Nov. 1, 2018— Scientists expect this year globally to be the fourth-hottest on record, with the only warmer years being the three previous ones. Since 2001, we have lived on a planet that has experienced seventeen of the eighteen hottest years ever observed.
The alarming temperature records set over the past two decades are consistent with a century-long pattern, rigorously confirmed by multiple lines of scientific evidence: the burning of fossil fuels has driven a rise in heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, which has already caused nearly a 1 Celsius (C) degree rise in global temperatures.
The impact from destabilizing Earth’s climate system are being felt by people living in every country of the world. This summer, record heat in Japan and elsewhere caused dozens of deaths. Firefighters in California struggled to control the largest forest fire on record, one of about twenty that ravaged the state. Forest fires also raged across Canada and even in the Arctic. In Europe, where fires led to deaths in Greece, record-setting heat also severely damaged crops and caused other freakish events. Rivers were so warm in some places that some nuclear reactors had to shut down because the water was too hot to cool them.
“This summer of fire and swelter looks a lot like the future that scientists have been warning about in the era of climate change,” wrote Somini Sengupta (2018) in a front-page story in The New York Times. “It’s revealing in real time how unprepared much of the world remains for life on a hotter planet.”
Teasing out the unique role played by human-caused climate change in contributing to extreme weather events (in comparison to natural fluctuations) has long been a scientific challenge. But in recent years research in the area of “attribution science” has developed into a mature field. To date, scientists have published more than 170 reports covering 190 extreme weather events around the world, according to an analysis by the journal Nature. About two-thirds of extreme weather events studied were determined by scientists to have been made more likely, or more severe, by human-driven climate change. Heat extremes accounted for 43 percent of these events, followed by droughts (18 percent) and extreme rain or flooding (17 percent) (Schiermeier 2018).
Acknowledging the threats posed by human-caused climate change, in 2015 almost all of the world’s countries pledged as part of the United Nations climate treaty to keep global temperature rise this century to lower than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to strive for a 1.5 degrees C. But to achieve this goal, greenhouse gas emissions would need to be cut by at least 70 percent by 2050 (Tollefson 2018).
As the shift away from fossil fuels to low carbon energy moves at a snail’s pace compared to what is needed, in 2017 emissions worldwide rose by nearly 2 percent, the first increase in four years. In an August 2018 lead editorial at The Economist, the typically optimistic magazine put the state of progress in the bluntest of terms, running the headline: “The World is Losing the War on Climate Change” (“The World” 2018).
In countries around the world, to replace fossil fuels the massive deployment of solar and wind power will likely need to be supplemented by thousands of advanced nuclear power plants; natural gas plants that capture and bury their emissions; and a gigantically bigger, more powerful, and vastly more complicated energy transmission and storage system. These are just the challenges in decarbonizing the electricity sector. Equally daunting obstacles exist in the agriculture and transportation sectors (Temple 2018).
As countries struggle to limit their greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonize their economies, there has emerged a space in public life for new ways of thinking about climate change, energy, and politics. In books, essays, and research, a group of intellectuals and scholars calling themselves “ecomodernists” or “ecopragmatists” have put forward a set of ideas that break from conventional thinking, challenging longstanding paradigms about nature, technology, and progress (Fahy and Nisbet 2017; Nisbet 2014).
The Decarbonization Challenge
Most of today’s rise in greenhouse gas emissions is driven by energy-hungry Asian nations seeking to rapidly grow their economies and improve the standard of living for billions of people. Between 2006–2016, energy consumption in Asia rose by 40 percent. In India, where emissions are growing the fastest, the country remains highly dependent on coal to produce three-quarters of its electricity. In 2017, the country’s use of the world’s most polluting fossil fuel grew by 5 percent (“The Year” 2018).
In Germany, even as the country has made unprecedented gains in the deployment of solar and wind power, emissions over the past two years have slightly increased. In 2011, Germany made the rash political decision to phase out its seventeen emissions-free nuclear power plants, which at the time accounted for 25 percent of the country’s electricity generation. In doing so, Germany has remained strongly dependent on some of the dirtiest coal power plants in the world for more than 40 percent of its electricity. Efforts to cut emissions have also faltered because of unexpected growth in the economy and lower oil prices, which encouraged greater use of home oil heating and car transportation (“Germany” 2017).
In the United States, the good news is that emissions have declined since their historic peak in 2007, though they still remain above 1990 levels, according to official government estimates. The decline has been driven primarily by the revolution in shale gas drilling or “fracking,” which lowered the cost of generating electricity from cleaner burning natural gas power plants, putting many dirtier and more expensive coal power plants out of business (Barboza and Lange 2018).
Questions remain, however, about how much methane is leaked into the atmosphere from natural gas production and transport. A recent study estimated that the leakage rate was 60 percent greater than the U.S. government had previously estimated. Such a discrepancy is important to evaluating the benefits of natural gas, since the atmospheric warming impact of methane during the first two decades after its release is more than eighty times more potent than carbon dioxide (Guglielmi 2018).
A glut of cheap natural gas also threatens the country’s 100 emissions-free nuclear power plants, which generate 20 percent of U.S. electricity. Because the United States does not have a national carbon tax or fee, the climate change benefits of nuclear power plants are not factored into their operating costs. Since 2013, five nuclear plants have closed and six more are scheduled to shut down by 2025, even though these older plants could still operate for decades. In most states, solar and wind power will not be able to take up the slack in electricity generation. Instead, nuclear power will be replaced by dirtier natural gas (Plumer 2017).
A bright spot may be California, the fifth largest economy in the world. Even as the state’s population has surged—its economy has grown by 40 percent over the past two decades—the carbon intensity of California’s economy (the amount of carbon pollution per million dollars of economic growth) has declined by 38 percent and is now below 1990 levels. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, carbon intensity declined 6 percent even as the economy grew by 3 percent (Barboza and Lang 2018).
The shift is driven by a major decline in emissions from the electricity sector. Not only have state-wide improvements in energy efficiency decreased the demand for electricity even as the economy and population have grown, a sharp drop in the price of solar panels combined with state renewable energy mandates have accelerated the transition from natural gas plants to clean energy sources. Rain in the state after five years of drought also boosted electric generation from hydropower (Barboza and Lange 2018).
Many challenges remain for California. The scheduled shuttering of the state’s last remaining nuclear power plant may shift some electricity generation back to natural gas. Emissions from cars and trucks, already the biggest source of carbon pollution in the state, continue to increase. Lower gas prices until recently have not helped, nor has consumer preference for bigger, less efficient cars and the relatively slow adoption of electric vehicles (Barboza and Lange 2018).
Continued success in California and the United States also hinges on U.S. federal policy. But the Donald J. Trump administration since taking office has installed at major regulatory and scientific agencies fossil fuel industry lobbyists and conservative operatives who have spent their careers casting doubt on climate science and opposing any policies to cut emissions. According to one recent study, the fossil fuel industry and other sectors that are major emitters enjoy a ten-to-one lobbying advantage over environmental groups and the clean energy sector (Brulle 2018). At such a disadvantage, even if Democrats were to win back control of the White House and Congress, any successful climate change–related legislation will not only need some Republican support but also the backing of major players from the fossil fuel industry.
But such concessions are likely to be opposed by many environmentalists, who have gained considerable sway within the Democratic party. To win party primaries, Democrats running in districts and states where liberal voters dominate have pledged to promote a “100% renewables” platform that opposes all new fossil fuel infrastructure, seeks a ban on natural gas “fracking,” and demands the closure of nuclear power plants (Nisbet 2015).
The Rise of Ecomodernism
The roots of ecomodernism can be traced to a handful of influential books, articles, and policy papers first published a decade ago. In 2009’s Whole Earth Discipline, ecologist and futurist Stuart Brand laid out a range of innovation-driven strategies for achieving a sustainable society. His ideas were captured effectively by the subtitle: “Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary.”
Brand correctly warned that “soft energy path” technologies such as solar and wind favored by environmentalists were unlikely to be able to overcome the problems of intermittency, storage capacity, and cost and be scalable in time to alter the dynamics of fossil fuel energy use and dependency worldwide. He and other ecomodernists have pointed to the demand for growth in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe and the sunk costs that these regions are putting into coal power and other fossil fuels.
During the 1960s and 1970s, as North American and European countries achieved economic security and prosperity, their citizens began to put pressure on their governments to accelerate efforts to reduce pollution, slow rates of deforestation, and limit land use, thereby conserving nature rather than destroying it. A similar pattern is occurring in China, which through state-managed economic growth has achieved a rising, affluent middle class.
But for growth to continue in China, and for India and other developing countries to also gain access to abundant forms of energy, transformative innovations in “hard energy” path options such as nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage are required, along with similar advances in high-tech solar, energy transmission, and energy storage technologies. These advances would be needed to not only meet the demand for growth in these regions but also limit emissions from the thousands of coal plants already in place and scheduled to be built around the world.
In 2009’s Why We Disagree about Climate Change, University of Cambridge geographer Mike Hulme argued that climate change had been misdiagnosed as a conventional environmental problem. Instead, it was what policy scholars referred to as a uniquely “super-wicked” problem, not something society was going to end or solve; like poverty or war, it was something that we were going to do better or worse at managing over time. As a super-wicked problem, argue other ecomodernists, climate change is so complex in scale with so many different drivers that a single omnibus solution such as a national carbon tax or an international emissions agreement is unlikely to be either politically enduring or effective. Instead, policies would be needed to be implemented at the state, regional, and bilateral levels and through the private and nonprofit sectors (Prins and Rayner 2007; Verweij et al. 2006).
At the international level, examples include focusing more narrowly on reducing especially powerful, but easier to tackle, greenhouse gases such as black carbon (or soot) from diesel cars and dirty stoves and methane from leaky gas pipes. At the national and state levels, examples of smaller scale policies include government technology procurement programs; major investments in climate change resilience to protect cities, people, and industries; subsidies for renewables, nuclear energy, and carbon capture; funding for clean energy research; and investments in climate resilience efforts. As these smaller successes are achieved, argue ecomodernists, we not only gain more time to deal with the bigger policy challenges but also start to rebuild networks of trust and cooperation across lines of political difference while experimenting with new solutions and technologies (Nordhaus et al. 2011; Prins and Rayner 2007).
These ideas and others have been researched, expanded on, and promoted by the Breakthrough Institute, a left-of-center think tank founded by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. In 2015, the two brought together sixteen other similarly minded thinkers to author An Ecomodernist Manifesto. They argued that climate change and other environmental crises are not reason to call into question the economic policies and technological advances that have enabled human society to flourish over the past century. Indeed, halting the many societal gains we have achieved through technological innovation, they argue, rules out the best tools we have for combating climate change, protecting nature, and helping people. The urgent environmental problems we face are evidence in favor of more modernization, not less (Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015).
Hope for a better future, they contend, starts with advanced technologies that intensify rather than weaken our mastery of nature. High-tech crops, advanced nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, aquaculture, desalination, and high-efficiency solar panels all have the potential to not only reduce human demands on the environment but also spark the economic growth needed to lift people out of extreme poverty. These advances will enable more people to live in bigger cities that are powered and fed more efficiently. People in cities also tend to have fewer children, slowing population growth. From this perspective, technological advances and urbanization will free up more space on the planet for nature, “decoupling” human development from fossil fuel and resource consumption.
To achieve this future, ecomodernists warn that we have put too much faith in carbon pricing, social-impact investing, venture capital, Silicon Valley, and other market-based “neoliberal” mechanisms to spur technological innovation and social change. We need to instead focus more intensively on understanding how technological advances happen and the role of government planning and spending—rather than the market—as the main driver of innovation and societal change. Once there are technologies available that make meaningful action on climate change and other problems cost less, ecomodernists predict, much of the political argument over scientific uncertainty will diminish. The challenge is not to make fossil fuels more expensive but to make their technological alternatives cheaper and more powerful.
Under these conditions, it will be easier to gain political cooperation from across the ideological spectrum and from developing countries. National leaders and their constituents are far more likely to spare nature because it is no longer needed to meet their economic goals than they are for any ideological or moral reasons. Over the past year, ecomodernist ideas have received a boost from Harvard University cognitive linguist Steven Pinker (2018), who in his best-selling book Enlightenment Now devotes his chapter on the environment to advocating on behalf of the philosophy and the need for technologies such as nuclear energy.
Pinker is part of a parallel genre of “New Optimist” authors who have been inspired by the work of Hans Rosling and affiliated data scientists. In TED talks, a recent book, and vividly illustrated graphs available at the website Our World in Data, Rosling and colleagues have shown the many ways in which human societies are flourishing in the age of climate change, countering a powerful cultural narrative that the world for decades has been in a state of escalating crisis, decline, and suffering (Rosling et al. 2018).
For ecomodernists, technological and political progress also require respectful engagement with a diversity of voices and ideas. “Too often discussions about the environment have been dominated by the extremes, and plagued by dogmatism, which in turn fuels intolerance,” they write in the Manifesto.
At their core, ecomodernists believe in applying the Enlightenment principles of skepticism and dissent, which are essential to wise and effective decisions, especially in relation to wickedly complex problems such as climate change. Numerous social science studies demonstrate that in situations where groupthink is closely guarded and defended to the exclusion of dissenting voices, individuals and groups tend to make poorer decisions and think less productively.
In contrast, exposure to dissent, even when such arguments may prove to be wrong, tends to broaden thinking, leading individuals to think in more open ways, in multiple directions, and in consideration of a greater diversity of options, recognizing flaws and weaknesses in positions. “Learning and good intentions won’t save us from biased thinking and poor judgments,” notes UC-Berkeley psychologist Charlan Nemeth in 2018’s In Defense of Trouble Makers. “A better route is to have our beliefs and ways of thinking directly challenged by someone who authentically believes differently than we” (Nemeth 2018, 191).
Acting on these principles, the Breakthrough Institute has invested in twice yearly “Dialogues” in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., creating the rare forum where progressives, liberals, conservatives, environmentalists, and industrialists come together to debate ideas and to connect over civil, cross-cutting conversations. To elaborate on these ideas, the Institute also publishes the Breakthrough Journal and produces the podcast series Breakthrough Dialogues.
On the road to managing the many threats we face from climate change, grassroots activism and political reforms that hold the fossil fuel industry accountable are important, as is the quest for a more advanced arsenal of technological options and a reconsideration of our economic goals. But so too is investment in our capacity to learn, discuss, question, and disagree in ways that constructively engage with uncomfortable ideas (Nisbet 2014).
Unfortunately, most academics and journalists avoid challenging the powerful forms of groupthink that have derailed our efforts to combat climate change. In this regard, attacks on those who question cherished assumptions have had a powerful chilling effect. We therefore depend on risk-taking intellectuals such as the ecomodernists to lead the way, identifying the flaws in conventional wisdom and offering alternative ways of thinking and talking about our shared future.
Asafu-Adjaye, J., L. Blomqvist, S. Brand, et al. 2015. An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Oakland, CA: The Breakthrough Institute. Available online at http://www.ecomodernism.org/.
Barboza, T., and J.H. Lange. 2018. California hit its climate goal early—but its biggest source of pollution keeps rising. The Los Angeles Times (July 23).
Brulle, R.J. 2018. The climate lobby: A sectoral analysis of lobbying spending on climate change in the USA, 2000 to 2016. Climatic Change: 1–15.
Fahy, D., and M.C. Nisbet. 2017. The ecomodernist: Journalists who are reimagining a sustainable future. In P. Berglez, U. Olausson, and M. Ots (Eds), What Is Sustainable Journalism? London: Peter Lang.
Hulme, M. 2009. Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Germany is missing its emissions targets. 2017. The Economist (November 9).
Guglielmi, G. 2018. Methane leaks from US gas fields dwarf government estimates. Nature 558: 496–497.
Nemeth, C. 2018. In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business. New York: Basic Books.
Nisbet, M.C. 2014. Disruptive ideas: Public intellectuals and their arguments for action on climate change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 5(6): 809–823.
———. 2015. Environmental advocacy in the Obama years: Assessing new strategies for political change. In N. Vig and M. Kraft (Eds), Environmental Policy: New Directions for the Twenty-First Century, 9th Edition. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 58–78.
Nordhaus, T., and M. Shellenberger. 2007. Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
———. 2013. How the left came to reject cheap energy for the poor. The Breakthrough (July 10). Available online at http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/voices/michael-shellenbergerand-ted-nordhaus/the-great-progressive-reversal.
Nordhaus, T., M. Shellenberger, R. Pielke, et al. 2011. Climate Pragmatism: Innovation, Resilience, and No Regrets. Oakland, CA: The Breakthrough Institute. Available online at http://thebreakthrough.org/ archive/climate_pragmatism_innovation.
Pinker, S. 2018. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. London, UK: Penguin Books.
Plumer, B. 2017. Glut of natural gas pressures nuclear power, and climate goals, too. The New York Times (June 14): A17.
Prins, G., and S. Rayner. 2007. Time to ditch Kyoto. Nature 449(7165): 973.
Rosling, H., A.R. Rönnlund, and O. Rosling. 2018. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. New York: Flatiron Books.
Schiermeier, Q. 2018. Droughts, heatwaves and floods: How to tell when climate change is to blame. Nature 560(7716): 20.
Sengupta, S. 2018. The year global warming made its menace a reality. The New York Times (August 9): A1.
Temple, J. 2018. At this rate, it’s going to take nearly 400 years to transform the energy system. MIT Technology Review (March 14). Available online at https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610457/at-this-rate-its-going-to-take-nearly-400-years-to-transform-the-energy-system/.
Tollefson, J. 2018. Can the world kick its fossil-fuel addiction fast enough? Nature 556(7702): 422–425.
Verweij, M., M. Douglas, R. Ellis, et al. 2006. Clumsy solutions for a complex world: The case of climate change. Public Administration 84: 847–843.
The world is losing the war against climate change. 2018. The Economist (August 2). Available online at https://www.economist.com/leaders/2018/08/02/the-world-is-losing-the-war-against-climate-change.
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In a paper published this week, I review the history of U.S. philanthropic strategy relative to climate change, before assessing the important 5-year period following the defeat of the 2010 cap and trade bill and leading up to the 2016 elections. I analyze $557 million distributed across 2,502 grants by 19 major foundations, detailing the financial support for specific strategies and solutions, noting longstanding patterns in funding, but also evidence of new directions. Today, major foundations are once again identifying next steps and possible new directions related to Federal and state policy. In the conclusion to the paper, I emphasize the implications for strategic philanthropy during the Donald J. Trump presidency and beyond. The peer-reviewed article appears at Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews Climate Change, a leading forum for analysis of the scientific and social dimensions of climate change, published in association with the UK Royal Geographical Society and Royal Meteorological Society.
Between 2011 and 2015, the 19 foundations I assessed continued to invest in efforts to shape Federal climate and energy policy, but redirected much of their funding to support actions at the regional, state, or municipal level, prioritizing the West coast, Midwest, and Northeast regions. In doing so, the largest environmental grantmakers remained committed to their decades-old policy and technology roadmap on climate change, investing in familiar approaches, strategies, and goals:
Large national organizations continued to be favored over smaller groups, with just 20 grantees receiving more than half the money distributed ($230.4 million).
Similarly, 1 out of every 4 dollars invested ($140.3 million) was dedicated to promoting renewable energy and efficiency-related actions across states and various industry sectors.
In comparison, only $10.5 million (~2%) was granted specific to promoting other low-carbon energy sources or innovation in these areas.
Of this amount, $8.4 million focused on making natural gas production safer and cleaner. Other grants went to evaluate carbon capture and storage ($1.3 million); to promote R&D spending ($573,000), and the role of government in fostering innovation ($100,000). No grants were dedicated to promoting nuclear energy, though $175,000 in grants were devoted to opposing nuclear energy for cost and safety reasons.
However, funders also responded to calls for new directions. Some of this shift occurred on the part of the Energy Foundation and other major funders such as the Hewlett foundation, but much of the change was also driven by smaller funders investing in complementary or counterbalancing strategies:
Of the $91.4 million in grants dedicated to climate mitigation and adaptation actions, more than $55 million was invested in building sustainable and resilient cities and local economies with $16.2 million of this total focused on the needs of low-income and minority communities.
Philanthropists were also aggressive in targeting the fossil fuel industry, spending $69.4 million to limit coal power, ban/restrict fracking, and hold the industry accountable.
Responding to calls to more effectively shape public opinion and influence voters, philanthropists devoted a combined $151 million to climate-, fossil fuel industry- and renewable energy-related communications, media, and mobilization efforts.
Climate Philanthropy in the Trump Era
In coming years, as the endowments of major foundations continue to grow, providing philanthropists with ever greater resources, they are likely to play an even more active and strategic role in funding actions to address climate change in the United States and elsewhere. In 2017, the Hewlett foundation, for example, announced it would spend $600 million over the next decade to combat the problem.
By framing the challenges and defining the solutions to climate change, as they did in the years following the defeat of the cap and trade bill, Hewlett and other major philanthropies are likely to deepen their ability to bind together organizations and leaders into shared approaches and strategies. In an era of political dysfunction and diminished public spending, many will look to philanthropy and their resources for answers. But as foundations consider next steps, several considerations are merited.
First, philanthropists and their grantees may want to reconsider their opposition to support for nuclear energy, their reluctance to consider carbon capture and storage, and the absence of funding to explore scientific and policy challenges related to geoengineering research. Analysts warn that the United States and many states will not meet their emissions goals if current nuclear power plants close, and if new plants are not built in the future. Several expert projections on decarbonizing the world and U.S. economies define an important role for nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage, and intense scientific debate continues over the technical feasibility of a 100% renewables pathway to decarbonization. Over the next few years, there is also likely to be considerable debate over geoengineering, as more scientists evaluate various methods and their risks, and as political leaders consider the option. However, during the post cap-and-trade years, not a single grant from among the 19 foundations focused on geoengineering research or its governance, a trend that should be addressed.
Second, In the post cap-and-trade years, the $151 million devoted by funders to climate change-, fossil fuel industry- and renewable energy-related communication activities were complemented by a combined $150 million spent by the billionaire Tom Steyer in successive elections to mobilize climate voters on behalf of Democratic candidates. Yet in 2016, despite the stark differences on climate change between Trump and his rival Hillary Clinton, Trump won a majority of the decisive Midwest battleground states. Nationally, Republicans retained control of Congress and strengthened their hold on state governments. Today, polling shows that although liberal Democratic voters consider global warming among the most important issues influencing their vote, among moderate-leaning Democrats and Republicans, global warming ranks as a mid- to bottom-tier priority. During the Trump years, similar to the post cap-and-trade period, given the challenges faced and the evolving political dynamics, critical evaluation of communication and mobilization strategies are needed.
DETAILS ON THE ANALYSIS
To review the climate and energy-related funding choices of major U.S. foundations in the post Cap-and-Trade years, during Spring/Summer 2016 I compiled a database of 2,502 U.S. grants distributed by 19 foundations between 2011 and 2015. I selected the 19 foundations based on their track-record of grant giving on the issue, their association with specific funding approaches, and the availability of grant specific information provided by way of their web sites or tax filings.
These 19 foundations represent the major agenda-setting funders in the U.S. on climate change and energy, with their history of funding stretching in many cases back to the 1990s, influencing the decisions and focus of many other grantmakers, shaping the direction of much of the non-profit and advocacy sector.
To inform analysis and conclusions, available white papers, strategy documents, calls for proposals, and annual foundation reports were also reviewed. For each of the 19 foundations, Table 1 in the paper summarizes the sources of grant information per foundation available at the time of data collection, the strategies used to identify climate change- and energy-related grants, years where missing data might exist, and other details on why they were included as part of the analysis.
Given the scope and breadth of U.S. climate and energy-related funding, I was not able to include all relevant grant makers as part of my analysis. But in selecting the 19 foundations to analyze, as highlighted in the previous sections, I focused on grant makers that have historically been among the largest and most influential funders of climate and energy-related policy options and technologies. For example, given the significance of the Design to Win alliance of funders, as summarized in Table 1, I began by including eight of the nine original allied funders. The ninth funder, the SeaChange foundation, was not included due to a lack of publicly available grant information. Further justifying their inclusion in the analysis, six of these eight Design to Win funders also rank among the top 50 environmental grant makers as tracked by the U.S. Foundation Center. These include the Hewlett Foundation (#1 in environmental giving), Packard Foundation (#2), Doris Duke Foundation (#15), Kresge Foundation (#16), Oak Foundation (#20), and the McKnight Foundation (#41). The other two original Design to Win aligned funders included in my analysis were the re-granting organizations Energy Foundation and ClimateWorks. I selected three other foundations because they rank among the country’s leading environmental grant-makers, and they have been recognized by scholars for their influence on the environmental movement. These three funders are the MacArthur Foundation (#17), Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation (#3), and Ford Foundation (#12).
Compared to these 11 major grant makers, I selected the other 8 foundations because of their comparatively unique focus, approach, or influence. The Skoll Global Threats Fund prioritizes investments in climate change communication, engagement, and media initiatives. The Surdna Foundation prioritizes a “next generation infrastructure” approach that emphasizes localized climate change mitigation and adaptation actions that serve the needs of low income and minority communities, with the goal of promoting justice and fairness. The Park Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund (#28 environmental grantmaker) are notable for supporting strategies that directly target the fossil fuel industry by way of communication, media and mobilization campaigns. The Wallace Global Fund has played a key role in coordinating the fossil fuel divestment movement. Along with Park, both the Heinz Endowments (#26) and Schmidt Family Foundation have prioritized stricter regulation and/or bans on natural gas fracking. The Bloomberg Foundation has prioritized the funding of litigation and advocacy to limit or shut down coal fired power plants. In sum, my analysis includes 8 of the 9 Design to Win alliance members for which public records are available, 3 of the top 5 U.S. environmental grantmakers, 8 of the top 20 such funders, and 10 of the top 50.
Once grants from each of the foundations were entered into a database, to record the focus of each grant, I developed and refined categories by reviewing foundations’ mission statements, call for proposals, annual reports, program descriptions, white papers, and other relevant information. I categorized each grant by the main focus as determined by the description available for the grant, by cross checking with the web site of the grant recipient, and by way of the relevant program description for the foundation. These categories include a focus on Federal, state, or local climate change policy actions and research including those related to agriculture, transportation, adaptation; and human dimension such as health, equity, or jobs; actions related to energy policy, technologies, and efficiency practices including their human dimensions; forms of climate change and energy-related communication, mobilization, media; and actions specific to regulating, restricting, or opposing the fossil fuel industry. To inform my review, I report combined funding trends from among the 19 foundations and across the five-year period 2011-2015, detailing the aggregate patterns by way of a series of main tables. In some cases, drawing on the compiled database, foundation specific totals for a particular organization or focus area are also referenced.
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.”
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 TheNew 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 TheNew 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 Grist.org. 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 Grist.org 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.
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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.
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:
Climate Change Communication Across Countries and Regions: Articles in this fourth focus area critically discuss the factors, events, organizations, and individuals that have shaped the trajectory of research and practice related to climate change communication, media, and public opinion in a particular country or region, including an emphasis on significant debates, controversies, assumptions, and future directions. In total, twenty-five countries or regions are covered including Germany, China, India, Turkey, the Netherlands, South Korea, Japan, Denmark, Argentina, Spain, Peru, Russia, Italy, Canada, New Zealand, and the Middle East.
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.
May 1, 2017– On April 22, thousands of scientists and their supporters gathered in Washington, D.C., and at more than 600 other locations across the world to participate in the March for Science. Pegged to Earth Day, protesters voiced their opposition to proposed federal cuts to funding for scientific research and the planned rollback of environmental rules and public health regulations. They raised alarm over the appointment of political officials dismissive of climate change and of President Donald J. Trump’s false claims about vaccines and global warming.
Previous Democratic administrations have made questionable decisions on science policy, but regardless of where you stand politically, the actions so far of the Trump administration should be deeply disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of the scientific enterprise, much less the planet. Yet it is unlikely that the March for Science will have much of an impact on federal policy over the next few years. Instead, in the long run, the March for Science may have only deepened partisan differences, while jeopardizing trust in the impartiality and credibility of scientists.
Blind to mistakes
“When you become scientifically literate, I claim, you become an environmentalist,” Bill Nye, an honorary cochair of the March for Science told the Washington Post (Gibson 2017). Many signs carried by protesters echoed that assumption, emphasizing themes like “Make America Smart Again,” “Science is the cure for bullshit,” and “Knowing stuff is good.”
Another March for Science sign quoted astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson admirably stating that “I dream of a future where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true.” Yet as risk communication expert David Ropeik (2017) countered, decades of social science research suggests that human cognition and decisions rarely if ever work in that way.
Humans are not robots. A deficit in science literacy is not why political leaders and the public disagree over climate change, vaccines, or government funding. By fundamentally misdiagnosing the causes of political conflict today, March for Science advocates may be undermining their own cause. Numerous studies show it is often the best educated and most scientifically literate who are prone to biased reasoning and false beliefs about contentious science issues. The reason for this surprising paradox is that individuals with higher science literacy tend to be more adept at recognizing arguments congenial to their partisan identity, are more attuned to what others like them think, are more likely to react to these cues in ideologically consistent ways, and tend to be more personally skilled at offering arguments to support their preexisting positions (National Academies 2017; Nisbet 2016).
For example, studies find that better educated conservatives who score higher on measures of basic science literacy are more likely to doubt the human causes of climate change. Their beliefs about climate science conform to their sense that actions to address climate change would mean more government regulation, which conservatives tend to oppose (Kahan 2015). Similarly, better educated liberals engage in biased processing of expert advice when forming opinions about the risks of natural gas fracking, genetically modified food, and nuclear energy. In this case, liberal fears are rooted in a generalized suspicion of technologies identified with large corporations (Nisbet et al. 2015).
The same relationship holds in relation to support for government funding of science. Liberals and conservatives who score low on science literacy tend to hold equivalent levels of support for science funding. But analysis shows that as science literacy increases, conservatives grow more opposed to funding while liberals grow more supportive, a shift in line with their differing beliefs about the role of government in society (Gauchat 2015).In sum, our beliefs about contentious science issues reflect who we are socially and politically. The better educated and more literate we are, the more adept we are at recognizing the connection between a political issue and our group identity and interests (Kahan 2015).
Similar factors influence policy decisions. As the late sociologist Dorothy Nelkin (1978) observed nearly forty years ago, political disputes such as those over climate change, vaccination, and scientific funding are fundamentally controversies over political control: Who gets to decide the priority that these issues should take over others, or the actions and costs taken to address problems? Which values, interpretations, groups, and worldviews matter and which should be given greatest weight?
For these reasons, much of the rationale behind the March for Science is not only off target, but the event itself and similar future activities may only intensify political deadlock rather than overcome it.
Although the March for Science was framed as nonpartisan, the messaging leading up to and during the event was anything but helpful. Early on, reflecting contemporary debates on college campuses, organizers were besieged by concerns over issues related to inclusion and identity. Some criticized the organizers for not paying enough attention to these topics, which prompted the posting online of a diversity statement. In response, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker tweeted: “Scientists’ March on Washington plan compromises its goals with anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric” (Sheridan and Facher 2017).
Twitter remained a source of controversy for organizers. A few days before the event, the official March for Science account declared that the U.S. bombing of an ISIS compound in Afghanistan was an example of how “science is weaponized against marginalized people.” The Tweet was later deleted, earning ridicule from right-wing bloggers (Kelly 2017).
On the day of the march, across cities, some participants donned pink “brain caps,” a reference to the pink “pussy caps” worn at the January 2017 Women’s March. In a similar tribute, T-shirts and signs declared “Keep your tiny hands off my science.” Many signs played on the official Hillary Clinton campaign theme “I’m with her,” with an arrow pointing to planet Earth instead. Some signs mocked Trump by employing allusions to science, referencing him as an “absolute zero” and “black hole.” Other cheeky slogans included “Less invasions, more equations,” and “I’ve seen smarter cabinets at IKEA” (Politi 2017).
In these cases, the March for Science constitutes a potentially hazardous misfire. By choosing public protest as a main strategy, and by voicing messages that have an obvious partisan and ideological slant, the March for Science made it that much easier for Americans to lean on their group identities in forming opinions about contentious issues.
A much discussed recent study published in Environmental Communication, a journal where I serve as editor-in-chief, suggests that scientists may have more discretion to advocate on behalf of policy positions than they assumed, without hurting their credibility (Kotcher et al. 2017). Yet the preliminary study did not test what happens to the perceived credibility of scientists when those policy positions are argued in the context of clear partisan messages communicated by way of protests such as the March for Science.
Since the 1970s, public confidence in almost every major institution has plummeted. Yet confidence in the leadership of the scientific community has remained strong (Funk and Kennedy 2017). As a consequence, scientists in society today enjoy almost unrivaled communication capital. The challenge they face following the March for Science is how to use this capital wisely and effectively.
Funk, C., and B. Kennedy. 2017. Public confidence in scientists has remained stable for decades. Pew Research Center (April 6).
Gauchat, G. 2015. The political context of science in the United States: Public acceptance of evidence-based policy and science funding. Social Forces 2: 723–746.
Gibson, C. 2017. The March for Science was a moment made for Nye. The Washington Post (April 23).
Kahan, D. 2015. Climate science communication and the measurement problem. Political Psychology 36(S1): 1–43.
Kelly, J. 2017. March for science: Sympathy for our Enemies. National Review (April 1).
Kotcher, J.E., T.A. Myers, E.K. Vraga, et al. 2017. Does engagement in advocacy hurt the credibility of scientists? Results from a randomized national survey experiment. Environmental Communication 11(3): 415–429.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Nelkin, D. 1978. Controversy: Politics of Technical Decisions. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publicans.
Nisbet, M.C. 2016. The science literacy paradox: Why really smart people often have the most biased opinions. Skeptical Inquirer 40(5): 21–23.
Nisbet, E.C., K.E. Cooper, and R.K. Garrett. 2015. The partisan brain: How dissonant science messages lead conservatives and liberals to (dis) trust science. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 658(1): 36–66.
Politi, D. 2017. Here are some of the best signs from the March for Science. Slate.com (April 22).
Ropeik, D. 2017. Why the March for Science failed as demonstrated by its own protest signs. Medium.com (April 24).
Sheridan, K., and L. Facher. 2017. Science march on Washington, billed as historic, plagued by organizational turmoil. STAT.com (March 22).
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.
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.” 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.
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.
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. Yet most journalists who apply this valuable idea strongly defer to expert judgment and do “not get into the weeds of the scientific evidence.” 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.”
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.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.” 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.”
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.
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. “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.”
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.”
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. 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.”
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.
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.
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.”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.”
Nathanael Johnson’s 2013 Grist.org 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 Grist.org 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.”
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.” 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.
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.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.”
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.”
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. 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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.” 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 Vox.com, 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.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.” The Washington Post.com 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 Grist.org, 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.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.
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