermal energy, and a bias against “hard path technologies” like nuclear power or geoengineering, which are considered controversial, even though the IPCC report and many experts conclude that such hard path technologies are needed to meet global emission reduction goals.

Yet there are several journalists whose reporting is driven by ecomodernist principles. They are exemplars of ecomodernist journalism, showing what this type of reporting looks like in practice. Their journalism is distinguished not only by its perspective on sustainable development, but also by the particular roles that these journalists undertake in their work. Elsewhere we argued that these roles are useful ones for journalists to adopt in science policy debates more generally (Nisbet and Fahy 2015). As our analysis will show, with reference to the prominent work of several reporters, these roles can be applied to the reporting of sustainable development, an issue that draws on knowledge from various scholarly disciplines and which merges perspectives from politics, economics, sociology, and science.

 Ecomodernists as Knowledge Brokers

In the first role, journalists reporting on sustainable development often serve as “knowledge brokers,” critically assessing the process of expert knowledge production, evaluating how and why scientific, economic, and policy analysis of environmental problems was undertaken, and how the findings were interpreted (Nisbet and Fahy 2015).

Andrew Revkin, who joined in 2016 the non-profit media organization ProPublica after more than two decades as a reporter and opinion writer at The New York Times, is a leading example of an ecomodernist journalist serving in the role of knowledge broker. He earned an undergraduate degree in biology and a postgraduate degree in journalism, before becoming a science writer with Science Digest in 1983, followed by stints at Los Angeles Times and Discover, where in 1988 he wrote one of the first national magazine cover stories on global warming. After joining The New York Times in 1995, he worked for almost five years on the Metro section before becoming national environment correspondent in 2000, reporting in the role for a decade before accepting a buyout from the paper, but staying on to write the Times’ “Dot Earth” blog (Nisbet 2013). With world population expected to reach nine billion people by 2050, Revkin’s focused on how to “balance human affairs with the planet’s limits.” Combined with elements of ecomodernist philosophy, Revkin’s experience enables him to critically evaluate the multiple perspectives and frameworks that are brought to bear on debates over sustainable development and climate change.

At “Dot Earth,” Revkin frequently warned about the tendency to hype scientific findings about environmental problems and to overlook the inherent uncertainty in research. He has been openly critical of the process by which institutions and journals “pump up the volume” on a specific research finding. This hyping, explains Revkin, becomes amplified by advocates, journalists, and bloggers on either side of an environmental debate and by news organizations and reporters “at the end of the chain” who have the incentive to search for “the front page thought” – the particular interpretation that will give their story the most prominence and attention. Revkin is also able to distinguish the various forms of knowledge that contribute to our understanding of climate change. In his writing and talks, he often refers to a figure that displays different distributions or “curves” of scientific knowledge about climate change. He explains that there is a “clear cut” convergence among experts that more carbon dioxide equals a warming world, but on specific impacts, such as increasing the intensity of hurricanes or the efficacy of alternative energy strategies, there is a much broader distribution of scientific opinion. That range of opinion, he argues, should be reflected in news reporting” (Wihbey 2011).

In 2012, Revkin served in a knowledge broker role during his extensive journalism about Hurricane Sandy, which flooded parts of the New York City/New Jersey region, causing dozens of deaths and billions in damages to property and coastal infrastructure. As the hurricane neared landfall on the U.S. East Coast, Revkin examined the connections between climate change and extreme weather. He acknowledged that #Frankenstorm was the Twitter handle for the hurricane. “While the echo of Frankenstein in that Twitter moniker can imply this is a human-created meteorological monster,” he wrote, “it’s just not that simple.” A huge number of factors shape how tropical cyclones form and grow. “There remains far too much natural variability in the frequency and potency of rare and powerful storms – on time scales from decades to centuries – to go beyond pointing to this event being consistent with what’s projected on a human-heated planet” (Revkin, Oct 28, 2012).

Amid storm-caused blackouts near his home in the Hudson Valley area of New York, Revkin sought to shift discussion away from what he believed was the polarizing and misguided discussion about whether or not climate change caused the storm. Instead, he framed the significance of the storm in terms of urban planning and resilience-focused construction. “While scientists and campaigners debate what mix of factors shaped this epic storm,” he wrote, “what’s indisputable is that much of the disaster that unfolded as it came ashore was the result of human actions and decisions – ranging from where we’ve chosen to build or subsidize development to how seriously our governments take the need to build with the worst in mind” (Revkin, Oct 31, 2012).

Ecomodernists as Policy Brokers

In a second complementary role as “policy brokers,” ecomodernist journalists distinguish themselves in their coverage by expanding the range of policy options and technologies under consideration by the public and political community (Nisbet and Fahy 2015). Because climate is so complex and the future cannot be predicted exactly, it is possible for different, but similarly plausible narratives to exist about policy options and technological fixes. In the face of such ambiguity, journalists can play a key role via their coverage by helping to construct a common outlook and language among networks of experts, advocates, and political leaders that aids in the coordination of decisions and actions. Yet if one problem definition and set of solutions, such as an emphasis on “soft path” energy technologies like renewables over “hard path” technologies like nuclear energy, are prioritized in news coverage to the exclusion of others, such influence can lock in powerful forms of groupthink that dismiss valuable alternative interpretations and courses of action, contributing to policy gridlock rather than progress (Nisbet 2014).

In working against such groupthink, the impact of ecomodernist journalists as policy brokers can be understood by way of several relevant areas of research. First, political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. (2007), drawing on a series of case studies, concludes that the broader the menu of policies and technologies available to decision-makers in science-related debates, the greater the opportunity for decision-makers to reach agreement on paths forward. Applying these principles to climate change, Pielke Jr. (a co-author of the Ecomodernist Manifesto) argues that once technologies are available which make meaningful action on climate change lower-cost and less threatening to the economic status quo, then much of the political argument over the scientific certainty of climate change causes and impacts will diminish. “The challenge facing climate policy is to design policies that are consonant with public opinion, and are effective, rather than to try to shape public opinion around particular policies,” Pielke Jr. (2010: 43) writes in The Climate Fix.

Carbon capture and storage by limiting emissions from coal and natural gas power plants, for example, could “transform the political debate” as it “does not demand a radical alteration of national economies, global trade, or personal lifestyles” and therefore “enfranchises the very groups that have the most to lose from conventional climate policies – from powerful corporate interests to many of the world’s poorest people,” wrote science policy scholar Daniel Sarewitz and Pielke Jr. in a 2013 article at The Atlantic.

Second, these conclusions are consistent with the social psychological research of Dan Kahan, whose experimental findings suggest that perceptions of culturally contested issues such as climate change are often policy and technology dependent and that polarization is likely to be diffused under conditions where the focus is on a diverse rather than a narrow set of options. “For instance, people with individualistic values resist scientific evidence that climate change is a serious threat because they have come to assume that industry-constraining carbon-emission limits are the main solution,” argues Kahan (2010: 297). “They would probably look at the evidence more favorably, however, if made aware that the possible responses to climate change include nuclear power and geoengineering, enterprises that to them symbolize human resourcefulness.”

Over the past decade, several ecomodernist journalists serving in the role of policy broker have helped to diversify the range of technological options considered to address climate change, calling greater attention to these policy and technology options. These journalists challenged longstanding claims by many environmentalists and activists that solar, wind, and other renewables are the only energy technologies needed to combat climate change; that genetic engineering was too risky; and that geoengineering should be off the table for consideration. In doing so, they shifted policy debate away from the narrow goal of making fossil fuels more costly to a broader focus on making a diverse portfolio of low carbon technologies less expensive; and to making society more resilient to inevitable climate change shocks.

Oliver Morton, for example, has long emphasized that a range of policy and technological options are needed to address climate change. In 2009, he argued in The Economist that a reduction in global emissions requires that governments help catalyze a massive new infrastructure to support carbon capture and storage, and subsidize the development of advanced nuclear energy technologies. In 2010, he wrote that it was clear after the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks that “the nations of the world will not commit themselves to controls on carbon emissions anything like as strict as enthusiasts imagined.” He proposed a broader approach to climate change that stressed the link between climate action and development, a focus on achievable goals like reduced deforestation, and a change in the mix of energy used in the world, a mix that should include geoengineering (2010, Nov. 22). Morton’s reporting is informed by his previous journalistic experience: He was energy and environment editor at The Economist, chief news and features editor at the scientific journal Nature, and editor of Wired UK.

Morton’s reporting of geoengineering culminated in 2015’s The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World. He argued that the risks of climate change merit serious action, but bringing an industrial economy’s carbon dioxide emissions to zero is incredibly difficult because the world’s energy system is built on fossil fuels and maintained by a vast global infrastructure, such as mines and power stations, that will have to be replaced in order to rapidly reduce emissions and stabilize the climate. Geoengineering is therefore a useful response, he wrote, because it reduces climate risks “without impractically rapid cuts in fossil-fuel use” (2015: 4).

Morton also offered an explanation, grounded in the sociology of science, as to why politicians did not see geoengineering as a serious policy option. The political focus in the 1990s quickly narrowed to one issue: carbon dioxide. Amid the complexity of climate change, it was practical to focus on an agreed-on scientific problem that could be measured. “Carbon dioxide is a technical matter,” Morton wrote (2015: 142), “the sort of thing that fits well inside the realm of science, the sort of thing that scientists have authority to talk about.” Diplomats like it, too, as it made “climate change a thing-there-ought-to-be-less-of problem” with cuts that could be agreed-on, monitored, and verified (Morton 2015: 143). The focus on carbon dioxide reduction, he argued, neglected adaptation, which came to be seen not as a crucial counterpart of mitigation strategies, but as a second-choice strategy that left the world’s response to climate change badly served.

The Planet Remade argued for a wider discussion of geoengineering as part of a broadened set of policy response to climate change. There should be new settings for debate and new evidence to discuss in these settings. Such a debate would avoid a mistake that Morton (2015: 168) argues is often made by natural and social scientists: “to talk as though what geoengineering is has already been decided, rather than treating it as something still up for grabs.” He argued that the meaning of geoengineering was not fixed – it was still open to discussion and constructive debate, one that brought in issues such as the governance of new technology. A broader reflection on geoengineering, for Morton, is more than an exercise in evaluating policy and technology. It is also a way to imaginatively think about the impacts of climate change on the world and how humanity might react to those impacts, with or without geoengineering.

Another journalist who has undertaken the policy broker role is Eduardo Porter, who writes the “Economic Scene” columns at The New York Times. Like Morton and Revkin, he draws on highly specialized education and experience to inform his journalism, including two degrees in physics. He joined The New York Times in 2004 as a specialist in economics after a twenty-year career covering politics, finance, and business from Brazil, Tokyo, London, Mexico, and Los Angeles. Writing from an economics perspective, his point-of-view could be seen in his critical reporting leading up to and during the 2015 U.N. climate change summit, challenging arguments that solving climate change required a shift away from a global capitalist system towards small scale local economies powered by locally-renewable energy sources.

At the time, these decades-old arguments had gained historic prominence by way of Naomi Klein’s international best-seller This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014). Reviewing a number of studies, Porter wrote that strategies focused entirely on local economies and renewable energy – strategies that featured in Klein’s book – were driven “more by hope than science.” In this case, “the goal of bringing the world’s carbon emissions under control is put at the service of other agendas, ideological or economic, limiting the world’s options,” he concluded. Instead, Porter (2015a) argued that dealing with climate change “requires experimenting intensely along many technological avenues, learning quickly from failures and moving on.” He argued, based on research he cited from various fields, that carbon capture and storage, and an expansion of nuclear power, are needed to address climate change. These technologies would not only be needed to serve as backups to the intermittent energy produced from solar and wind power, but also to meet the rapidly growing energy needs of India, China, and African countries.

Porter also rejected the strategy promoted by Klein and others of negative economic growth as a path to reduce emissions. “Whatever the ethical merits of the case, the proposition of no growth has absolutely no chance to succeed,” he wrote. He synthesized a range of expert views on this topic, interviewing historians and economists to argue that economic growth over the past century had created dramatic benefits for global societies. Economic growth, he noted, helped reduce war and conflict, enabled democracy and consensus-based politics, and empowered women. Discussing Klein, he wrote that he doubted that an end to capitalism “would bring about the workers’ utopia she appears to yearn for.” Zero economic growth, he warned, would instead provoke intense resource conflicts, endangering the powerless and poorest. A better way to serve the most vulnerable people in the world, argued Porter (2015b), is to shift from fossil fuels to a range of advanced low carbon energy technologies.

Ecomodernists as Dialogue Brokers

A third role that ecomodernist journalists play is that of a dialogue broker. In this approach, a journalist uses blogging, podcasts, video interviews, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media tools to convene interconnected, cross-platform discussions among a professionally and politically diverse network of contributors and readers (Nisbet and Fahy 2015). Not only does this networked journalism approach aid efforts to contextualize and critically evaluate environmental debates, but the method is also guided by a philosophy that cross-cutting dialogue can help readers to better understand, and therefore accept, why they may disagree with others (Rosen 2012; Nisbet 2014). Using blog posts and other digital tools, dialogue brokers bring together multiple, contrasting perspectives about sustainability problems, while offering context on the scientific and policy arguments made. A core tenet for dialogue brokers is the need to welcome perspectives that challenge their own and that of their readers. As media scholar Donald Matheson (2004: 458) wrote, this is “a journalism of linking rather than pinning things down, that is situated within a model of knowledge-as-process rather than knowledge-as-product.”

The value of a dialogue-based form of networked journalism is supported by many of the arguments of social theorists studying the politically contested terrain of issues such as climate change. Political theorists have long argued that progress on climate change lies not in staking out a hardline position on a contested terrain and then castigating those that are in disagreement, but in recognizing and understanding multiple positions, and finding ways to negotiate constructively among them (Verweij et al. 2006). Dismissing alternative perspectives not only weakens our ability to understand the complexity of these issues, but also risks the loss of legitimacy and trust among key constituencies (Thompson and Rayner, 1998). In this scenario, what are needed then are journalists who convene discussions that force critical reflection and examination, rather than playing to an ideologically like-minded audience (Nisbet 2014).

In a leading example, at his former “Dot Earth” blog, Andrew Revkin not only functioned as a knowledge broker, but also as a dialogue broker. As a skilled convener, he used his blog and a variety of other digital tools to facilitate discussions among experts, advocates, and readers, all the while contextualising specific claims. As he told us in a previous interview (Fahy and Nisbet 2011: 783): “The blog is very different than most in that most blogs are built to provide a comfort zone for a particular ideological camp. … I’m not here to provide you with a soft couch and free drinks if you’re an enviro or if you are a conservative. It’s a place to challenge yourself.” Revkin’s past work at “Dot Earth” and current reporting for ProPublica is informed by his reading of social science research which led him to question his own journalistic assumptions about the best way to reach readers: “I had long assumed the solution to global warming was, basically, clearer communication,” he wrote (Revkin 2016: 32). “If we could just explain the problem more clearly, people would see it more clearly, and then they would change.”

Frequently at “Dot Earth”, Revkin merged the roles of dialogue broker and knowledge broker. In 2013, for example, he reported on a study in which scientists and energy analysts identified how New York State could run entirely on clean energy by 2050. The study was published in Energy Policy and it laid out a plan for the state to eliminate its use of fossil fuels and nuclear power. As a vision for a sustainable future, Revkin argued that the study worked best as a “thought experiment” that raised, as one of its central questions, the dilemma of whether such a dramatic shift in the state’s energy infrastructure matched the risks posed to the state by climate change. “That’s a question,” he wrote, “that will always – with or without industry lobbying – get varied answers depending on competing priorities and differing perceptions of risk across society” (Revkin, March 12, 2013).

Revkin created cross-cutting dialogue on this issue in several ways. When he reported the study on “Dot Earth”, he posted long excerpts of his questions and answers with the study’s authors, and then curated reactions to the blog post on Twitter from scientists, journalists, and energy policy scholars. Revkin also moderated a subsequent event to discuss the energy transition at Pace University in New York, where he teaches, that brought together the study’s lead author and a sustainable energy expert. He encouraged his readers to come to the event, watch the live video stream, post real-time questions to his blog, or contribute using specific Twitter hashtags. “My hope for our chat,” he wrote, “was that we could dig down a bit into how to move from ideas to action” (Revkin, March 11, 2015).

The dialogue continued months later as other researchers argued in Energy Policy that the original study overlooked technical and policy factors that could hinder the plan’s implementation. Revkin noted how the original authors defended their work in a response published in the journal. These contests over knowledge, and over the realisation of a sustainable future, were not confined to the pages of a specialist journal. Revkin (June 18, 2013) reported the ongoing expert debate, bringing into wider public focus these intense struggles over the production and application of knowledge.

A similar combination of dialogue brokering and knowledge brokering can be seen in the journalist Nathanael Johnson’s year-long series on genetically modified food for the sustainability-focused news and commentary site Although not an advocate of the ecomodernist philosophy, Johnson demonstrated in the “Panic-free GMOs” series how to report a complex issue charged with ideological conflict. As the introduction to the series (Grist 2013) explained, the journalistic exploration sought to see past the polarized thinking on the topic that veered between “dubious anti-GM horror stories” and “the dismissive sighing . . . of pro-GM partisans.” At first Johnson sought clear answers. But the reality he encountered was far more complex.

Johnson, who has written about the environment for several publications and is the food writer at Grist, brought several diverse perspectives on GMOs into dialogue. When he examined regulation, for example, he quickly came to an apparent contradiction. Genetic engineering’s critics say the industry is not required to test the safety of its products, while the industry says it conducts voluminous tests. “Both are correct,” wrote Johnson. “If you try to cross-check the claims of people on either side of the GM debate, you run into problems, because these warring clans speak different dialects. Their foundational assumptions point them in opposite directions, facing different landscapes and talking past each other” (Johnson 2013, July 10).

As he reflected on the challenge of coming to a clear consensus on GMO research, he noted that researchers from different disciplines become, as he put it, “balkanized.” He wrote: “Those familiar with the science basically agree on the evidence, they are just exasperated by one another’s values and customs” (Johnson 2013, Aug. 20). His in-depth reporting constrained him from broad, sweeping conclusions. Because every crop is different, he wrote, it is difficult to make major generalizations. Avoiding such mistakes can also help soften polarization. “If GMOs aren’t a monolithic entity, the stakes in this fight fall even further,” he wrote (2014, Jan 9). “It’s harder to get worked up about an issue when it’s a mixed bag of good and bad.”

A second conclusion grew from the intense debate generated by his work. Readers picked apart every point. Comment threads regularly ran to more than 200 entries. “Nothing else I’ve written, in more than a decade of working as a journalist, has generated this mixture of fascination and hostility,” Johnson concluded in his last piece for the series. After reflecting on what he called his “learn-as-I-go experiment,” he observed that critics and sources who disagreed with what he wrote were usually not disputing facts. “What seemed to bother them was my failure to interpret the evidence in a way that fit into a larger narrative.” These narratives were grounded in different views of nature and technology. For GMO opponents, the issue was a story about “corporate control of the food system, or unsustainable agriculture, or the basic unhealthiness of our modern diet.” For GMO advocates, the issue was a story about “the victory of human ingenuity over hunger and suffering, or the triumph of market forces, or the wonder of science” (Johnson 2014, Jan. 9). The different views were, in effect, narratives about contrasting visions of a sustainable future.

Conclusion: Ideas that Leverage Social Change

As ecomodernist journalists, Oliver Morton, Andrew Revkin, Eduardo Porter, and others have played a vital role in forging new narratives about environmental problems and sustainable development, challenging conventional assumptions, enriching the discussion of policy options and technologies, and encouraging cross-cutting dialogue. In these roles, they express, to varying degrees, ecomodernist ideas in their work: the centrality of technological innovation, the reliance on government investment to catalyze innovation, the necessity of a diverse portfolio of policy options and technologies, and the need for public forums that encourage critical self-reflection and solutions-focused discussion. Even when a journalist does not fully share the ecomodernist philosophy, as the example of Nathanael Johnson shows, their work can demonstrate the benefits of applying ecomodernist principles to encourage critical dialogue.

The ecomodernist journalists analyzed in this essay are successful because they share fundamental characteristics. They combine specialized education, often in different scientific disciplines, with years of experience reporting across different topics for various audiences and a variety of news organizations. This essential diversity of experiences, when combined in their journalism, allows them to evaluate assumptions and arguments about technology, society, politics, and the environment as they relate to the many dimensions of sustainable development. Moreover, these journalists are alert to the historical and sociological underpinnings of contemporary debates, including those influences that shape expert knowledge and conventional explanations about sustainability. The journalists analyzed here, furthermore, are based in the U.S. and U.K. If such a style of ecomodernist journalism can gain an audience in these countries with their traditions of antagonistic two-party political cultures, then it is likely that this style of reporting can gain an audience – and influence – in countries such as Germany, Sweden, or Norway with histories of consensus-based politics.

Ecomodernist journalists are therefore valuable examples for other reporters to emulate, and models to follow for news organizations seeking to improve their coverage of sustainable development. They demonstrate, first, how coverage of sustainable development can be brought into mainstream news coverage and commentary. Morton and Porter do not write only in specialized science or environment sections. Their work is integrated into their publications’ core coverage of business and public affairs. In other words, their work is not ghettoized, featured exclusively at the science page or in sections dedicated to the environment. There is a wider trend towards this type of integrated coverage of issues like sustainable development, as specialist reporters in the U.S. are being reassigned from the environmental beat and integrated into areas such as politics or economics – a process that has been called “mainstreaming” (Friedman 2015: 148). Such a process would allow reporters to apply their environmental expertise to mainstream news stories that address sustainable development.

Second, the popularity and longevity of Revkin’s “Dot Earth” blog and the success of Johnson’s series at demonstrate that there is a global audience for networked, dialogue-based coverage of sustainable development. Third, as Morton, Porter, and Revkin demonstrate, journalists can and should offer readers a distinct perspective on sustainability. Given the scale of scientific and environmental problems societies face, notes media critic Jay Rosen (2012), coverage must have a view from somewhere. The ecomodernist view on sustainable development is one that can not only drive the work of individual journalists, but can be an editorial perspective adopted by news organizations, or can potentially form the perspective that distinguishes the approach of new digital ventures examining sustainability.

By applying their ecomodernist views and by serving in the roles of knowledge broker, policy broker, and dialogue broker, ecomodernist journalists help prevent other distinct perspectives from dominating coverage, challenging citizens to critically assess expert claims and deeply-held assumptions. As Revkin (2016: 35) argues, on the responsibility for responding to climate change: “We need edge pushers and group huggers, faith and science, and – more than anything – dialogue and effort to find room for agreement even when there are substantial differences.” Morton in The Planet Remade advocates for thinking about geoengineering as more than merely a technological fix. He argues that deliberation over geoengineering can be a powerful imaginative tool for identifying the levers that will move the earth system in ways that will help humanity. Those levers he advocates could be an institution, a shared goal, an idea – or all of them and more. In fashioning a new discourse that enriches thinking and sparks new ideas, Morton’s work and that of other ecomodernist journalists could prove to be one such lever.


Fahy, D. & Nisbet, M.C. (2017). The Ecomodernists: Journalists reimagining a sustainable future. The In P. Berglez, U. Olausson, & M. Ots (Eds), What Is Sustainable Journalism?: Integrating the Environmental, Social, and Economic Challenges of Journalism. London: Peter Lang.


Asafu-Adjaye, J., Blomqvist, L., Brand, S., Brook, B., et al. (2015) An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Oakland, CA: The Breakthrough Institute.

Dryzek, J.S. (2013) The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Engesser, S., Brüggemann, M. (2015) “Mapping the Minds of the Mediators: The Cognitive Frames of Climate Journalists from Five Countries”, Public Understanding of Science, 1–17. doi:10.1177/0963662515583621

Fahy, D., Nisbet, M.C. (2011) “The Science Journalist Online: Shifting Roles and Emerging Practices”, Journalism 12(7): 778–793.

Fahy, D. (2017) “Defining Objectivity, False Balance, and Advocacy in News Coverage of Climate Change”, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190228620.013.345

Friedman, S.M. (2015) “The Changing Face of Environmental Journalism in the United States”, in Hansen, A., Cox, R. (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Environment and Communication. London: Routledge. pp. 144–157.

Grist (2013) “Panic-Free GMOs”, Grist. Retrieved from

Johnson, N. (2013, July 10) “The GM Safety Dance: What’s Rule and What’s Real”, Grist. Retrieved from

Johnson, N. (2013, August 20) “Elephant in the Room: Why Getting the GMO Story Straight is So Hard”, Grist. Retrieved from

Johnson, N. (2014, January 9) “What I Learned from Six Months of GMO Research: None of It Matters”, Grist. Retrieved from

Kahan, D. (2010) “Fixing the Communications Failure”, Nature 463(7279): 296–297.

Kloor, K. (2012) “The Limits to Environmentalism”, Discover. The Crux. April 27. Retrieved from

Matheson, D. (2004) “Weblogs and the Epistemology of the News: Some Trends in Online Journalism”, New Media & Society 6(4): 443–468.

Mol, A.P.J., Spaargaren, G. (2000) “Ecological Modernisation Theory in Debate: A Review”, Environmental Politics 9(1): 17–49.

Morton, O. (2009, November 13) “Wanted: Green Engineers”, The Economist. Retrieved from

Morton, O. (2010, November 22) “Cooling the Earth”, The Economist. Retrieved from

Morton, O. (2015) The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World. London: Granta.

Nature (2015) “Decoupled Ideas”, Nature 520: 407–408.

Nisbet, M.C. (2013). “Nature’s Prophet: Bill McKibben as Journalist, Public Intellectual, and Activist.” Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics, and Public Policy.  Discussion Paper Series, D-78 March.  Cambridge, MA: Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Retrieved January 15, 2015 from

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.

Nisbet, M.C., Fahy, D. (2015) “The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism in Politicized Science Debates”, The Annals of the American Academy of Social and Political Science 658: 223–234.

Nordhaus, T., Shellenberger, M., Pielke, R., Green, C., Jenkins, J. Sarewitz, D., Rayner, S., Hayward, S., Atkinson, R. (2011) Climate Pragmatism: Innovation, Resilience, and No Regrets. Oakland, CA: The Breakthrough Institute. Retrieved August 18, 2014 from archive/climate_pragmatism_innovation

O’Neill, S., Williams, H.T., Kurz, T., Wiersma, B., Boykoff, M. (2015) “Dominant Frames in Legacy and Social Media Coverage of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report”, Nature Climate Change 5(4): 380–385.

Painter, J. (2013) Climate Change in the Media: Reporting Risk and Uncertainty. London: I.B Taurus.

Pearce, F. (2013, July 15) “New Green Vision: Technology as Our Planet’s Last Best Hope” Yale Environment 360. Retrieved from

Pielke, Jr., R. (2007) The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pielke, Jr., R. (2010) The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming. New York: Basic Books.

Porter, E. (2015a, June 23) “Climate Change Calls for Science Not Hope”, New York Times, 2015. Retrieved January 15, 2015 from

Porter, E. (2015b, December 1) “Imagining a World Without Growth”, New York Times. Retrieved from

Revkin, A.C. (2012, October 28) The #Frankenstorm in climate context. Dot Earth. Retrieved from

Revkin, A.C. (2012, October 31) “On Sandy and Humanity’s Blah, Blah, Blah, Bang’ Disaster Plans”, Dot Earth. Retrieved from

Revkin, A.C. (2013, June 18) “A Reality Check on a Plan for a Swift Post-Fossil Path for New York”, Dot Earth. Retrieved from

Revkin, A.C. (2013, March 12) “Can Wind, Water and Sunlight Power New York by 2050?”, Dot Earth. Retrieved from

Revkin, A.C. (2015, March 11) “Charting Clean-Energy Paths in New York and Beyond”, Dot Earth. Retrieved from

Revkin, A.C. (2016) “My Climate Change”, Issues in Science and Technology, Winter, 27–36.

Rosen, J. (2012, June 25) “Covering Wicked Problems: Keynote Address to the 2nd UK Conference of Science Journalists”, Press Think. Retrieved April 21, 2016 from

Sarewitz, D., Pielke Jr., R. (2013, May) “Learning to Live with Fossil Fuels”, The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Thompson, M., Rayner, S.S. (1988) “Cultural Discourses”, in Rayner, S., Malone, E.L. (eds.) Human Choice and Climate Change: An International Assessment, Vol. I: The Societal Framework. Columbus, OH: Battelle Press.

Verweij, M., Douglas, M., Ellis, R., Engel, C., Hendriks, F., Lohman, S., Ney, S., Rayner, S., Thompson, M. (2006) “Clumsy Solutions for a Complex World: The Case of Climate Change”, Public Administration 84: 847–843.

Weingart, P., Engels, A., Pansegrau, P. (2000) “Risks of Communication: Discourses on Climate Change in Science, Political, and the Mass Media”, Public Understanding of Science 9: 261-283.

Wihbey, J. (2011, September 27) “Research Chat: Andrew Revkin on Covering and Using Scholarship”,

Preface to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication

July 19, 2017 — Because of the complexity and urgency of climate change, efforts to understand the problem’s social, cultural, and political dimensions must stretch beyond the environmental sciences and economics to be truly multi-disciplinary. To this end, over the past two decades, a growing community of scholars have focused on the factors that influence public understanding, perceptions, and behaviors relative to climate change; the nature of journalistic, media, and cultural portrayals and their effects; and the role that public communication, outreach and advocacy play in shaping societal decisions. This research has taken place across disciplines, countries and continents, generating broad-based interest and discussion.

A version of this article appears as the Preface to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication.

There have also been well resourced and highly visible efforts to apply this research to the communication activities of experts, professionals, and advocates as they work to influence societal decisions related to climate change. Most notably, research in this area has been a central focus of the global environmental movement and climate science community, the public engagement with science movement in the UK and Europe, the science of science communication movement in the U.S., the climate change communication movements in Australia and Canada, and the still nascent climate change communication efforts in India and China, to name a few leading examples.

Until now, however, there has not existed a leading scholarly outlet where the broad range of climate change communication, media and public opinion research is reviewed, synthesized, and critiqued; or translated in relation to other disciplines and professions. To address this gap, the Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication is a curated series of 115 original peer-reviewed articles published in print and digital format, and by way of the web-based Oxford Research Encyclopedia (ORE) Climate Science. The collected articles comprehensively review research on climate change communication, advocacy, media and cultural portrayals, and their relationship to societal decisions, public knowledge, perceptions, and behavior. Co-authored by more than 250 experts representing more than a dozen disciplines and twenty countries, the commissioned articles reflect five main areas of scholarship and research. These include:

Communication and Social Change

Collectively, the articles in this volume reveal a deep knowledge base about the barriers to public engagement with climate change, and the social and political obstacles to effectively managing the many risks involved. Scholars across countries have examined how values, social identity, mental models, discourses, social ties, culture, media, interest groups, economic conditions, geography, and weather shape individual judgments and collective decisions. They have also tracked the evolution of climate change as a social problem in relation to specific media systems and political arenas, describing the factors that drive the framing of debate. Yet not surprisingly, given the complexities involved, even after more than twenty years of research, easy answers on how to mobilize the political will needed to meaningfully address the problem are not readily apparent.

In regards to such solutions, researchers tend to conform to one of four different camps of thinking that map to slightly differing theories of social change. A first school of thought, comprised mostly of social psychologists, communication researchers, and decision scientists, views the challenge as a matter of persuasion: How can climate change be reframed in a way that resonates with the identities, priorities, and interests of different publics and be communicated about by trusted opinion-leaders? Through such strategies, public opinion will eventually pass a certain threshold of perceived urgency and importance, creating the political conditions for national and international policymakers to take aggressive action. A second group, comprised mostly of political scientists and sociologists, views the issue as a matter of power-based politics, requiring strategies and tactics that mobilize social movements and interest groups that pressure elected officials and industry leaders to ratchet up their efforts to address the problem.

A third group, comprised of more humanistic and critical scholars, views the issue as one of dialogue and deliberation: the challenge is to facilitate the opportunities for different publics to learn about, debate, and participate in collective decisions about climate change, and to co-produce knowledge about risks and solutions alongside the expert community. By building a stronger, more democratic public sphere at the local and national levels, the issue will eventually be better managed. Finally, a fourth group of scholars approach their research far less instrumentally. For them, the social dimensions of climate change are the ultimate puzzle worthy of study and inquiry. Their research is not intended to inform communication campaigns or political strategy. Rather their goal is to understand what climate change tells us about human psychology, society, culture, politics, or media systems. As scholars, they serve in an interrogatory role, exploring questions but not offering advice on how society can move forward to solve the pressing problems involved.

For many readers of the Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication, one of these schools of thought is likely to be the principal lens by which they approach the collected articles, guiding their choices about what to pay attention to and what to accept as valid. I encourage readers, however, to engage in a more flexible and critical reading of the volume, seeking to engage with the multiple assumptions and perspectives offered by the more than 250 co-authors. Their conclusions frequently counter conventional assumptions and narratives about the roots of societal inaction on climate change and effective directions forward. By considering these differing perspectives, as readers we can come to hold our own assumptions and biases more lightly, and it is only as a product of such critical self-reflection that new insights are likely to emerge.


Nisbet, M.C. (2018). Preface. In M.C. Nisbet (Ed), Ho, S., Markowitz, E., O’Neill, S., Schafer, M., Thaker, J.T. (Assoc. Editors). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication. New York: Oxford University Press.