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.


Models of knowledge-based journalism: Brokering knowledge, dialogue, and policy ideas

April 1, 2017— In 2013’s Informing the News, the eminent journalism scholar Thomas Patterson comprehensively reviewed the evidence in support of the well-worn criticisms of our contemporary news system. Journalists too often: give equal weight to accurate representations and faulty facts and flawed opinions, focus on conflict and strategy over substance, and favor personalities, dramatic events, and infotainment over big picture analysis and context. These trends are unlikely to change unless journalists more deeply understand the subjects they cover and how their stories can affect societal decisions, he concluded. Patterson called for a new “knowledge-based journalism” in which reporters excelled not only at interviewing, investigating, and storytelling but also in applying relevant specialized expertise. “If news is to be a means of getting people to think and talk sensibly about public affairs, it needs to contain the contextual information that enables citizens to make sense of events” he urged.[1]

A version of this article appears in the Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication.

The challenge for news organizations, argued Patterson, is not to cater to audience interests but to take important issues such as climate change and make them interesting. News organizations investing in knowledge-based journalism are more likely to produce content that audiences search for and recommend to others.  Such high quality content can help repair news organizations’ sagging reputations and boost their finances by giving an outlet enduring relevance and audience share in an ultra-competitive world of many online choices, he argued.

From across the Atlantic, the late German communication researcher Wolfgang Donsbach echoed Patterson’s call for journalism to stake out its role as society’s “new knowledge profession.” A specialized understanding of an expert field enables journalists to make “sound judgments on the newsworthiness of events,” he wrote. “Only then can they ask critical questions to the actors, find the right experts, and only then can they resist infiltration of non-professional factors into their decision-making.”[2]  Not only is “content” knowledge of a subject such as economics or environmental science needed, argued Patterson and Donsbach, but so too is “process” knowledge. This second dimension includes recognition of the factors that influence journalists’ news judgments, as well as the effects of news coverage decisions on audiences. Process knowledge can, for example, be applied by journalists to guard against personal biases and mistakes, to choose among different storytelling techniques that more effectively engage audiences, and to take advantage of various digital tools to enhance understanding and reach.

Building on these seminal ideas, in a 2015 essay we identified specific knowledge-based journalistic practices and media structures that might enable more constructive debate in science controversies. In doing so, we introduced three complementary models for doing knowledge-based journalism on which we elaborate in this chapter: the knowledge broker, dialogue broker, and policy broker. By combining these approaches in coverage of politicized debates, journalists and their news organizations can contextualize and critically evaluate expert knowledge and competing claims, facilitate discussion that bridges entrenched ideological divisions, and promote consideration of a broader menu of policy options and technologies.[3]

To further illuminate these models, in this chapter we draw on examples of veteran journalists whose work can serve as an inspiration for new generations of professionals. Because they are experts in their fields and have years of experience covering relevant topics or beats, these veteran journalists are able to fuse complex knowledge and on-the-ground reportage into a storyline that is clear, readable, and engaging to a broader audience. They connect the dots for readers, offering a wider lens, bigger picture, and evaluation of complex ideas and fast-moving trends. As knowledge-based journalists they often engage in deductive analysis across cases and issues, working from the top down, drawing connections, making inferences, theorizing about causes and solutions, and offering judgments. They combine the habits of mind of a scholar with the skills of a master storyteller, providing the context and explaining the ideas that enable citizens to make sense of complex science controversies and trends.

Knowledge Brokers

In the first model, journalists play an essential role as “knowledge brokers,” unpacking the process of expert knowledge production for their readers, examining how and why scientific research was done, sometimes positing alternative interpretations or drawing connections to ongoing debates about a complex problem such as mental health, climate change, or infectious disease. Knowledge brokers focus on the institutions, assumptions, ideologies, political factors, and personalities that influence the production and interpretation of scientific research. Through this perspective, readers learn not only about the basic facts of science, but also how scientific research is conducted, interpreted, communicated, and contested. These veteran journalists often apply “weight-of-evidence reporting,” a technique in which journalists seek out and convey where the preponderance of expert opinion lies on an issue.[4] Yet most journalists who apply this valuable idea strongly defer to expert judgment and do “not get into the weeds of the scientific evidence.”[5] Knowledge brokers go further, probing deeper into the specialized research they write about, examining how and why it was produced, synthesizing and comparing findings across disciplines, and evaluating its usefulness when applied to proposed solutions.

Somewhat paradoxically, only by way of this critically motivated reporting can public trust in science be maintained. Rather than portray science and scientists as truth’s ultimate custodians, knowledge brokers reveal for readers how science really works. When controversies related to fraud, bias, interpretation, scandal, hype, honest errors, or conflicts of interest emerge, those who are attentive to this form of journalism are more likely to be able to judge when such behaviors are outliers or the norm. Just as peer-review and other established norms within science serve as correctives to such failures, as outsiders knowledge brokers fulfill a similarly vital and complementary role.

Across several decades, as a prototypic knowledge broker, Scientific American staff writer John Horgan pioneered a valuable style of science criticism. Dissatisfied with the constraints of traditional reporting, he turned to more opinion-based, interpretative reporting while also looking for “exaggerated or erroneous scientific claims” to question and debunk. “I convinced myself that that was actually a good thing to do because science had become such an authority that there was a need for a scientific critic …,” he noted.  “It’s a paradox: it’s using subjectivity to ultimately get a more clear, objective picture of things.”[6]

In his award winning reporting, Horgan not only skewered the exaggerated claims of scientists who promised world-changing discoveries, but also grappled with ideas of philosophers of science. These themes coalesced in the 1996 best-seller The End of Science in which Horgan argued that science was so successful in its description of the natural world that it had reached the limits of its knowledge. No new scientific frameworks will surpass the explanatory power of Darwinian natural section and genetics in biology or the standard model in physics, he argued.[7]  The End of Science crystallized Horgan’s signature critical perspective which offered readers a consistently skeptical evaluation of the limitations of scientific knowledge. In 1999, Horgan expanded on this perspective in The Undiscovered Mind, arguing that behavioral genetics, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science and other fields had still not delivered a conclusive theory of consciousness and personality, or provided satisfying answers to other big questions.

The author of two subsequent books, Horgan also applies his critical approach in his long-running Scientific American “Cross-Check” blog, a format that benefits from his strong personal voice and trademark skepticism.  “I think that science is ill-served by its own public relations…,” he says. “I actually like to think that I’m doing good deeds for science itself and helping dispel some of these illusions that people have about science . . . I think science needs it.”[8] Inspired by the philosopher Karl Popper’s insights on the tentative, provisional nature of science, Horgan’s longstanding goal is to impart a form of hopeful skepticism which can “protect us from our own lust for answers while keeping us open-minded enough to recognize genuine truth if and when it arrives.”[9]

Veteran environmental journalist Andrew Revkin, who currently writes for ProPublica, is a second example of a knowledge broker. At his former New York Times “Dot Earth” blog, he frequently warned about the tendency for research institutions and journals to hype scientific findings about climate change and to overlook the inherent uncertainty in research. This hyping becomes amplified by advocates, journalists, and bloggers on either side of an environmental debate and by news organizations and reporters who have a strong incentive to always search for “the front page thought.” Consider the role that Revkin played as a knowledge broker in relation to a 2015 study published by the climate scientist James Hansen. Using evidence from complex computer modeling, Hansen and his sixteen co-authors warned that polar ice sheets are likely to melt at a far faster rate than previously estimated. Within a few decades, coastal cities from Boston to Shanghai could be under water, risking military conflict, mass migration, and economic collapse that “might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization,” warned Hansen and his colleagues.[10]

Despite the alarming conclusions, Hansen’s study occupied an ambivalent, unsettled position within the tradition of peer-reviewed publication. It was submitted to the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics where much of the peer review process occurs online in an open-access format. Over a period of months, experts are asked to read the paper and post substantive online comments. Only after reviewing the amassed expert comments do the editors decide whether the paper will be accepted for formal publication. But before the paper was posted online to undergo review, Hansen worked with a public relations firm to distribute the paper to journalists and to hold a telephone press conference at which they could ask questions. His goal, he told reporters, was to influence the outcome of international climate change negotiations to be held at the end of the year.

“Climate Seer James Hansen Issues His Direst Forecast Yet,” was the over-the-top headline of a Daily Beast article that followed the press conference. The implications of Hansen’s findings are “vast and profound,” wrote the reporter. The “blockbuster study” and its “apocalyptic scenario” presents a “huge headache for diplomats,” exploding the all too modest goals of climate diplomacy.[11]  “Earth’s Most Famous Climate Scientist Issues Bombshell Sea Level Warning,” was the same-day headline at Slate magazine. The implications of Hansen’s “breathtaking new study” are “mindboggling,” Slate told its readers. “New York City—and every other coastal city on the planet—may only have a few more decades of habitability left.”[12]

Journalists at The New York Times, Associated Press, the BBC, and The Guardian were among those who chose not to cover the paper, judging it premature to run a story before peer review had begun. Revkin at his Dot Earth blog chose an alternative strategy. In two lengthy posts, he did not merely report the specific findings of the study; instead he analyzed the authors’ apparent motivations, relating to readers Hansen’s career arc as “climatologist-turned-campaigner.” Revkin also identified key differences between arguments in the online discussion paper posted at the journal and the supporting materials supplied to journalists, which included claims that dramatic sea level rise was “likely to occur this century.” He also posted replies to emails he had sent requesting reactions to the paper from leading climatologists, many of them critical of the assumptions employed by Hansen and his colleagues.

Drawing on correspondence with two geologists, Revkin filed a review at the journal’s site arguing that Hansen’s paper contained geological evidence that could be considered too one-sided.  Other commenters at the journal subsequently questioned Revkin’s expertise. “Scientific review,” wrote one, “is for those who *know the topic* to comment, and it’s abundantly clear, that ain’t you.” Revkin in response asked the journal to clarify who was included in the “scientific community,” and who had authority to comment as part of the open review process. He then related this exchange back to the readers of his New York Times blog, including excerpts and links so that readers could follow up in more detail.[13]

As scholar Morgan Meyer writes, journalists as knowledge brokers can do more than just assess or critique science: they can also transform expert knowledge by offering new interpretations and conclusions that subsequently influence the thinking of scientists.[14]  Laurie Garrett is a leading example of this knowledge broker function. Her early-career reporting from the frontlines of global public health threats culminated in the 1994 book The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. That book told the story of the global spread of viruses such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and Ebola, detailing how humans abetted the rise and resurgence of these infections through weak global public health systems, misuse of antibiotics and antivirals, local warfare, and refugee migration.

In The Coming Plague, Garrett integrated a diversity of disciplines into a new way of understanding infectious diseases, framing them as a unified problem manageable only by approaches that are informed by interdisciplinary research. Her work raised public awareness of infectious disease by showing readers the devastation wrought by these new plagues, boosting the profile, prestige, and funding of researchers and organizations combating diseases.[15] In 2000, Garrett followed with Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health where she argued for a systemic solution to protect populations around the world from lethal epidemics.[16]  The book’s critique of health policy moved her work into the political realm. In 2004, she became a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she combines the roles of reporter, researcher, and expert commentator, authoring popular articles, policy reports, and even serving as a script consultant to the 2011 Hollywood thriller “Contagion.”

 Dialogue Brokers

As news organizations invest in a range of innovative digital and online initiatives, a second complementary strategy for doing knowledge-based journalism is likely to prove particularly relevant. In this “dialogue broker” model, an expert journalist uses blogging, podcasts, video interviews, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media tools to convene discussions among a network of professionally and politically diverse contributors and readers.

This approach that connects a range of contributors is an example of networked journalism.[17] But the dialogue broker method is driven also by a view that dialogue can help readers to understand the viewpoint of others and accept the fact that they disagree. New York University’s Jay Rosen argued that complex, polarized debates such as those over climate change or biotechnology are unlikely to reach political consensus. But he wrote: “what’s possible is a world where different stakeholders ‘get’ that the world looks different to people who hold different stakes.”[18]

In this scenario, what are needed then are knowledge-based journalists who convene discussions that force critical reflection and examination, rather than playing to an ideologically like-minded audience. By way of blog posts and other digital tools, dialogue brokers feature multiple, contrasting perspectives, while offering context on the scientific and policy arguments made. Their original posts are often updated in light of new developments, reactions from other journalists and experts, and feedback from readers. 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,” writes new media scholar Donald Matheson.[19]

A dialogue-based form of networked journalism reflects many of the arguments of social theorists studying the politically contested terrain of issues such as climate change. As Rayner argues, progress 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. 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, he warns.[20]

Revkin at his New York Times’ Dot Earth blog not only functioned as an explainer and informed critic of science (knowledge broker), but also served as a skilled convener (dialogue broker), using his blog and a variety of other digital tools to facilitate discussions among experts, advocates, and readers while contextualizing specific claims. His role as convener and dialogue broker at Dot Earth was informed by his reading of research in the social sciences which challenged his long held assumption as a journalist that the “solution to global warming was, basically, clearer communication: …If we could just explain the problem more clearly, people would see it more clearly, and then they would change.”[21]  At Dot Earth, to foster a dialogue with readers, he prefered posing questions, describing answers from experts and others. Revkin viewed his role as “interrogatory – exploring questions, not giving you my answer…I think anyone who tells you they know the answer on some of these complex issues is not being particularly honest.”[22]

Nathanael Johnson’s 2013 series on genetically modified (GM) food is a second example of the dialogue broker approach. His goal in the series was to go beyond the polarized thinking on the topic and he ended up brokering a conversation between critics and proponents of the technology. Through that dialogue, he promoted a shared understanding of why people disagree so strongly on the subject. As Johnson wrote, there is obvious value to journalists attempting to broker such a conversation for their audiences, especially on an issue such as GM food in which many readers tend to doubt its safety and distrust the scientists who argue on behalf of the technology. He wrote:

“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. This can leave outsiders feeling that someone is lying. But often the miscommunication comes down to a difference in  perspectives.”[23]

Policy Brokers

Given the complexity of science controversies, and the difficulty involved in falsifying predictions about the future, it is possible for equally plausible narratives about effective policy options and solutions to exist. This ambiguity presents the opportunity for advocates to promote prescriptions that align with their vision of a “good society.” As environmental studies scholar Roger Pielke Jr. aptly notes, wickedly complex problems such as  climate change become “a bit like a policy inkblot on which people map onto the issue their hopes and values associated with their vision for what a better world would look like.”[24] In the face of such ambiguity, journalists play a key role 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 is 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.[25]

What is needed then is a style of knowledge-based journalism that can counter groupthink and diffuse polarization in science controversies by expanding the range of policy options and technologies under consideration by the public and political community.  This policy broker model for journalists is informed by research by Pielke Jr., who demonstrates through a series of case studies 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.[26]  Writing about the climate change debate, he argued that much of the political argument over scientific uncertainty would fade — once new technologies are available. These advances would make it easier to conduct low-cost meaningful action on climate change. It would be then easier to gain support from across the political spectrum and from developed and developing countries. For example, he argued in a 2013 coauthored article that carbon capture that limits emissions from coal and natural gas power plans could “transform the political debate”. This is because the technology “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.”[27]

These conclusions are similar to those of Dan Kahan and colleagues studying the process by which the public forms opinions about controversial science topics (see Kahan, chapter…). Their 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. “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. “They would probably look at the evidence more favourably, however, if made aware that the possible responses to climate change include nuclear power and geoengineering, enterprises that to them symbolize human resourcefulness.”[28]

Consider how these principles apply to the role of journalists as policy brokers in the debate over climate change. Between 2007 to 2010, among those lobbying for action to address the issue, the focus was on setting a global price on carbon that would catalyze a “soft energy path” revolution, shifting the economy from a reliance on fossil fuels to dependence on wind, solar, and energy efficiency technologies. In contrast, there was much more limited attention to advanced “hard energy path” technologies such as nuclear energy or carbon capture and storage that would help to reduce emissions in ways far less transformative to the global economy.[29] In the years since, several journalists serving in the role of policy broker have helped to diversify the range of technological options considered in the climate debate, calling greater attention to hard energy path technologies and government-led innovation strategies. 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. 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.[30]

In a series of columns leading up to and during the 2015 United Nations summit on climate change, The New York Times’ “Economic Scene” columnist Eduardo Porter was among the more prominent journalists playing the role of policy broker by questioning the conventional assumptions of climate advocates. Porter brought a unique perspective and background to the topic. Holding two degrees in physics, the twenty-year veteran reporter had covered business, finance, and politics from Brazil, Tokyo, London, Mexico, and Los Angeles before joining The Times in 2004 as an editorial specialist on economics.

In his columns, Porter critically assessed arguments that narrowly focused on soft energy paths and energy efficiency strategies. He also strongly challenged journalists and academics on the left flank of the environmental movement who argued that solving climate change also necessitated a halt to economic growth and an end to the global capitalist system. These longstanding arguments had recently gained considerable attention by way of Naomi Klein’s 2014 international best-seller This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.[31]

Porter countered that proposals like Klein’s pushing a 100 percent renewables and efficiency strategy “too often lack strong analytical foundations, and are 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. As an alternative path, Porter wrote that success on climate change “requires experimenting intensely along many technological avenues, learning quickly from failures and moving on.”[32] Drawing on various studies and analyses, Porter argued for investment in carbon capture and storage technologies and for the expansion of nuclear power. These technologies in combination with renewables would be needed to rapidly decarbonize the world economy while meeting the demands for growth from India, China, Africa and the rest of the developing world. They will also be required as backup power sources for intermittent solar and wind technologies.

Porter similarly warned that arguments promoting the need for negative economic growth threatened to derail the UN climate negotiations. “Whatever the ethical merits of the case, the proposition of no growth has absolutely no chance to succeed,” he wrote. Interviewing historians and economists, he noted that by reducing the competition for scarce resources, economic growth over the past century had delivered enormous societal benefits, helping to reduce war and conflict, enabling consensual politics and democracy, and empowering women.  Even if Klein and her allies were correct that climate change meant the upending of capitalism and globalization, Porter doubted “it would bring about the workers’ utopia” they imagined. Instead in a world without economic growth, the conflict for scarce resources would mean that the powerless and most vulnerable were the most likely to suffer, he warned. Rather than putting an end to capitalism, the world’s poor could best be served by developing a broad menu of new energy technologies that shift the world away from fossil fuels.[33]

Journalism in Turbulent Times

The advent in recent years of several innovative digital news ventures focused on deeper forms of explanatory, analytical, and data-driven journalism suggests that at least some news industry leaders, investors, and philanthropists have recognized the need for new forms of knowledge-based journalism. In 2015, the billionaire owner of The Boston Globe launched STAT, a deep vertical digital news organization covering the health, medical, and life sciences. “Over the next 20 years, some of the most important stories in the world are going to emerge in the life-sciences arena,” said STAT founder John Henry. The goal of STAT is to be “the country’s go-to news source for the life-sciences.”[34] To report on and analyze the life sciences, STAT hired a roster of knowledge-based journalists with dozens of years of combined experience covering the beat. Examples include regular columnists Sharon Begley who “who goes behind the headlines to make sense of scientific claims” and Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus of the Retraction Watch blog who focus on issues of misconduct, fraud, and scientific integrity.

In other examples, the startup news site, co-founded in 2014 by former Washington Post “Wonkblog” writer Ezra Klein, focuses on explanatory journalism with a type of Wikipedia-like tagging of terms and concepts that gives readers in-depth background on an issue, delivered by way of the latest digital design techniques.[35]  Launched in 2014, “The Upshot” at the New York Times is a blog-like section that aims to enhance reader understanding of news through analysis and data visualization with contributions from journalists and academics, enabling readers to “grasp big, complicated stories so well that they can explain the whys and how’s of those stories to their friends, relatives and colleagues.”[36]  The Washington soon followed, creating a series of science, technology, and environment-focused blogs in which journalists contribute daily reporting, analysis, and commentary. The online startups Buzzfeed and Mashable have hired veteran science journalists to contribute deeper reported news stories. Bloomberg, Politico, and Energy & Environment News have invested in deep vertical coverage of science, technology, and environmental policy respectively, funded by way of subscriptions and advertising that target the business, advocacy, and lobbying communities. Philanthropists and foundations have also underwritten the launch of notable non-profit news ventures such as, Inside Climate News, Climate Central, and The Conversation, while continuing support of coverage at outlets like Mother Jones, The Nation, and public radio.

These for-profit and non-profit news ventures are not without their limits and trade-offs, have yet to prove their sustainability, and deserve critical scholarly analysis. Among the relevant questions: how do audiences interpret the mix of news, analysis, and opinion found across these outlets, especially as content is accessed, shared, and commented on by way of social media? How do knowledge-based journalists gain and maintain their credibility and following in an era of partisan audiences? What influence does the advertising, subscription, and funding model of a news organization have on journalistic decisions and the interpretation of complex issues like climate change or food biotechnology?

For many university journalism programs, these new media ventures and questions are the latest evidence that they need to rethink their traditional trade school focus on interviewing and storytelling skills. Indeed, with journalism programs under pressure because of languishing enrollment, their future may depend on shifting to more effectively meet the needs of society and the profession. Their future may depend less on enrolling undergraduate majors and Masters students, but in retraining students and professionals with backgrounds in specialized fields, offering them a variety of minors, certificates, badges, short courses, and fellowships. In this regard, philanthropists can play a vital role, underwriting specialized programs that meet the need for a new kind of knowledge-based journalist and communicator. At the University of Toronto, for example, a unique program recruits academics and professionals with existing subject matter expertise and trains them to pitch stories to news organizations as freelance journalists covering their own disciplines.[37]  In all, the complementary models and examples of knowledge-based journalism that we describe in this chapter are a starting point to learn from and evaluate. Research, vision, and leadership will be needed to bring about the shifts needed in how journalism covers science and its various controversies, but, in the process, there are already many bright examples to build on.


Nisbet, M.C. & Fahy, D. (2017). Models of Knowledge-based Journalism. In Jamieson, K.H., Scheufele, D.A. & Kahan, D. (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication. New York: Oxford University Press, 273-282.


[1] Patterson, Thomas E. Informing the news. Vintage, 2013, p. 93.

[2] Donsbach, Wolfgang. “Journalism as the new knowledge profession and consequences for journalism education.” Journalism 15, no. 6 (2014): 661-677, 668.

[3] Nisbet, Matthew C., and Declan Fahy. “The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism in Politicized Science Debates.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 658, no. 1 (2015): 223-234

[4] Sharon Dunwoody. “Weight-of-evidence reporting: What is it? Why use it? Niemen Reports 59, no. 4 (2005): 89-91.

[5] Kohl, Patrice Ann, Soo Yun Kim, Yilang Peng, Heather Akin, Eun Jeong Koh, Allison Howell, and Sharon Dunwoody. “The influence of weight-of-evidence strategies on audience perceptions of (un)certainty when media cover contested science. Public Understanding of Science (2015) DOI: 10.1177/0963662515615087

[6] Fahy, Declan, and Matthew C. Nisbet. “The science journalist online: Shifting roles and emerging practices.” Journalism-Theory Practice and Criticism 12, no. 7 (2011): 778-93, 787.

[7] Horgan, John. The end of science: Facing the limits of knowledge in the twilight of the scientific age. Basic Books, 2015.

[8] Personal interview with second author, January 2014.

[9] Horgan, J. (2000). The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation. Simon and Schuster, 13.

[10] Hansen, James, Makiko Sato, Paul Hearty, Reto Ruedy, Maxwell Kelley, Valerie Masson-Delmotte, Gary Russell et al. “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2◦ C global warming is highly dangerous.” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions 15, no. 14 (2015): 20059-20179.

[11] Hertsgaard, Mark, “Climate Seer James Hansen Issues His Direst Forecast Yet,” The Daily Beast, July 20, 2015, accessed January 15, 2016,

[12] Holthaus, Eric, “Earth’s Most Famous Climate Scientist Issues Bombshell Sea Level Warning,”, July 20, 2015, accessed January 15, 2016,

[13] See Andrew C. Revkin, “Whiplash Warning When Climate Science is Publicized Before Peer Review and Publication,” The New York, July 23, 2015, accessed January 16, 2016 and Andrew C. Revkin, “A Rocky First Review for a Climate Paper Warning of a Stormy Coastal Crisis,” The New York, July 25, 2015, Accessed January 16, 2016

[14] Meyer, Morgan. “The rise of the knowledge broker.” Science Communication 32, no. 1 (2010): 118-127.

[15] Garrett, Laurie. The coming plague: newly emerging diseases in a world out of balance. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

[16] Garrett, Laurie. Betrayal of trust: the collapse of global public health. Oxford University Press, 2003.

[17] Adrienne Russell. (2011). Networked: A Contemporary History of News in Transition. London: Polity.

[18] Jay Rosen, “Covering Wicked Problems: Keynote address to the 2nd UK Conference of

Science Journalists,” PressThink Blog, June 25, 2012, Accessed January 15, 2016

[19] Matheson, Donald. “Weblogs and the epistemology of the news: Some trends in online journalism.” New media & society 6, no. 4 (2004): 443-468, 458.

[20] Steve Rayner, Wicked problems: clumsy solutions—diagnoses and prescriptions for environmental ills. Jack Beale Memorial Lecture on Global Environment, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, July, 2006. Accessed January 15, 2016

[21] Revkin, Andrew C. “My climate change.” Issues in Science and Technology, Winter (2016): 27-36, 32.

[22] Curtis Brainard, “Dot Earth Moves to Opinion Section,” Columbia Journalism Review Online. 2010, April 1, Accessed January 15, 2016

[23] Nathanael Johnson, “The GM safety dance: What’s rule and what’s real,” The, 2013, July 10, Accessed January 15, 2016

[24] Pielke Jr., Roger A, 2010. The climate fix: what scientists and politicians won’t tell you about global warming. Basic Books, 62.

[25] Nisbet, Matthew C. “Disruptive ideas: public intellectuals and their arguments for action on climate change.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 5, no. 6 (2014): 809-823.

[26] Pielke Jr., Roger A. The honest broker: making sense of science in policy and politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[27] Sarewitz, Daniel and Pielke Jr. Roger. “Learning to live with fossil fuels.” The Atlantic, April 24, 2013. Accessed January 15, 2016

[28] Kahan, Dan. “Fixing the communications failure.” Nature 463, no. 7279 (2010): 296-297, 297. For more specific to how Pielke and Kahan’s research can be applied to specific strategies in science policy debates, see Nisbet, Matthew C. “Engaging in science policy controversies.” Routledge Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology (2014): 173.

[29] Nisbet, Matthew C. “Climate shift: Clear vision for the next decade of public debate.” American University School of Communication (2011). Accessed January 15, 2015

[30] Nisbet, “Disruptive Ideas”.

[31] Klein, Naomi. This changes everything: capitalism vs. the climate. Simon and Schuster, 2014.

[32] Eduardo Porter, “Climate Change Calls for Science Not Hope,” The New York Times, June 23, 2015, Accessed January 15, 2015

[33] Eduardo Porter, “Imagining a World Without Growth,” The New York Times, December 1, 2015, Accessed January 15, 2016

[34] Healy, Beth. “Globe’s owner unveils site focused on health, life-sciences,” The Boston Globe, November 4, 2015, Accessed January 15, 2016

[35] Klein, Ezra, Melissa Bell, and Matt Yglesias, “Welcome to Vox: A work in progress,”, April 6, 2014, Accessed January 15, 2016

[36] Leonhardt, David, “Navigate news with the upshot,” The New York Times, April 22, 2014, Available at

[37] Rosenstiel, Tom, “Why we need a better conversation about the future of journalism education,”, April 15 2013, Accessed Rosenstiel, Tom. 15 April 2013. Why we need a better conversation about the future of journalism education.

[38] Accessed January 15, 2016

Climate change communication, energy politics, and journalism: Syllabus and schedule

September 1, 2016--In this advanced seminar, students apply research and best practices to communicating about and reporting on climate change and energy issues. Course work prepares students for careers in journalism, advocacy, government, and strategic communication. Students analyze major debates over the environment, climate change, and related technologies; assessing how they are portrayed by experts, advocates, and the media; and the implications for effective journalism, communication, and policymaker engagement.  Students gain an integrated understanding of the different roles they can play as professionals, advocates, citizens, and consumers. In doing so, they will have improved their ability to find, discuss, evaluate, and use expert sources of information; assess competing media claims and narratives; think strategically and critically; and write impactful, evidence-based news stories, analyses, and commentaries. Stories are published at the New England Climate Change Review, a website covering climate and energy in New England and beyond.


  • Reading Familiarity Quizzes (10%): Each Tuesday class will begin with a short quiz testing your familiarity with the assigned readings and the previous week’s major news stories.
  • News Article on New Study or Report (15%): You will choose a recently published peer-reviewed study or expert report along with their accompanying news releases, where possible. These studies should relate to a New England-related issue; or be authored by a New England-based expert or organization. For this assignment, chose one that you can develop into a 700-word news story relevant to New England readership. Take care to advance the story beyond the information provided in the paper and news release by using at least one additional interview source, who you must interview in person or by phone, or by email, and one additional piece of documentary evidence. Documentary evidence includes: a report from an official organization or institution; scientific paper; speech; policy paper; research report; or book. Please note that a media statement or press release or published news item in a newspaper, magazine, online or broadcast news item does not constitute a documentary source.  You must pitch the idea and story to me by email and I must agree to it.
  • Trend or Backgrounder Article (15%): For this assignment, you must find, develop and produce an original 800-word science news trend or background story on a topic of your choice, aimed at New England readership. The story should have at least three sources. One source must be a paper published in a scientific journal. One source must be an interview. You can write the story in a hard news format; or in a format that reflects evolving online approaches to trend and backgrounder stories such as a story. You must pitch the idea and the format to me by email, and I must agree to it.
  • News Analysis Article (15%): Choosing among the weekly thematic topics, you must write a 1,000-word news analysis article building on, synthesizing, and evaluating the research and arguments posed, pegging the issues discussed to recent events or developments with a focus that is relevant to a New England readership. You must pitch the idea and the format to me by email, and I must agree to it. You should aim to make the news analysis a well-written and seamless discussion that combines your analysis of recent news items with references to points raised in relevant course readings.
  • Commentary / Op-Ed (15%): Choosing among the weekly thematic topics, you must write a 800 word op-ed building on, synthesizing, and evaluating the research and arguments posed, pegging the issues discussed to recent events or developments with a focus that is relevant to a New England readership. Your op-ed must have a clear point of view and distinctive voice. You must pitch the idea and the format to me by email and I must agree to it. You should aim to make your commentary a well-written and seamless argument that combines your analysis of recent news items with references to points raised in relevant course readings.
  • In Depth Report or Analysis (30%): Choosing a climate change or energy topic, you must write a 2,000-word article aimed at New England readers. Choose the topic yourselves, but you must first pitch it to me by email, and I must agree to it, before you can proceed. Stories must contain at least two original interviews and at least three documentary sources: a report from an official organization or institution; scientific paper; speech; policy paper; research report; or book. Please note that a media statement or press release or published news item in a newspaper, magazine, online or broadcast news item does not constitute a documentary source. As part of this assignment, you must present in class on your story, describing how you came up with the idea, how you reported it and why you decided to report in the style and format that you chose. Crucially, you must also reflect on how the readings and class shaped your understanding of how you reported this story.


  1. Represent yourself accurately to sources. You must always let people know you are a reporter and that your story could potentially be published at the Northeastern Climate Change Review. You must make this clear to sources. All submissions for this class could potentially be published.
  2. Do not use unnamed or anonymous sources without prior approval. Occasionally you will encounter sources who do not want to give their names, but unless there is a serious risk to the source of going on the record, you should do your best to convince them to speak on the record. You must clear any use of an unnamed or anonymous source with me before you turn in the assignment.
  3. Use proper attribution. Only live interviews may be quoted directly. Anything off a press release, Web site, statement, another article must be attributed as such.
  4. Include a source appendix. As an appendix to each assignment, please provide:
  • A list of sources that you interviewed personally for the article, the interview method (by phone, in person, via email), the interview dates, and contact details for the source (phone and email);
  • Full references to any documentary sources cited;
  • Full references to the sources of secondary information (previous articles, quotations taken from previously published material, such as previous news reports, books, etc) used in the article;
  • A list of sources of background information not cited in the article. 


                   There are no required texts to purchase for this course. All of the assigned readings are either freely available online, by way of the Northeastern University library; or by way of major news organizations. However, you are strongly advised for purposes of this course to purchase a digital monthly subscription to the Boston Globe. Your subscription will be needed to access several assigned readings; but more importantly to research your stories and articles.


As part of this course, you are expected to be a voracious reader and evaluator of climate change and energy news coverage. Specifically, on a daily and weekly basis, you are expected to read the following sources and journalists. Your familiarity with their coverage will be tested as part of your weekly quizzes:


 Fri. Sept 9 – Class Overview and Introductions


Tues. Sept 13 & Fri. Sept 16 – Our Climate Change Future

  • Climate Ready Boston (2016, Spring). Climate Projections Consensus. [Read Summary Document]
  • Abel, D. (2016, June 22). Climate Change Could Be Worse for Boston than Thought. Boston Globe. [HTML]
  • Gillis, J. (2016, Sept. 3). Flooding of Coast Caused by Climate Change Has Already Begun. The New York Times. [HTML]
  • Belluz, J. (2015, Nov. 30). Why climate change is increasingly seen as an urgent health issue. [HTML]
  • Fernandez, I.J., C.V. Schmitt, S.D. Birkel, E. Stancioff, A.J. Pershing, J.T. Kelley, J.A. Runge, G.L. Jacobson, & P.A. Mayewski. 2015. Maine’s Climate Future: 2015 Update. Orono, ME: University of Maine. [PDF]
  • Abel, D. (2014, Sept. 21). In Maine, Scientists See Signs of Climate Change. Boston Globe [HTML]
  • Woodward, C. (2015, Oct. 25). MayDay: Gulf of Maine in Distress. Portland Press Herald. 6 part series [HTML]

Tues. Sept 20 — Our Energy Future

  • Fitzgerald, J. (2016, March 12). Clean energy industry goes mainstream amid investments. Boston Globe [HTML]
  • Gillis, J. (2016, Aug. 22). America’s First Offshore Wind Farm May Power Up a New Industry. The New York Times. [HTML]
  • Turkel, T. (2016, July 10). Risky choices paying off for UMaine’s wind project. Portland Press Herald. [HTML]
  • Abel, D. (2016, May 16).  Carbon emissions rising at New England power plants. The Boston Globe [HTML]
  • Mooney, C. (2016, Aug. 11). Turns out wind and solar have a secret friend: Natural gas. Washington Post. [HTML]
  • (2016, July 29). We Must Preserve Nuclear Power Plants. Commonwealth Magazine. [HTML]
  • Mohl, B. (2016, July 31). Lawmakers give late-night OK to energy bill. Commonwealth Magazine [HTML]
  • Berwick, A. (2016, Aug. 3). Energy Bill a Solid Step Forward. Commonwealth Magazine. [HTML]
  • Gerwatowski, R. (2016, Aug. 3). The inconvenient truth of energy policy. Commonwealth Magazine. [HTML]
  • Turkel, T. (2016, July 30). Expect your electric bill to go up for the next few years. Portland Press Herald. [HTML]

Fri. Sept. 23 — NO CLASS 


Tues. Sept. 27 — Reporting on Scientific Studies and Reports

  • Siegfried, T. (2005). “Reporting from science journals”. In Blum, D., Knudson, M., & Marantz Henig, R. (Eds). A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers (pp 11-17). New York: Oxford University Press. [Distributed to Class]
  • Journalist’s Resource (2011, Sept. 27)  Research chat: Andrew Revkin on covering and using scholarship. [HTML]
  • Journalist’s Resource (2016, June 1). Interviewing a source: Rules of the road; talking with officials and experts. [HTML]
  • Journalist’s Resource (2015, March 26). Eight questions to ask when interpreting academic studies: A primer for media. [HTML]
  • Borenstein, S. (2016, Sept. 7). NOAA: Global warming increased odds for Louisiana downpour. Associated Press. [HTML]
  • Kintisch, E. (2016, June 9). Is wacky weather helping melt Greenland? Science magazine [HTML]
  • Revkin, A. (2013, March 12). Can Wind, Water and Sunlight Power New York by 2050? Dot Earth blog, The New York Times [HTML]

 Friday, Sept. 30 — Trend Stories, News Analysis, and Commentary

  • Abel, D. (2016, Aug 27). Drought’s effects mount as dry weather continues. The Boston Globe [HTML]
  • Jackson, D.Z. (2016, July 22). San Diego sets an example for Mass. on renewable energy. The Boston Globe [HTML]
  • Jackson, D.Z. (2016, May 13). With Obama cuts, Mass. should rethink its reliance on natural gas. The Boston Globe [HTML]
  • Porter, E. (2016, July 19). How Renewable Energy Is Blowing Climate Change Efforts Off Course. The New York Times [HTML]
  • Porter, E. (2016, April 19). Liberal Biases, Too, May Block Progress on Climate Change. The New York Times [HTML]
  • Plumer, B. (2014, April 22). Two degrees: The world set a simple goal for climate change. We’re likely to miss it. [HTML]
  • Merchant, E.F. (2016, March 18). Is it Game Over for Coal? The New Republic. [HTML]

Friday, Oct. 7 —  Story Angles, Frames, and Visuals

  • Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter to Public Engagement.Environment, 51 (2), 514-518. [HTML]
  • Journalist Resource (2016, Apr 18). Localizing the climate change mitigation story in your state and region: Some data tools to use. [HTML]
  • Climate Outreach (2016). Climate Visuals – 7 Key Visuals for Climate Change Communication. (Skim Report and Visuals Web Site) [HTML]
  • Journalist Resource (2016, Apr 1). Getting started with data visualization: A quick primer to jump-start the process. [HTML]


Tues. Oct. 4 – What Kind of Problem is Climate Change?

  • 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. [HTML] [PDF]
  • McKibben, B. (2016, Aug. 15). A World at War: We’re under attack from climate change—and our only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII. New Republic. [HTML]
  • Rayner, S. (2016, Aug. 31). A Climate Movement at War. The Breakthrough [HTML]

Tues. Oct. 18 & Fri. Oct. 21 — Climate Communication Challenges & Strategies

  • Nisbet, M.C. & Markowitz, E. (2016, March). Americans’ Attitudes About Science and Technology: The Social Context for Public Communication. AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science. [PDF] [Read through climate change section]
  • Geiling, N. (2014, May 7). Why doesn’t anyone know how to talk about global warming? The Smithsonian magazine. [HTML]
  • Voosen, P. (2014, Nov 3). Seeking a Climate Change. Chronicle of Higher Education. [HTML]
  • Hoffman, A. (2012). Climate Science as Culture War. Stanford Social Innovation Review. [HTML]
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Markowitz, E. (2016). Strategic Science Communication on Environmental Issues. AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science. [PDF]

Tues. Oct 25 & Fri. Oct. 28 —Journalistic Challenges & Shifting Roles

  • Gibson, T. A., Craig, R. T., Harper, A. C., & Alpert, J. M. (2015). Covering global warming in dubious times: Environmental reporters in the new media ecosystem. Journalism. [Library Gateway]
  • Brainard, C. (2015). The changing ecology of news and news organizations: Implications for environmental news. In A. Hansen and R. Cox (Eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Environment and Communication (pp.168-185). London: Routledge. [Distributed to Class]
  • Revkin, A. 2007. “Climate change as news: Challenges in communicating environmental science”. In J.C. DiMento & P.M. Doughman (Eds.).Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren. Boston, MA: MIT Press, pp. 139-160. [PDF]
  • Fahy, D. & Nisbet, M.C. (2011). The Science Journalist Online: Shifting Roles and Emerging Practices. Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism, 12: 778-793. [HTML]
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Fahy, D. (2015). The Need for Knowledge-based Journalism in Politicized Science Debates. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 658, 223-234. [PDF]


Tues. Nov. 1 & Fri. Nov. 4 — Journalism and the “Climate Change Denial” Movement

  • Dunlap, R. E., & McCright, A. M. (2011). Organized climate change denial. The Oxford handbook of climate change and society, 144-160. [Google Books]
  • Feldman, L. (2016). The Effects of Network and Cable TV News Viewing on Climate Change Opinion, Knowledge, and Behavior. ORE Climate Science. [Distributed to Class]
  • Mayer, J. (2016). Dark money: The hidden history of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right. Doubleday, pgs 198-225 [Distributed to Class]
  • Jerving, S. et al (2015, Oct. 9). What Exxon knew about the Earth’s melting Arctic. The Los Angeles Times [HTML]
  • Lewandowsky, S., Oreskes, N., Risbey, J. S., Newell, B. R., & Smithson, M. (2015). Seepage: Climate change denial and its effect on the scientific community. Global Environmental Change, 33, 1-13. [HTML]
  • Howarth, C. C., & Sharman, A. G. (2015). Labeling opinions in the climate debate: a critical review. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 6(2), 239-254. [Library Gateway]
  • Colford, P. (2015, Sept. 22). An addition to AP Stylebook entry on global warming. Associated Press. [HTML]

Tues. Nov. 15  The Election: What Happened and What’s Next?

  • Guillen, A. et al (2016, Nov. 12). Trump’s win upends climate fight. Politico. [HTML]
  • Revkin, A. (2016, Nov. 9). Prospects for the Climate, and Environmentalism, Under President Trump. New York Times [HTML]
  • Plumer B. (2016, Nov. 9). There’s no way around it: Donald Trump looks like a disaster for the planet. [HTML]
  • Brooks, D. (2016, Nov. 11). The View from Trump Tower. The New York Times [HTML]
  • Greenwald, G. (2016, Nov. 9). Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit. The Intercept. [HTML]

Friday Nov. 19 — Sicence, Journalism and Advocacy in Turbulent Times

  • Donner, S. D. (2014). Finding your place on the science–advocacy continuum: an editorial essay. Climatic change, 124(1-2), 1-8. [PDF]
  • Stephenson, W. (2012, Nov. 5). A Convenient Excuse. The Boston Phoenix [HTML]
  • Nisbet, M.C. (2015, Oct. 23). MIT rejects fossil fuel divestment but is still a leader on climate change. The Conversation. [HTML]



Tues. Nov. 29 – Tues. Dec. 6


Shifting the conversation about climate change: Strategies to build public demand for action

March 1, 2016 —Late last year at the United Nations climate change summit in Paris, world leaders reached a historic accord committing their countries to lowering greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades and beyond.

The combined commitments by countries fall short of what many scientists say is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but the Paris accord marks an essential first step. World leaders pledged to revisit their commitments every five years with the goal of ratcheting up efforts to rapidly reduce emissions.

Yet over the next decade, as the United States joins with other countries in a quest to decarbonize the world economy, it will be essential to also ratchet up U.S. public opinion.

The challenge is to move the majority of Americans who remain ambivalent about the issue toward greater support for government action.

Recent studies, including several that I have conducted, suggest a portfolio of related communication strategies that can help shift the conversation about climate change, building public demand for solutions.

Talking Up Consensus

As simple as it might sound, perceptions of scientific consensus on climate change serve as a key “gateway belief,” influencing other beliefs about the issue, which in turn shape support for policy action, report Sander van der Linden and colleagues (2015) in a recently published study.

Even for individuals who closely follow the issue, it is impossible to track the latest scientific findings or studies about climate change, much less parse the many complexities involved. Instead, as with medical questions or technology issues, most people use what they perceive as the consensus opinion of relevant experts as a mental short cut.

On the issue of climate change, the problem is that many members of the public are not very good at accurately estimating the true level of scientific consensus. Surveys of climate scientists and comprehensive reviews of thousands of peer-reviewed studies confirm the same basic fact: at least 97 percent of climate scientists say that human-caused climate change is happening (see Doran and Zimmerman 2009; Anderegg et al. 2010; Cook et al. 2013). One study, in fact, indicates the consensus is actually as high as 99.9 percent (Powell 2015). Yet recent surveys find that only one out of ten Americans correctly estimate agreement among climate scientists as greater than 90 percent (Leiserowitz et al. 2014).

To evaluate strategies for correcting perceptions of expert consensus, van der Linden and his colleagues (2014) tested the effects of different variations on the same message: “97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.” In one experimental condition, subjects were presented just with the text of the message. In a second condition, the text was paired with a pie chart visually conveying the level of consensus. In other conditions, subjects were presented with variations on a relevant metaphor such as, “If 97% of engineers concluded that a particular bridge is unsafe to cross, would you believe them? 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.”

Across each of their experimental conditions, boosting awareness of scientific consensus increased beliefs that climate change is happening, that it is human caused, and that it is a worrisome problem. These shifts in beliefs in turn increased subjects’ support for policy action, with some of the biggest increases observed among Republicans, who tend to be more dismissive of the issue (van der Linden et al. 2015). Interestingly, in comparison to the tested metaphors, subjects who received either the simple text statement or the pie chart displayed the greatest increase in their beliefs.

Metaphors are especially useful for explaining complex mechanisms related to climate science, reasoned van der Linden and his colleagues (2014), but when trying to convey the strength of scientific consensus, “presenting information in a way that is short, simple, and easy to comprehend and remember seems to offer the highest probability of success for all audiences examined,” they concluded.

Reframing the Debate

As we educate the public about scientific consensus, evidence suggests we also need to reframe the focus of debate. Americans tend to view climate change as a scientific or environmental issue, but not as a problem that affects them personally or that connects to issues that they already perceive as important.

Successfully reframing climate change means remaining true to the underlying science of the issue while applying research to tailor messages to different audiences, making the complex issue understandable and personally important (see Nisbet 2009).

For example, in a series of studies conducted with several colleagues, we examined how Americans respond to information about climate change when the issue is framed as a public health problem. A public health focus stresses scientific findings that link climate change to an increase in the incidence of infectious diseases, asthma, allergies, heat stroke, and other health problems, risks that differentially impact children, the elderly, and the poor.

To test the effects of this frame, in an initial study, we conducted in-depth interviews with seventy respondents from twenty-nine states, recruiting subjects from six previously defined audience segments. These segments ranged on a continuum from those individuals deeply alarmed by climate change to those who were deeply dismissive of the problem. Across all six audience segments, when asked to read a short essay that framed climate change in terms of public health, individuals said that the information was both useful and compelling, particularly at the end of the essay when locally focused policy actions were paired with specific benefits to public health (Maibach et al. 2010).

In a follow-up study, we conducted a nationally representative online survey in which respondents from each of the six audience segments were randomly assigned to three different experimental conditions allowing us to evaluate their emotional reactions to strategically framed messages about climate change. In comparison to messages that defined climate change in terms of either the environment or national security, talking about climate change as a public health problem generated greater feelings of hope among subjects. Research suggests that this emotion helps promote greater public involvement and participation on the issue. Among subjects who tended to doubt or dismiss climate change as a problem, the public health focus helped defuse anger in reaction to information about the issue, creating the opportunity for opinion change (Myers et al. 2012).

Working with a Diversity of 
Opinion Leaders

The research on consensus messaging and framing suggest easy-to-adopt talking points and novel lines of emphasis that scientists and other experts can use in face-to-face conversations, presentations, meetings, media interviews, and via social media. Yet to ratchet up public engagement with climate change, scientists and experts will also have to be joined by a variety of opinion leaders from across sectors of society, trusted voices that can influence otherwise difficult-to-reach audiences (see Nisbet and Kotcher 2009).

Studies, for example, have identified TV weathercasters as an especially important community influencer. Local TV broadcasts remain the top news source for a majority of Americans, and most say they watch the local news primarily for the weathercast. Given their training, visibility, reach, and trusted status, weathercasters hold the unique ability to describe how local weather conditions, such as heat waves, drought, or heavy precipitation, may be related to climate change.

Connecting the dots on such events is important. Research shows that when people understand that they have personally experienced the effects of climate change, they are more likely to be concerned about the issue and to support a variety of policy actions (Placky et al. 2015). To date, more than 250 local weathercasters in the United States representing 185 stations and 105 media markets have been recruited to include regular “Climate Matters” segments as part of their broadcasts, using easily adopted visuals that are localized to specific audiences.

A longitudinal study evaluating a pilot program at a local TV station in Columbia, South Carolina, found that after one year of regular Climate Matters segments, viewers of the station’s broadcast had developed a more science-based understanding of climate change than viewers of other local news stations (Placky et al. 2015). Pope Francis’s recent effort to reframe climate change in terms of religious duty and social justice is another example of the impact that trusted voices can have on public opinion.

Following the release of the pope’s encyclical on the subject and his visit to the United States this past year, 17 percent of Americans and 35 percent of Catholics reported that the pope’s position on climate change had influenced their views. In comparison to six months prior to the pope’s visit, significantly more Americans were likely to say that climate change is a moral issue, a social fairness issue, and a religious issue (Maibach et al. 2015). These findings provide strong evidence that the pope’s reframing of climate change had an impact on how the public thinks about the problem, connecting to widely shared values that transcend political differences.

The Need for Compromise

Ratcheting up public support for government action on climate change not only requires a sophisticated, research-based understanding of effective communication approaches but also an acceptance that there are strong limits to what even the best-funded and most carefully planned strategy can accomplish. Research findings evaluating different communication strategies are often messy, complex, and difficult to translate into practice. They are also subject to revision based on new research, changes in the dynamics surrounding an issue, or in applying across policy decisions and social contexts. Moreover, no matter how knowledgeable and adept experts and their partners might be in applying research to their communication efforts, progress on climate change will ultimately require the different sides in the debate to give ground, negotiate, and compromise. In the case of climate change, the major question therefore is whether public demand for action and the openness to compromise will happen too late, preventing society from successfully avoiding the most serious risks.

–This article originally appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.


Nisbet, M.C (2016, March/April). Shifting the Conversation about Climate Change: Strategies to build public demand for action. Skeptical Inquirer magazine, 24-26.


  • Anderegg, W.R., J.W. Prall, J. Harold, et al. 2010. Expert credibility in climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(27): 12107–12109.
  • Cook, J., D. Nuccitelli, S.A. Green, et al. 2013. Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters 8(2): 024024.
  • Doran, P.T., and M.K. Zimmerman. 2009. Examining the scientific consensus on climate change. Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union 90(3): 22–23.
  • Leiserowitz, A., E. Maibach, C. Roser-Renouf, et al. 2014. Climate Change in the American Mind: Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in November 2013. Yale University and George Mason University. Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, New Haven, Conn. Available online at
  • Maibach, E., A. Leiserowitz, C. Roser-Renouf, et al. 2015. The Francis effect: How Pope Francis changed the conversation about climate change. George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication: Fairfax, VA.
  • Maibach, E.W., M. Nisbet, P. Baldwin, et al. 2010. Reframing climate change as a public health issue: An exploratory study of public reactions. BMC Public Health 10(1): 299.
  • Myers, T.A., M.C. Nisbet, E.W. Maibach, et al. 2012. A public health frame arouses hopeful emotions about climate change. Climatic Change 113(3–4), 1105–1112.
  • Nisbet, M.C. 2009. Communicating climate change: Why frames matter for public engagement. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 51(2): 12–23
  • Nisbet, M.C., and J.E. Kotcher. 2009. A two-step flow of influence? Opinion-leader campaigns on climate change. Science Communication 30(3): 328–54.
  • Placky, B.W., E. Maibach, J. Witte, et al. 2015. Climate matters: A comprehensive educational resource program for broadcast meteorologists. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-14-00235.1, in press.
  • Powell, James Lawrence. 2015. The consensus on anthropogenic global warming. Skeptical Inquirer 39(6): 42–45.
  • Van der Linden, S.L., A.A. Leiserowitz, G.D. Feinberg, et al. 2014. How to communicate the scientific consensus on climate change: Plain facts, pie charts or metaphors? Climatic Change 126(1–2): 255–62.
  • ———. 2015. The scientific consensus on climate change as a gateway belief: Experimental evidence. PloS one 10(2): e0118489.

Universities in the Anthropocene: Engaging students and communities

January 28, 2015 —There is a growing movement among writers, scientists, and scholars to pin a new label on our modern era. According to these thinkers, pressing environmental problems like climate change are a sign that we have crossed a major threshold in Earth’s long history, entering a unique stage in geological time that requires a shift in cultural outlook and even a new name – the “Anthropocene,” or the “Age of Us”.

In charting a hopeful path forward in the Anthropocene, universities and colleges will play a central role by sponsoring interdisciplinary courses, degree programs and related initiatives.

The goal is not for students, faculty and staff to choose among competing perspectives about the Age of Us and its many problems and opportunities. Instead, the purpose is to acquire skills, experience and connections that help the campus community grapple with the Anthropocene’s many tensions and uncertainties.

Universities and colleges can also invest in re-building our society’s civic capacity to discuss, debate and participate in collective decisions. In this regard, they can serve a vital function in their local states and regions by working with philanthropic funders and media partners to sponsor journalistic initiatives, public forums and film screenings, and by convening stakeholders and political groups.

Through these activities and others, higher education can be a catalyst for societal collaboration and cooperation.

Meet the environmental humanities

As I wrote in a 2010 paper with Oregon State University’s Kathleen Dean Moore and several colleagues, problems like climate change require that efforts to engage students and campuses be truly multi-disciplinary, bridging the expertise of the four major academic disciplines (see chart below).

The challenge is to “build synergies by which members of traditionally separate disciplinary cultures…can accomplish collaboratively what none are capable of doing alone,” we wrote.

To this end, the sciences provide data and models that allow us to understand the world and to make predictions. Philosophy and religion help us recognize what is good, what is right, and what is of value. The social sciences provide theories and data that enable us to understand societal choices and decisions. The creative arts and communication professions tell inspiring stories that shape human actions, promote learning and encourage critical self-reflection.

A similar vision was echoed in a 2011 paper by Kings College London’s Mike Hulme, who called for a higher education agenda in which the distance between various university cultures is narrowed, if not eliminated.

Scientific disciplines are “ill-suited to engaging with and articulating the deeper human search for values, purpose and meaning – and yet this search is exactly where humanity’s new entanglement with global climate is taking us,” Hulme wrote.

Acting on these principles, Kathleen Dean Moore co-founded at Oregon State University the Environmental Arts and Humanities Initiative with the mission of joining “humanities scholars and scientists into close collaboration.”

Examples of sponsored campus activities include a “Climate Change World Cafe,” a speed dating like social event designed to forge interdisciplinary connections and thinking by way of small group conversations organized around specific questions.

The Oregon State initiative also offers a related MA degree designed to train students to apply practical and moral reasoning skills; demonstrate the ability to think critically and creatively; utilize effective communication and writing skills; and apply collaborative decision-making and community leadership strategies. Graduates will gain a “deep understanding of the diverse cultural, moral, historical, and spiritual dimensions of environmental decisions.”

This year, at Kings College London, Mike Hulme launched a similar MA degree program in “Climate Change: History, Culture, Society.”

The program is designed to introduce students to the “theories, methods and skills to analyze climate change from different historical, cultural and social perspectives,” preparing them for careers as policy analysts, negotiators, and communication professionals.

Re-building our civic capacity

As I wrote in a 2014 paper, the local cities, towns and regions surrounding universities and colleges are the places where we can most effectively experiment with communication initiatives that challenge how each of us think and talk about the choices we face in the Anthropocene.

In these forums, new cultural voices can be heard, new cultural framings and meanings emphasized, and innovative policy approaches and technological options discussed.

Through these activities, universities and colleges can generate the conditions for eventual change in national politics, by rewiring our expectations and norms relative to public debate, and by forging relationships and collaborations that span ideological differences and worldviews.

Several U.S. universities recently moved in this direction by organizing lecture, film and event series promoting interdisciplinary discussions and cross-cutting debate.

This year, at Miami University, an event series explores how the Anthropocene empowers us to “build bridges between the humanities and the sciences to imagine a sustainable future for the Earth.”

Among the goals of a similarly themed spring 2014 conference at Pace University, organizers examined how we balance “the need to discuss profoundly serious threats with the need to offer hope.”

This past fall at Lewis and Clark College, a related symposium focused on whether the Anthropocene was a reason for despair or for optimism, a tension that divides many public intellectuals and advocates.

In perhaps the deepest roster of activities to date, the University of California-Santa Barbara is sponsoring a year-long series of public lectures and film screenings on The Anthropocene: Views from the Humanities.

“It’s a topic that could catalyze the campus — many people are working on it and the humanities has much to contribute to the understanding of its far-reaching implications and the fundamental questions it raises about humanity’s place on the planet and the way we understand our relationship with the environment,” said series director Susan Derwin at its launch.

The series ends in May with an interdisciplinary research conference that examines the “ethical, political, psychological and philosophical responses to the human domination of nature.” Related activities include an Environmental Media Initiative that brings together scientists, social scientists, humanities scholars and media producers. The university’s MA program in Environmental Science and Management also offers a related Strategic Environmental Communication and Media focus.

In all, these interdisciplinary degree programs and campus-based initiatives demonstrate that universities are on the forefront of helping society develop the tools, skills, leaders, forums, and collaborations we need to navigate a more hopeful path on our tough, new planet.

In future columns, I will be spotlighting similar university-led initiatives and innovative intersections among the sciences, humanities, social sciences, creative arts and media professions.

I will be sharing notes and insights gained as a participant in the events planned at UC-Santa Barbara, on other campuses, and at a June conference on the “Good Anthropocene” which features a number of influential thinkers including Bruno Latour, Clive Hamilton, Andrew Revkin, Steve Fuller and Ruth DeFries.

–This article originally appeared at The Conversation US.


Nisbet, M.C. (2015, Jan 28). Universities in the Anthropocene: Engaging Students and Communities. The Conversation.


Nisbet, M.C., Hixon, M., Moore, K.D., & Nelson, M. (2010). The Four Cultures: New Synergies for Engaging Society on Climate change. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 8, 329-331.