He concludes that environmental groups were not, in fact, outgunned by the political muscle and pocketbooks of big corporations opposed to climate action. Nor were they thwarted by a mainstream media accused of confusing the public with “false balance” between respected scientists and denial outliers. And what about all those conservative politicians and pundits who polarized the issue? Nisbet suggests Al Gore owns some responsibility there, too.
He is downright methodical in questioning all of the most deeply held narratives for why an environmental movement that has matured in tactics and grown in size — and which was responsible for what he suggests may have been “the best-financed political cause in American history” — came up empty-handed on climate legislation, even with allies running the White House and both houses of Congress.
Reaction has been, predictably, a loud wail from cyberspace. Nisbet’s hundred-page report, “Climate Shift: Clear Vision For the Next Decade of Public Debate,” has spawned over the last two weeks its own vast Internet literature, with commentators on one side hailing his tough-love call for introspection and critics on the other accusing him of blaming environmentalists and scientists for the collapse of their own best intentions.
“Basically, people who are negatively struck by the framing are criticizing it, and people who are positively struck by the framing are praising it,” said science writer Chris Mooney (who was negatively struck by the framing of it). “It has a bit of Rorschach to it.”
Nisbet’s underlying argument is not really new: that groups passionate about climate change should reconsider their own communications and strategy flaws before moving forward. What’s new is that no one has made the case quite this way before, with such a thorough debunking of the primary bogeymen — and with such shocking data (albeit data Nisbet’s critics contest).
His financial analysis concludes that the groups allied behind cap-and-trade, including six of the world’s 15 largest publicly traded corporations, have closed the gap in spending might with the big climate deniers like Koch Industries, often portrayed as the Goliath to the green movement’s David. And his media analysis suggests nine out of 10 mainstream articles over a two-year period in The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN.com accurately reflected the scientific consensus on climate change (as opposed to giving equal time to climate deniers who skew a public perception of scientific uncertainty).
Sure, the media and deep-pocketed opponents like Koch have played a role, Nisbet acknowledges, but there’s more to this story.
“Matt Nisbet and I have been saying that for years, but we never framed it this way before,” Mooney said. “When I’ve called for introspection on the part of scientists about communications tactics — which I’ve been doing for years, starting out with him, and now I train them — somehow I’ve managed not to tell them that they’re all a bunch of politicized ideologues, which is not really a fair generalization.”
Nisbet contends that all of us — scientists, even — are affected by our own biases and perspectives, and that cap-and-trade supporters have brought this lens to their understanding of the conundrum of climate change politics.
“Part of our own efforts in making sense of this complexity is very similar to how the general public tries to make sense of the complexity of climate science itself,” Nisbet said in an interview. “There’s a great deal of uncertainty, a great deal of information, and in order to make sense of that complexity, we rely on our own commitment to the issue, on our own political identity, also on our own selective information sources.”
In doing so, Nisbet says, advocates have relied too much on a pair of popular narratives — one that blames the media and climate deniers for distorting the public debate, and the other that blames deep-pocketed polluting corporations for wresting control of the climate bill.
“All of those other narratives are true,” Nisbet said. “But the question is: What else do we overlook by focusing on those narratives?”
That question is provocative because many organizations are already heavily invested in funneling resources at those two culprits. Among Nisbet’s biggest critics, Media Matters for America works endlessly to hold Fox News accountable for its distortions, and climate blogger Joe Romm’s think tank, the Center for American Progress, has devoted considerable energy to uncovering the backroom influence of Koch Industries. Nisbet’s report essentially suggests much of this effort is misplaced.
“When you try to reset the context of perception and draw peoples’ attention to a range of other factors, in part that means they have to engage in some self-criticism,” Nisbet said. “Of course, there’s going to be resistance to that.”
Among that resistance, Romm and Media Matters for America have challenged Nisbet’s analysis of financial and media data, re-splicing his numbers to different conclusions. In his media analysis, Nisbet has particularly been attacked for discounting the influence of Fox News (he cites research that suggests the cable channel reinforces rather than influences the opinions of its viewers and so isn’t a significant force in shifting public opinion).
Nisbet’s financial analysis also measures the total lobbying expenditures of groups on each side of the cap-and-trade debate, although much of that lobbying money was undoubtedly spent on issues entirely unrelated to the environment. Issue-specific lobbying figures aren’t available, but Romm suggests it’s laughable to think a corporation like BP spent much of its budget on the cap-and-trade bill.
Nisbet counters that he isn’t trying to provide a literal accounting of money spent on the bill by each side, but rather a picture of the muscle each side had at its disposal. And if environmentalists object to the idea that BP — at one point a member of the highly publicized U.S. Climate Action Partnership — did much to help out, then they have another problem implied in Nisbet’s report.
“In the last cap-and-trade debate, if corporations didn’t [contribute], even though environmental groups spent three years bringing them into an alliance, how can we depend on them in the future?” he asked.
The specific numbers in Nisbet’s report are somewhat beside the point. He laments that in focusing on them, his critics have distracted the discussion away from his main thesis calling for environmentalists and scientists to reassess their own role. Mooney, too, doesn’t care much about the numbers. He objects to the report’s framing — that in emphasizing the flaws of environmentalists and scientists, Nisbet has shifted blame away from climate deniers.
“And he is the guy who studies framing, isn’t he?” Mooney asked.
Nisbet sites data from a 2009 Pew survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, suggesting that membership is “strongly ideological, partisan and like-minded in outlook.” Fifty-two percent of AAAS members surveyed identified themselves as liberal or very liberal, with only 9 percent describing their political views as conservative. But Mooney says that data hardly suggests that scientists — generally timid about political engagement — behave like raging ideologues in the climate debate.
“Within that community, introspection is already happening,” Mooney said. “I know it’s happening, I know there’s huge receptivity to asking things like ‘Do scientists understand the public?’ Is this report that Nisbet did going to prompt more of that or is it going to promote defensiveness? I would guess, it depends on whom, but that it would prompt defensiveness in a lot of people. Again, it says ‘you’re partisan and you’re ideological’ — which, technically, everybody is, and his data shows that they are, but it’s going to be taken in the wrong way.”
Perhaps Nisbet could have inserted an additional chapter in his paper reviewing the literature on the influence of the climate denial movement, with its affiliated politicians and think tanks. In the world of framing, some of his critics might have been less likely to oversimplify Nisbet’s position as exclusively blaming scientists and environmentalists if he had overemphasized that he acknowledges the role of deniers as well. (Before assessing Gore’s responsibility, Nisbet writes, for instance, “Justifiable blame has been attributed to the Bush administration and conservatives for reinforcing the gap in perceptions between Republicans and Democrats on climate change.” That one line may be easily overlooked, however.)
“It’s unclear how much more I had to talk about what everyone has already focused on in order to satisfy them and not bump up against that perceptual barrier,” Nisbet said. He wanted this paper, rather, to “move the community forward.”
Some time may have to pass, with tempers cooling, before it’s clear if that will happen, before Nisbet’s central argument can rise above the frame that has made it harder for some to hear. But Nisbet sounds certain his paper will outlast the backlash.
“There’s been a debate about this for two weeks, and there’s probably going to be debate for another couple of weeks,” he said. “But this report will change the way we think about this problem.”