Climate Shift: Controversy and Teachable Moment

by Meighen Speiser

Climateshift_cover_6-1 There's a movement bubbling up among the movement — to analyze where we've made mistakes in our efforts to affect policy on climate.  From grasstops to grassroots, media, and even ecoAmerica's own America the Best conference, the movement is considering a few common questions: 
1) What happened?  Why didn’t we pass climate legislation?
2) What have we learned?  What would we do different if we had the chance to do it over again?; and
3) Where do we go from here?

The latest entrant to this growing body of analysis is a new and controversial report from Matthew Nisbet, entitled "Climate Shift.".  It reports that environmentalists weren't outspent or out-maneuvered, that ideology has played a role in polarization (including by our own leadership), and that the media was actually balanced in reporting on climate.  You can download the Climate Shift report and the executive summary from these links.

There has been a lot of criticism of Nisbet’s report, including in the Discover and Climate Progress blogs, not unlike the criticism that surrounded the Death of Environmentalism report a few years back.   While there are flaws and missed opportunities in the report, the courage to shine light on the movement is well-timed. 
Our tendencies are to blame external factors for the failure.  The movement's good intentions, logic, dependency on funding, science and a designed-to-win plan amplify the resistance to admitting possible errors.  Climate Shift, however, can play a useful and needed role in motivating analysis and discussion on where we go from here.
So it is no surprise that there has been immediate attacks on this report, even a break in the embargo to report on how a leading expert withdrew from the report, citing contradictions in the data and more, in an attempt to kill "a false narrative before it takes hold".
There are, however, nuggets of learning we can heed from the report, such as the notable absence of any meaningful discussion on the social or cultural dimension of the climate change challenge.  Other worthwhile highlights are: 1) that only a limited number of grants included formal initiatives aimed at better understanding audiences or at supporting media resources that audiences could use to participate on the issue; and 2) that there was not sufficient investment in such important human dimensions of the issue as adaption, health, equity, justice or economic development. 
As ecoAmerica has been advocating, and as the founding reason for our organization, we must win the hearts and minds of mainstream Americans if we want to win on climate.  There are over 100 million Americans ripe to be engaged and moved on climate solutions, representing a critical strategic gap.

No Responses to “Climate Shift: Controversy and Teachable Moment”

  1. I thank ecoAmerica for highlighting the report and commend ecoAmerica for its dedication to fostering dialogue, understanding and participation across communities and groups trying to make a difference on climate change.
    I wanted to share this link to a Q&A style article at Climate Central where I discuss several communication implications of the Climate Shift report which are very much in line with ecoAmerica’s own efforts. I look forward to working with ecoAmerica on shared interests and goals.

  2. Your coverage of the ClimateShift report is inexcusably lazy. I suggest you delete this post and start over with something that took more than 20 minutes to write.
    Nisbet is not the final word on the environment and not everybody who disagrees with him is a mean bully. Who cares about a “media embargo”? Who died and made him Eisenhower on D-Day? He isn’t a scientist and his conclusions are just as subject to fact-based critique as anybody else’s. And in this case it has been incontrovertibly proven that his conclusions are wrong, based on gross mathematical errors (i.e. claiming environmentalists had access to the entire lobbying budget of General Electric) or sheer intellectual ineptitude (i.e. leaving out analysis of right-wing cable news altogether).
    These are all valid points, and no amount of whimpering about Internet bullies will make them go away. Either answer them or stop trying to report on this topic.
    People like you keep glib anti-science hucksters like Bjorn Lomborg and the “Superfreakonomics” team going. You don’t care about the content of anyone’s environmental reporting–all you care about is novelty.

  3. @TTT: In the words of the wise Randy Olson, “Don’t be such a scientist!” Nisbet’s work is not an assault on science, it is to point out a key element missing in the current operating strategy of the environmental establishments: winning over the hearts and minds of Americans. I commend Nisbet’s audacity and hope that we can move forward and come to common ground. We must come together and forge new strategic alliances so we can get back to #winningthefuture

  4. @B_Schott: It IS possible to point out the importance of “winning hearts and minds” WITHOUT omitting and misrepresenting key statistics in a way that casts blame where it doesn’t belong.
    I’d love to come to common ground with Nisbet, but this is not the first time he has tried to reach common ground via backpedaling away from his own unwarranted pre-emptive divisionism.

  5. TTT, We’d welcome a more comprehensive analysis of the Climate Wars saga. If you have any thoughts on this, please share.
    Personally, I think we need to get past the self-critique stage and figure out a flexible, four-part (three/six/whatever) goal oriented strategy and get things moving forward again. Thank goodness for the PowerShift / young people efforts.
    Like “Death of..” Nesbit has omissions and issues, but like “Death of..” it provoked more discussion on our success/failures than maybe everything else combined to date. If you can avoid the ad hominem attacks and add value, please.

  6. Mr. Perkowitz,
    There is value in truth and we serve our causes best in truth rather than in convenient omission. It would be refreshing to see an acknowledgment of that from Nisbet’s defenders, instead of this delegitimization of the fact-checking process. However much of a rush you may be in, I can assure you none of us will soon be able to “move forward” past the new false media narrative about environmentalist spending and influence levels, which will only make it harder for us to accomplish anything in the future.
    As for “Death Of…”, what were its substantive deliverables? What real gains in policy, public involvement, or long-lasting awareness did it yield? Firm boundaries like that would help to set expectations for the Nisbet report. All I personally saw from the old one, and all I think it plausible to expect from this one, is just that a lot of underpaid and un-thanked environmental scientists and educators were made to feel even more devalued and frustrated than before. But maybe I’m wrong.
    Regardless of who engages with what under which report title, by all means let’s talk about “getting things moving forward again”.
    As long as the “41-vote majority” phenom is in effect in the Senate and as long as the Republican Party is ideologically opposed to acknowledging the existence of climate change–much less spending money to stop it–we can rule out all novel legislative solutions forever. Which means the only policy apparatus on which we can rely is the executive branch invoking the EPA. THEREFORE, we need a coordinated press on media-outreach and education in order to get the public to support the EPA on this, as we surely all agree that, to date, most people have no idea what the EPA really does or that its authority even includes greenhouse gases at all.
    And rather than ignoring the role of anti-science cable news, we should view it as a golden opportunity to better stratify media consumers into categories for different types of educational outreach and targeted advertising. If we get a better view of the overall media consumer, and can remove those who have in effect chosen only to reinforce their negative attitudes about climate science, we need not try to fight two or three million stalemate battles when instead we could identify one or two million more receptive listeners.

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