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

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

Key Findings

Between 2011 and 2015, the 19 foundations I assessed continued to invest in efforts to shape Federal climate and energy policy, but redirected much of their funding to support actions at the regional, state, or municipal level, prioritizing the West coast, Midwest, and Northeast regions. In doing so, the largest environmental grantmakers remained committed to their decades-old policy and technology roadmap on climate change, investing in familiar approaches, strategies, and goals:

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

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

  • Of the $91.4 million in grants dedicated to climate mitigation and adaptation actions, more than $55 million was invested in building sustainable and resilient cities and local economies with $16.2 million of this total focused on the needs of low-income and minority communities.
  • Philanthropists were also aggressive in targeting the fossil fuel industry, spending $69.4 million to limit coal power, ban/restrict fracking, and hold the industry accountable.
  • Responding to calls to more effectively shape public opinion and influence voters, philanthropists devoted a combined $151 million to climate-, fossil fuel industry- and renewable energy-related communications, media, and mobilization efforts.

Climate Philanthropy in the Trump Era

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Evolution in the college classroom: Facilitating conversations about science and religion

Sept. 1, 2017 — For most American college students, their first serious encounter with the theory of evolution may come as part of an introductory biology course. As surprising as this might sound, the unfortunate reality is that in many high schools across the country evolution is often avoided or covered superficially as part of a crammed science curriculum, taught by teachers who are under-qualified and poorly supported (Friedrichsen et al. 2016).

The lack of prior familiarity with evolution presents a particular challenge to religious students who are likely to have questions about how to reconcile what they are learning in the college classroom with their own faith. Surveys indicate that more than half of all students enrolled in introductory biology courses believe in God and consider themselves religious. If their questions about science and faith go unaddressed as part of their coursework, research suggests that learning is likely to be inhibited. Even though a religious student may successfully complete exams and assignments that test their knowledge of evolutionary science, their scores may not reflect a deeper acceptance of what they learned. These students may leave a course still doubting whether evolution is the best (and only) scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth (Barnes and Brownwell 2016).

A version of this article appeared in the Sept/Oct 2017 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Because of their experience in introductory biology courses, many religious students may also be turned off from pursuing a career in science. Studies indicate that students are more likely to choose a science career if they feel a sense of belonging as part of their coursework. Yet for many religious students, prevailing cultural cues tell them that science and religion are in conflict and that religious people lack competence or ability in science. Research shows that these false stereotypes, which are sometimes voiced by their instructors and peers, can harm the performance of religious students on science exams, further eroding their interest in science (Rios et al. 2015).

Much of student uncertainty about evolution may be caused by a lack of awareness of church teaching or doctrine on the matter. Most major religious traditions, including the Roman Catholic church, the Mormon church, and mainline Protestant churches, have either a neutral or explicitly affirmative stance on evolution, acknowledging the consistency with church doctrine (National Academy of Sciences 2008). In other religious traditions such as evangelicalism, high-profile scientists such as Francis Collins (2006) have broken ranks with church doctrine to discuss openly how they reconcile science with their evangelical faith. For conservative Christian students, research indicates that having such a role model is a key contributor to their acceptance of evolution (Manwaring et al. 2015).

Unfortunately, most faculty members in the life sciences are not prepared to adequately address the questions that religious students hold about the connections between science and faith. Surveys show that the great majority of life science faculty are nonreligious, and that many equate religious belief with fundamentalism, assuming that faith by definition is in conflict with science. Moreover, when asked, most do not see religion as a topic appropriate for a science course. Even those instructors who want to facilitate more thoughtful classroom conversations about science and religion often lack the confidence and training to do so effectively, and they therefore avoid the topic (Barnes and Brownwell 2016).

For these reasons, in recent years, researchers have begun to test approaches embedded in introductory biology courses for facilitating more constructive conversations about science and religion that promote student acceptance of evolution. The findings point to promising models for instructors to adopt and offer insight on strategies for encouraging more constructive public dialogue about science and religion more generally.

Getting beyond conflict

In a study conducted at Arizona State University, instructors led ninety-five students enrolled in an introductory biology course through a two-week module focused on science, evolution, and religion. In addition to chapters from their textbook on natural selection and speciation, students were also required to read Science, Evolution, and Creationism, a booklet published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (2008).

The National Academy booklet was intended for use by scientists, teachers, parents, and school board members who wanted to engage in more constructive conversations with others who remain uncertain about evolution and its place in the public school curriculum. To guide their efforts, the National Academy commissioned focus groups and a national survey to gauge the public’s understanding of the processes, nature, and limits of science. The authoring committee also wanted to test various frames of reference that explained why alternatives to evolution were inappropriate for science class (Labov and Pope 2008; Nisbet and Scheufele 2009).

The committee had expected that a convincing storyline for the public would be a traditional emphasis on past legal decisions and the doctrine of church-state separation. Yet the data revealed that audiences were not persuaded by this framing of the issue. Instead, somewhat surprisingly, the research pointed to the effectiveness of defining evolutionary science in terms of social progress, explaining its role as a building block for advances in medicine and agriculture. The research also underscored the effectiveness of reassuring the public that evolution and religious faith can be fully compatible.

In light of this feedback, the National Academy committee decided to structure the final version of the report around these main points of emphasis. “The evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith,” states the report. “Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future.”

In the Arizona State experiment, drawing on themes from the booklet, instructors emphasized that “scientists study natural causes within the natural world, whereas religious ideas address questions of morality, purpose, and the existence of a higher power.” If religious beliefs were limited to questions of purpose, ethics, and the existence of God, then they were not in conflict with evolution.

To evaluate the impact of the module, surveys were administered to the class before and after the module was completed. In contrast to the more than 50 percent of students at the start of the module who said they perceived religion and evolution as in conflict, only 26 percent said the same at the end, indicating that the module had reduced by nearly half the number of students holding a “conflict” outlook. More specifically, eleven out of the thirty-two students who said they perceived conflict at the start of the course shifted their outlook. Among those who were unsure at the start, eight out of fifteen indicated that evolution and religion were compatible after completing the module. Interestingly, there was no observable change in student scores on measures of religiosity (Barnes et al. 2017).

In a second study conducted at Brigham Young University, researchers focused specifically on how Mormon students—if informed of the Mormon church’s official neutral position on evolution—may be more likely to subsequently accept evolutionary theory. In this case, the Mormon Church maintains strict belief in God as the creator, but in its statements it does not confirm or deny the potential for theistic evolution, leaving room for Mormons to adopt a scientific interpretation. The experiment involved more than 1,500 nonmajors enrolled in introductory biology courses. In the test condition, as part of the semester, students participated in at least one lecture and discussion of a “BYU Evolution Packet” that discussed the official Mormon church stance on human origins. After reading the packet, during the class discussion, students were encouraged to ask questions and make comments. The control condition had access to the BYU Evolution Packet, but no time was spent as part of the course in discussing the packet (Manwaring et al. 2015).

For both the experimental and control conditions, overall student acceptance of evolution increased across the semester, and this greater level of acceptance remained five to seven months after completion of the course. But in the experimental condition that included the lecture on official Mormon teachings, gains in acceptance of evolution were significantly higher than in the control condition. As the researchers note, at the outset of the course, those students who held more misconceptions about the Mormon church’s stance on evolution were some of the least likely to accept the theory of evolution. Their analysis indicates that the booklet and single lecture on the topic corrected many of these misconceptions among the participating students, which in turn led to the higher gains in student acceptance of evolution in comparison to the control condition (Manwaring et al. 2015).


For most college students, the introductory courses they take during their first few college years may be the only thoughtful discussions of science and religion that they can draw on for the rest of their adult lives. If these students leave a science course lacking a strong motivation for further information on the topic, they can easily avoid the many available popular science books, articles, and films. When they do incidentally come across coverage in the news media, evolution is most likely to be framed in terms of controversy and irreconcilable conflict with religion (Mooney and Nisbet 2005).

We tend to think about general science education at the college level as a vehicle for imparting knowledge about the physical world, particularly in terms of basic science literacy. But general education science courses should also serve a core civic purpose, imparting critical understanding of the complex relationship between science and society, modeling for students’ thoughtful ways to negotiate differences. The first few studies formally evaluating approaches to discussing evolution and religion are models to build on. More research is needed to expand the evidence-base specific to evolution and to evaluate approaches for effectively discussing other challenging topics such as climate change or gene editing.


Nisbet, M.C. (2017, Sept/Oct). Evolution in College Classrooms: Facilitating Conversations about Science and Religion. Skeptical Inquirer Magazine.


  • Barnes, M.E., and S.E. Brownell. 2016. Practices and perspectives of college instructors on addressing religious beliefs when teaching evolution. CBE-Life Sciences Education 15(2).
  • Barnes, M.E., J. Elser, and S.E. Brownell. 2017. Two-week evolution module reduces perceived conflict between evolution and religion for religious and non-religious students. American Biology Teacher 79(2): 104–111.
  • Collins, F.S. 2006. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Friedrichsen, P.J., N. Linke, and E. Barnett. 2016. Biology teachers’ professional development needs for teaching evolution. Science Educator 25(1).
  • Labov, J.B., and B.K. Pope. 2008. Understanding our audiences: The design and evolution of science, evolution, and creationism. CBE-Life Sciences Education7(1): 20–24.
  • Manwaring, K.F., J.L. Jensen, R.A. Gill, et al. 2015. Influencing highly religious undergraduate perceptions of evolution: Mormons as a case study. Evolution: Education and Outreach 8(1): 23.
  • Mooney, C., and M.C. Nisbet. 2005. Undoing Darwin. Columbia Journalism Review 44(3): 30–39.
  • National Academy of Sciences. 2008. Science, Evolution, and Creationism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Available online at
  • Nisbet, M.C., and D.A. Scheufele. 2009. What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American Journal of Botany96(10): 1767–1778.
  • Rios, K., Z.H. Cheng, R.R. Totton, et al. 2015. Negative stereotypes cause Christians to underperform in and disidentify with science. Social Psychological and Personality Science 6(8): 959–967.

Preface to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication

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

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

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

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

Communication and Social Change

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

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

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

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


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


Don’t fear a Franken public: The surprising reasons why we should label genetically modified foods

May 1, 2016—In January 2016, Campbell Soup generated headlines by announcing that it would voluntarily label its products containing genetically modified (GM) corn, soy, beets, and other crops. Like most food industry leaders, about three quarters of Campbell Soup products contain such ingredients.

The company’s announcement came in advance of a summer deadline set by Vermont requiring the labeling of GM foods sold in the state. Legislatures in more than twenty states have considered similar requirements. Food industry groups have lobbied for congressional legislation preempting any state requirements, encouraging voluntary disclosure. But Campbell Soup is notable for breaking with this strategy, calling instead for mandatory labeling (Strom 2016).

Contrary to the claims of “Frankenfood” opponents, research shows that Americans have not turned against the promising technology. Most remain unaware of the debate. If asked directly, Americans voice support for labeling, but these opinions are neither deeply held nor top of mind.

In this context, Campbell Soup’s strategy is a shrewd gamble that could lead to several counterintuitive yet welcome outcomes. If Americans were to encounter GM labels on almost all processed foods, the ubiquity and apparent safety of such foods may actually bolster public trust and confidence, quelling controversy and opening the door to a next generation of GM food products that offer enormous benefits.

Science vs. Movement Politics

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other expert organizations, GM foods in comparison to other food products do not pose substantial risks to human health. Thus, federal regulators, experts, and industry members argue that there is no scientific or legal justification for special labeling.

Yet a few discredited studies provide just enough rhetorical fodder for activists to falsely claim that the technology poses a health threat. In the face of such uncertainty, they argue that precaution should be the rule. Therefore, consumers have a “right to know” if they are consuming GM ingredients.

For these activists, the debate over the scientific justification for labeling is a smokescreen that clouds deeper-rooted grievances. In this sense, no amount of scientific evidence will soften their opposition. The origin of these grievances can be traced to the rise of America’s local food movement.

During the early 2000s, looking across survey findings, researchers concluded that most Americans were unaware of GM food products, lacked basic knowledge of the science or policy specifics involved, and had yet to form strong opinions about the issue (Shanahan et al. 2001).

But among a smaller segment of consumers, the issue was emerging as a chief concern, correlated with a cluster of other food-related attitudes. Those few Americans who said they actively looked to buy GM-free food also said that they preferred their food to be organic, vegetarian, natural, locally produced, not processed, and without artificial colors or flavors (Bellows et al. 2010).

These consumers were early adopters of many of the beliefs and preferences that constitute today’s local food movement. The origins of the movement date back to the 1980s and a series of food safety controversies. Since then influential activists, food writers, and documentary filmmakers have argued the connections between industrial food production, agricultural policy, and problems such as obesity, income inequality, food-borne illness, and the decline of community life (Pollan 2010). In doing so, they have contributed to a new food politics, helping a diversity of groups unify behind a movement pushing for food system reforms.

From Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, many regions have rebuilt their economies and identities around locally owned, mostly organic farms, restaurants, and artisanal foods. These local efforts are complemented by the popularity of well-known national organic brands such as Stonyfield Farms and Horizon. In 2014, U.S. consumption of organic fruits, vegetables, dairy, breads, meat, and other foods generated an estimated $35 billion in sales, more than triple the amount from a decade ago (USDA n.d.).

The growth in the organics industry and local food economies has created a formidable alliance of farmers, entrepreneurs, and activists who bring considerable money, influence, and voice to the debate over labeling. For this alliance, corporate controlled, “unnaturally” produced GM food is perceived as a direct threat to their livelihood and preferred way of life.

Labeling: Not a Big Deal?

Simmering at the grassroots level for years, in 2012 the labeling of GM food exploded into prominence as a hotly debated political issue. In successive years, California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado residents considered and eventually voted down proposals to label GM food products. In these battles, the food industry is estimated to have spent more than $100 million to block labeling efforts, while activists and organic industry members spent tens of millions promoting the measures.

These battles across Western states generated considerable national media coverage. Yet despite the attention, carefully designed survey research suggests that broader public awareness remains remarkably low. For at least a decade, the great majority of processed foods sold in grocery stores have contained ingredients from GM crops. But when asked in a 2013 Rutgers University survey about the matter, only 44 percent of Americans said they were aware of such foods, and only 26 percent believed that they had ever eaten any food with GM ingredients (Hallman et al. 2013).

A majority of Americans in 2013 said they know very little or nothing at all about GM foods, and 25 percent said they had never heard of them. Even among those who answered they were aware of the issue, a majority mistakenly believed that GM tomatoes, wheat, and chicken products were being sold in supermarkets (Hallman et al. 2013). Specific to labeling, if asked directly, 80 percent of the public said that it was either “very important” or “somewhat important” to know whether a product contains GM food. Yet these labeling preferences are weakly held. In the 2013 Rutgers survey, when respondents were asked in an unprompted way “What information would you like to see on food labels that is not already on there?” only 7 percent said GM food labeling. Moreover, only one in four Americans knew that federal regulations do not currently require such labels (Hallman et al. 2013).

Given the public’s ambivalence about labeling, economists have long questioned claims that labeling would deter the great majority of consumers from purchasing GM food products. For most Americans, cost and brand preference rather than labeling drives their food choices. To the extent that most organic foods today cost 50 to 100 percent more than their GM counterparts, this price difference is likely to override any impact of labels.

To test these assumptions, economists Marco Costanigro and Jayson Lusk designed a series of experiments that asked a sample of American adults to choose among apples and Cheerios that were either labeled as genetically modified or were unlabeled. To simulate the price differences for these products, those marked as genetically modified were priced at half the cost of their unlabeled counterparts. Across conditions, the economists did not observe any significant impact of labeling on risk perceptions or concern. Subjects rated GM apples and Cheerios just as safe as their non-modified counterparts. The economists, however, did find that a GM label made consumers somewhat more willing to pay a premium for unlabeled apples and Cheerios. In other words, though GM labels are unlikely to raise undue alarm among consumers, such labels may indirectly help boost sales of organic food products (Costanigro and Lusk 2014).

Citing this research and other evidence that labels are not likely to scare the public, some experts have argued that if the food industry were to follow the lead of Campbell Soup and support a mandatory labeling law, the strategy would help to restore public trust in the food industry while defusing controversy. “People are getting increasingly scared of [GM food] precisely because the industry is fighting a rearguard battle not to tell people which foodstuffs contain them,” argues author and writer Mark Lynas (2013). “This has to be the worst PR strategy ever: can you think of a single analogy where an industry uses every media tool, every electoral and legal avenue possible to stop people knowing where their own products are used?”

As David Ropeik (2013), a risk communication consultant, argued in an open letter to the food industry: “Even if you win the vote, you will lose the war … because the war isn’t about labeling. It’s about the public’s lack of trust in you, and therefore their opposition to the technology that is so important to your success. Your company’s opposition to labeling is hurting you far more than it’s helping. It is time for a new approach.”

Defusing Controversy

Certainly if the food industry were to support mandatory GM labeling, the precise impact on consumers remains unkown. But to continue to battle against labeling rules is also risky business, lending credibility to claims by activists that the industry has an undue, corrupting influence on the political process. In contrast, the labeling of GM food may have only a limited impact on consumer buying habits, while doing little to alarm the public about the safety of the technology. Putting an end to the labeling controversy is also likely to benefit public debate over the next generation of genetically engineered foods, ensuring that scientists, universities, and companies have the freedom to pursue breakthrough technologies.

These innovations are aimed directly at helping the world meet a 70 percent increase in food demand by 2050. Some crops have been engineered to counter deficiencies in vitamin A and iron among populations in developing countries. Other GM crops are able to survive under conditions of drought, extreme heat, or unfavorable soil conditions (Wohlers 2013). After many years of evaluation, in 2015 a genetically engineered salmon became the first modified animal approved for human consumption by the U.S. government. The small company that pioneered the high-tech salmon says that they can be grown in half the time and using 25 percent less small wild fish as feed. The system recycles 95 percent of the water used and reduces harmful waste. The all-female sterile fish are raised in landlocked tanks, making escape into the wild unlikely. Currently produced in Panama, the plan is for the fish to be grown close to large U.S. urban areas, reducing the energy costs associated with transportation (Saletan 2015).

Activists have moved quickly to oppose such “Frankenfish,” pressuring major grocery store chains and restaurants to refuse to sell the sustainability-friendly product. Apart from unsupported claims about environmental and health risks, their chief complaint is that the fish would not be labeled. As the case of engineered salmon suggests, as important high-tech crops and farming practices are brought to market in coming years, the chief strategy of GM food opponents to appeal to the public’s “right to know” can be removed from the table by pushing for a smart, mandatory labeling policy.

–This article originally appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.


Nisbet, M.C. (2016, May/June). Don’t Fear a Franken Public: The surprising reasons why we should label genetically modified food. Skeptical Inquirer magazine, 18-21.


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Will the health dangers of climate change get people to care? The science says: maybe

April 7, 2016 —Climate change is a major public health threat, already making existing problems like asthma, exposure to extreme heat, food poisoning, and infectious disease more severe, and posing new risks from climate change-related disasters, including death or injury.

Those were the alarming conclusions of a new scientific assessment report released by the Obama administration this week, drawing on input from eight federal agencies and more than 100 relevant experts.

“As far as history is concerned this is a new kind of threat that we are facing,” said U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at a White House event. Pregnant women, children, low-income people and communities of color are among the most at risk.

Despite ever more urgent warnings of scientists, Americans still tend to view climate change as a scientific or environmental issue, but not as a problem that currently affects them personally, or one that connects to issues that they already perceive as important.

Yet research suggests that as federal agencies, experts, and societal leaders increasingly focus on the public health risks of climate change, this reframing may be able to overcome longstanding public indifference on the issue. The new communication strategy, however, faces several hurdles and uncertainties.

Putting a public health focus to the test

In a series of studies that I conducted with several colleagues in 2010 and 2011, we examined how Americans respond to information about climate change when the issue is reframed as a public health problem.

In line with the findings of the recent Obama administration report, the messages we tested with Americans stressed scientific findings that link climate change to an increase in the incidence of infectious diseases, asthma, allergies, heat stroke and other health problems – risks that particularly impact children, the elderly and the poor.

We evaluated not only story lines that highlighted these risks, but also the presentations that focused on the benefits to public health if actions were taken to curb greenhouse emissions.

In an initial study, we conducted in-depth interviews with 70 respondents from 29 states, recruiting subjects from six previously defined audience segments. These segments ranged on a continuum from those individuals deeply alarmed by climate change to those who were deeply dismissive of the problem.

Across all six audience segments, when asked to read a short essay that framed climate change in terms of public health, individuals said that the information was both useful and compelling, particularly at the end of the essay when locally focused policy actions were presented with specific benefits to public health.

In a follow-up study, we conducted a nationally representative online survey. Respondents from each of the six audience segments were randomly assigned to three different experimental conditions in which they read brief essays about climate change discussed as either an environmental problem, a public health problem or a national security problem. This allowed us to evaluate their emotional reactions to strategically framed messages about the issue.

In comparison to messages that defined climate change in terms of either the environment or national security, talking about climate change as a public health problem generated greater feelings of hope among subjects. Research suggests that fostering a sense of hope, specifically a belief that actions to combat climate change will be successful, is likely to promote greater public involvement and participation on the issue.

Among subjects who tended to doubt or dismiss climate change as a problem, the public health focus also helped diffuse anger in reaction to information about the issue, creating the opportunity for opinion change.

A recent study by researchers at Cornell University built on our findings to examine how to effectively reframe the connections between climate change and ocean health.

In this study involving 500 subjects recruited from among passengers on a Seattle-area ferry boat, participants were randomly assigned to two frame conditions in which they read presentations that defined the impact of climate change on oceans.

For a first group of subjects, the consequences of climate change were framed in terms of their risks to marine species such as oysters. For the second group, climate change was framed in terms of risks to humans who may eat contaminated oysters.

The framing of ocean impacts in terms of risks to human health appeared to depoliticize perceptions. In this case, the human health framing condition had no discernible impact on the views of Democrats and independents, but it did influence the outlook of Republicans. Right-leaning people, when information emphasized the human health risks, were significantly more likely to support various proposed regulations of the fossil fuel industry.

In two other recent studies, the Cornell team of researchers have found that communications about climate change are more persuasive among political conservatives when framed in terms of localized, near-term impacts and if they feature compassion appeals for the victims of climate change disasters, such as drought.

Challenges to reframing climate change

To date, a common weakness in studies testing different framing approaches to climate change is that they do not evaluate the effects of the tested messages in the context of competing arguments.

In real life, most people hear about climate change by way of national news outlets, local TV news, conversations, social media and political advertisements. In these contexts, people are likely to also encounter arguments by those opposed to policy action who misleadingly emphasize scientific uncertainty or who exaggerate the economic costs of action.

Thus our studies and others may overestimate framing effects on attitude change, since they do not correspond to how most members of the public encounter information about climate change in the real world.

The two studies that have examined the effects of novel frames in the presence of competing messages have found mixed results. A third recent study finds no influence on attitudes when reframing action on climate change in terms of benefits to health or the economy, even in the absence of competing frames. In light of their findings, the authors recommend that communication efforts remain focused on emphasizing the environmental risks of inaction.

Communicating about climate change as a public health problem also faces barriers from how messages are shared and spread online, suggests another recent study.

In past research on Facebook sharing, messages that are perceived to be conventional are more likely to be passed on than those that are considered unconventional. Scholars theorize that this property of Facebook sharing relates closely to how cultures typically tend to reinforce status quo understandings of social problems and to marginalize unconventional perspectives.

In an experiment designed like a game of three-way telephone in which subjects were asked to select and pass on Facebook messages about climate change, the authors found that a conventional framing of climate change in terms of environmental risks was more likely to be shared, compared to less conventional messages emphasizing the public health and economic benefits to action.

In all, these results suggest that efforts to employ novel framing strategies on climate change that involve an emphasis on public health will require sustained, well-resourced, and highly coordinated activities in which such messages are repeated and emphasized by a diversity of trusted messengers and opinion leaders.

That’s why the new federal scientific assessment, which was promoted via the White House media and engagement offices, is so important. As these efforts continue, they will also need to be localized and tailored to specific regions, cities, or states and periodically evaluated to gauge success and refine strategy.

–This article originally appeared at The Conversation US.


Nisbet, M.C. (2016, April 7). Will the health dangers of climate change get people to care? The science says: maybe. The Conversation US.


Myers, T., Nisbet, M.C., Maibach, E.W., & Leiserowitz, A. (2012). A Public Health Frame Arouses Hopeful Emotions about Climate Change.  Climatic Change Research Letters, 1105-1121.

Maibach, E., Nisbet, M.C. et al. (2010). Reframing Climate Change as a Public Health Issue: An Exploratory Study of Public Reactions. BMC Public Health 10: 299

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Up Consensus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reframing the Debate

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

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

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

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

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

Working with a Diversity of 
Opinion Leaders

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

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

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

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

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

The Need for Compromise

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

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


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


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