Battling Over the Climate War

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After cap-and-trade finally died in the U.S. Senate last year, it didn’t take long before we all started asking what went wrong—and who was to blame. There was no shortage of explanations: a plummeting economy and high unemployment made it impossible to sell major environmental legislation; the White House chose to prioritize health care legislation and never really pushed the climate bill; the simple mathematics of the Senate, with its 60-vote requirement and overrepresentation of industrial and agricultural regions, simply made passage impossible. But as the multi-year effort to get climate legislation finally collapsed with the Republican electoral rout last November, there was also some backlash against the environmental movement itself, for ultimately failing to marshal a winning campaign despite having a Democratic White House and a Democratic Congress. As one Obama Administration official complained to POLITICO’s Darren Samuelsohn last year about the national environmental groups:

They didn’t deliver a single Republican. They spent like $100 million and they weren’t able to get a single Republican convert on the bill.

Environmentalists, though, have always had a defense: they were fighting an unfair war. The major fossil fuel players—along with conservative foundations like the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperityoutlobbyed and outgunned environmental groups, aided and abetted by mainstream media coverage that gave equal time to climate scientists and climate deniers. Given the scale of the forces arrayed against them, environmental groups should be applauded for getting as close as they did on climate legislation. At least, that’s the argument.

But one academic is questioning that narrative. Last week Matthew Nisbet—a social scientist at American University who focuses on communication in policymaking, especially on environmentalism—came out with a 99-page report called Climate Shift (download a PDF here) that reviewed the fight over cap-and-trade. Throughout the report—which is definitely worth reading—Nisbet makes some surprising claims. Very quickly:

  • Far from being clearly outgunned by conservative companies and groups, the broad environmental coalition actually held a spending edge in the cap-and-trade battle. Nisbet calculates that environmental groups nationwide spent $335 million on climate change and energy in 2009, compared to $259 million by conservative groups opposed to action. On the lobbying front, conservative groups still held an edge but it was a much smaller one than most believed: $279 million in lobbying by conservative groups for all issues in 2009, compared to $229 million for environmental groups and their allies.
  • For all the agita over the influence of shadowy conservative philanthropists like the Koch brothers, the cap-and-trade campaign was backed by powerful progressive foundations that donated hundreds of millions to environmental groups between 2008 and 2010—and those philanthropists, like their conservative counterparts, had highly strategic and disciplined aims.
  • Mainstream news coverage—New York Times, Washington Post,, Politico and Wall Street Journal—of climate change in 2009 and 2010 actually represented the general scientific consensus on the issue: that global warming is real and that manmade greenhouse gas emissions are a main driver. The idea that the media has engaged in “false balance” in reporting on climate change is, in Nisbet’s view, false.
  • While conservatives have been justly accused of politicizing global warming and climate science, Democratic leaders—including Al Gore—have also played a role in widening the political divide on the issue.

Nisbet knew that the report would make waves—he was, after all, directly questioning the prevailing narrative about what happened during the cap-and-trade fight, one that people have staked their careers and reputations on. If the environmental movement wasn’t being outspent, and the media was reporting the climate message fairly, than maybe there was something wrong with the carbon cap strategy itself—which is exactly what Nisbet concludes. He told me in an interview:

We needed a serious self-examination about where we’re coming from and where we need to go from here. We really need to get beyond power politics on climate change, where almost anything goes to win politically in the short-term. But I knew going in that no matter what the dominant conception would be hard to break.

Nisbet had no idea just how hard it would be. The Climate Shift report was supposed to come out on April 20, and embargoed copies of the report had been sent to journalists in the days leading up to the release. But on April 18, Joe Romm—the tenacious blogger who runs the Climate Progress site for the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank—broke the embargo and published a scathing post criticizing Nisbet’s conclusions, especially his argument that environmentalists had outspent their conservative opponents. Romm’s post—which was white-hot—included input from Drexel sociologist Robert Brulle, a Drexel University sociologist and expert in environmental communications. Brulle had been one of five outside reviewers who commented and advised Nisbet on his report—but importantly, weren’t required to endorse the findings. Nonetheless, Brulle—after working with Nisbet in the weeks leading up to the report’s release—abruptly pulled out and asked Nisbet to remove his name before publication. (Nisbet complied.) From Romm’s post:

Prof. Matthew Nisbet of American University has written an error-riddled, self-contradictory, demonstrable false report, Climate Shift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Public Debate [big PDF here].   The 99-page report’s two central, but ridiculous, claims are:

  1. The environmental movement outspent opponents during the climate bill debate.
  2. Media coverage of climate change has become balanced and was not a factor in the defeat of the cap-and-trade bill.

The report makes these untenable claims in order to shift the blame for the bill’s failure to climate scientists, environmentalists, foundations, and most especially Al Gore.

None of the report’s major conclusions can stand the light of day, particularly those two.  Climate Shift is not a revisionist history.  It is a counterfactual history.

Romm later followed up his original critique with another post—also done with the help of Brulle—claiming that Nisbet’s own data could actually be analyzed to indicate that conservative groups held an eight to tenfold edge in lobbying and other election spending on climate and energy. Romm and others—including the liberal blog Media Matters—criticized Nisbet for failing to take television and especially Fox News into account when he concluded that media coverage of climate issues was now largely fair. The writer Chris Mooney—author of The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America, who has worked with Nisbet in the past—complained that Nisbet had glossed over the role of the Bush Administration and Republicans in general in undermining climate science. Brulle told me in an interview that he felt he was being “used to legitimize the report,” which made him uncomfortable and which helped prompt his decision to pull his name from the project. (Brulle says that Romm got in touch with him the morning after Brulle sent a 1 AM email to Nisbet requesting his name to be removed from the report.) “I think that there’s an enormous disconnect between the data he presents and his conclusions,” says Brulle.

Nisbet responded to Romm and the other critics in a couple of posts—take a look at them to get a fuller picture of the back-and-forth. And other voices—like Roger Pielke Jr., Keith Kloor and Randy Olson among others—took to the Internet to defend Nisbet’s work.  I’ll get into some of the details below, but it’s worth taking a minute unpack exactly what happened in the response to the Climate Shift report because it says a lot about how the climate war is being fought.

It’s one thing to criticize Nisbet’s numbers on campaign spending—as Nisbet himself makes clear in the body of the report, calculating lobbying money is difficult, in part because companies and foundations aren’t required to detail exactly how they’re spending those funds. There’s plenty of room for argument there. But it’s impossible to view the full-court press critics like Romm applied to the report—before it was even out publicly—as anything other than an attempt to, as Kloor put it in a post, “kneecap” Nisbet:

So days before the official release of Nisbet’s report, he has been forced to wade through the mud that Romm has thrown up. Every journalist writing about the report will now be forced to sift through the mud, too.

Indeed, Harvard’s Nieman Watchdog blog—a project devoted to refereeing the press—inadvertently put its finger on exactly what the paper’s critics were trying to do when they titled a reprint of Romm’s post: “Killing a false narrative before it takes hold,” and subtitled it:

Busting an embargo,’s Joe Romm blisteringly dismantles an upcoming academic report on climate change advocacy in hopes no reporters will be taken in.

(So, just to get this straight, a journalism watchdog is applauding a blogger for trying to preemptively keep reporters from reading and writing about a forthcoming report, apparently because we’re not smart enough to figure out what might be true or not on our own? Personally, Harvard University, as a journalist I’m not a huge fan of being told what I should and shouldn’t think—and I’m pretty sure most of my colleagues agree.)

This is important because whatever flaws there may be in the Climate Shift report itself—and I agree with Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth that Nisbet may have bit off more than he could chew by pulling data from so many disparate sources on spending and media coverage—there is an important argument here that the environmental movement needs to explore. “No one really knows how to transform the global energy economy, and we need all the good ideas we can get,” says Peter Teague, the program director for environment/contemplative practice at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the group that funded Nisbet’s report. “For philanthropy to close the door on thinkers and say they’re somehow beyond the pale is a mistake.” And yet that’s exactly how the initial green response to Nisbet’s report played out—as if it should simply be buried.

In a way, the argument has played out as a negative-image of the usual battle with climate skeptics, who pull at some of the less than certain data in climate models and then use that as a reason to dismiss the entire idea of manmade global warming. There could indeed be issues with Nisbet’s calculations of campaign spending, advertising and lobbying on both sides of the climate wars. As  Samuelsohn wrote in POLITICO recently, when it came to election money this past year, conservative groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads organization badly outspent environmental groups. The environmental movement is also limited by law in the way it can spend much of that money, especially when it comes to direct lobbying and donations, in a way that some of its industry opponents are not. But there is growing evidence that the broader environmental movement—including its corporate allies, which mainstream green groups like the Environmental Defense Fund have assiduously courted—has been able to significantly close the gap. Indeed, in the battle over Proposition 23—the California ballot initiative that would have all but suspended the state’s landmark climate change law—greens significantly outspent the competition, buoyed by major donations from California’s emerging clean tech tycoons, and they won running away. “Fundamentally, the narrative this is David versus Goliath does not match the numbers on the ground,” says Nisbet.

One example is worth explaining in a little more detail. Nisbet’s critics took specific issue with his decision to include in overall environmental spending the lobbying budgets of the corporate members of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP)—an pro cap-and-trade alliance of major environmental groups and corporations like GE and BP that was announced with great fanfare in 2007. As Romm put it:

Does anyone think that GE or BP or BofA spent even a small fraction of their overall lobbying budget seriously pushing for a climate bill? Lobbyists I spoke to pointed out that, at best, some of those companies probably occasionally met with members of Congress to say something like “if you do pass a climate bill, please make sure it doesn’t include the following provisions we hate.”  That’s hardly lobbying for the bill.  I actually met with lobbyists for one of the groups Nisbet lists as supposedly pro-bill, and they repeatedly dismissed it as “cap-and-tax” and almost certainly lobbied against it!

That may well be true—I have a hard time imagining that BP, for one, spent a whole lot of its $16 million lobbying budget agitating for cap-and-trade. But if that’s the case, it begs another more important question for the environmental movement: what exactly was the point of putting all this effort into assembling a corporate coalition for cap-and-trade, and drafting a business-friendly bill—so much so that lefty green groups like Greenpeace refused to support it—if those corporate partners then sat on their hands when the legislation was debated in the Senate? This is something I’ve wondered about before—if there were so many powerful companies speaking out in favor of climate action, why was the business side of the debate dominated by anti-cap-and-trade forces like the conservative Chamber of Commerce? That needs to be answered before there’s another big push for legislation.

There are other questions raised by the report—including the role of the media and the bipartisan (if still unequal) responsibility for the growing political polarization of climate issues—but I’m already past 2,000 words here, which is likely more than the number of people who are deeply interested in the inner workings of the environmental movement. We might have time to return to them later. But as Revkin points out, the report notes that climate science and climate solutions aren’t the same thing:

The point is that for far too long climate campaigners have had a tendency to speak of the science pointing to rising risks from building emissions of greenhouse gases and their favored solutions in a single breath. In a way, this pulled the science into the political fray over appropriate responses.

Put simply, while the science on climate science is solid, climate policy is a whole lot less certain—and it’s a mistake to treat constructive critics of mainstream climate policy with the same disdain reserved for fundamental climate science deniers like James Inhofe. In any case, as Jonathan Foley—the director of the Institute for the Environment at the University of Minnesota—writes in his own blog post, the science war simply isn’t winnable:

First, stop bashing people over the head with climate science. It just isn’t working with some people. In an age of identity politics, increasing polarization and culture wars, our ability to ignore data that contradict our worldview (or personal interests) is extraordinary.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not giving up on climate science, and I continue to spread the science message far and wide. I strongly believe that science matters and we need to continue to speak truth to power. But some people just aren’t listening to the science. So we need to approach them a different way.

For Foley, that means focusing on solutions that have a broad bipartisan appeal: energy security and economic growth and disaster preparedness. If that’s not exactly revolutionary, at least it’s current—the White House has been pushing much the same line. And ultimately, that’s Nesbit’s point as well: this problem is hard, and we need to think about other strategies. In his case, that means shifting the focus from a cap-and-trade based approach that treats climate change as a solvable pollution problem, and instead, treating it as something more akin to global health or poverty: something that needs to be managed, with an emphasis on energy innovation and climate adaptation. “We need a deeper focus on direct participation of the public,” says Nisbet. “This isn’t something we’ll solve with a big cap-and-trade approach, but something we’ll manage over the long-term.”

Nisebt isn’t the only one who feels that way—his thinking is shared by researchers like Pielke Jr., Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia and the guys at the Breakthrough Institute. And me too—as I’ve written more than a few times, I’ve become skeptical that cap-and-trade is the way to go, and think that a renewed focus on research and development should be a fundamental first step of any climate and energy strategy. And I’m sure that this post will be emailed around by people who support that policy approach, and will be criticized by those who want to stay with cap-and-trade. I don’t know who’s ultimately right by any means—but I know that the environmental movement has really only tried one approach, and it hasn’t worked yet. The very least the movement can do is provide an open hearing for alternatives, instead of trying to kill narratives in their crib. The Nisbet report should be part of that reassessment, which doesn’t mean it has to be flawless. “I didn’t agree with everything about the way the report pitched it, but overall it raised some useful questions,” Max Boykoff—an expert in climate communications and a reviewer of the Nisbet report—told me in an interview.

As Peter Teague put it to me, the environmental movement “has got to learn from its mistakes.” Otherwise it really will be doomed to repeat them—and climate change is far, far too important to let that happen.

Some of the notable posts from around the web on the Climate Shift report:

False Balance in Matthew Nisbet’s Climate Shift Report (Chris Mooney)

Beyond the Climate Blame Game (Revkin)

Q&A with Jonathan Foley (Kloor)

Climate Shift: Controversy and Teachable Moment (ecoAmerica’s Meighen Speiser)

What Mistakes Did the Environmental Community and Progressive Politicians Make in the Climate Bill Fight (Romm)

Home Truths (Nature)