In our third episode, RFF Energy and Climate Program Director Kristin Hayes talks with Matthew Nisbet, a professor of communication, public policy, and urban affairs at Northeastern University and editor-in-chief of the journal Environmental Communication. Kristin and Matthew discuss some of his recent research on effective communications related to complex social problems, such as climate change and political polarization, as well as the role of the philanthropic community in advancing climate solutions.
Listen to the Podcast
- “Climate change has become this embittered, polarized political debate where people can easily view the issue through the lense of their political identity.” (5:32)
- “Climate change itself -- people read into its complexity a lot of their own hopes and desires and their beliefs about what is a good society, and that then influences how technologies and policies are received in these political debates.” (7:20)
- “We need to create spaces for critical self reflection. The reason that we’ve tended to have a lot of groupthink and path dependency in the strategies we’ve pursued on climate change… is that we’ve often closed off alternative ideas by immediately attacking them as not part of our tribe… that’s really problematic.” (26:36)
Top of the Stack
References and recommendations made by Matthew Nisbet
- Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy by Siva Vaidhyanathan
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Kristin Hayes. This week, we talk with Matthew Nisbet, a professor of communication, public policy, and urban affairs at Northeastern University and editor-in-chief of the journal Environmental Communication, among many other roles and affiliations. We'll be discussing some of Matt's latest research around effective climate communications and about the role of philanthropy in moving forward climate strategy and policy. Stay with us.
Matt, it's great to have you. Welcome to Resources Radio. Thank you for joining us.
Matthew Nisbet: It's great to join you and talk about some really important topics.
Kristin Hayes: Well, I wanted to start today's podcast by noting that your undergraduate degree is in government and your advanced degrees are in communications. What made you decide to focus a substantial part of your research on climate change?
Matthew Nisbet: That's a good question. Since I was an undergrad, I've always been interested in the politics of environmental debates, and science debates more generally. My minor was in environmental studies at Dartmouth College. And just after college, I worked for about nine months as an organizer for the US Public Interest Research Group. And I worked on, this is in 1996, I worked on a campaign finance reform ballot initiative in California. But after about nine months I discovered that organizing was not really the life for me, so I moved back to Buffalo where I grew up, and I worked for a think tank there that's affiliated with the University of Buffalo, called the Center for Inquiry, which works on issues related to science in religion and public understanding of science. And it was there that I kind of crystallized my decision to go to graduate school and study the intersection of science, politics and the media and communication.
And so I went on to Cornell University, which has the top doctoral program in that area. And that was in 1999, so I was in graduate school from '99 to 2003, and that was really where we started to see issues like climate change, stem cell research, food biotechnology, kind of move from being just scientific topics to being national political debates. So I started to apply what we understand from political communication and public opinion research (that we learned in studying issues like abortion or tax policy or elections) to then looking at the dynamics of these really complex science issues. For the last 10 years, I've pretty much fully exclusively focused on climate change as a scientific debate to study and to evaluate.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah—super interesting. I will note that there are now entire fields of study dedicated to how to better communicate about climate change with the public and with policymakers. So maybe I can start this substantive part of our conversation by asking—why is communicating about climate change so tricky? Why have people felt the need to really invest in better strategies for communicating about it?
Matthew Nisbet: Yeah. So over the last 10 years, you're right, there's been a huge explosion in social science research on climate change communication, which includes looking at how the media covers the issue, how the public and other decisionmakers understand it, and what influences their opinions and their judgements and their behavior—to then strategies of public engagement and persuasion or campaigns and what impact they might have. Traditionally (well, historically, really), we've always studied climate change through the lens of either environmental science or economics. And environmental science tells us what might be the drivers of climate change as a physical problem, and gives us projections on what might be the risks or the impacts, and starts to give us a road map for what we need to do to lower emissions. And economics is always trying to look at the cost–benefits of action and proposals related to things like taxes and other things.
But what's been missing, always, is the human behavioral societal element. So much of climate change is what policy science scholars call a “super wicked problem.” Science and economics can only tell us a single dimension of what a super wicked problem might be about and how to address it because so much of it is really the social dimension from the role that advocacy groups play (in the area that I've studied, philanthropies) to the influence of communication and media on how we understand this issue that is really difficult for us to comprehend and understand because science often talks about it in terms of global terms. We talk about it in terms of temperature targets and global emissions, which for most people is very much in the abstract. And we talk about the issue on a timetable of 50 to 100 years. We talk about what we need to do by 2030, which even for most people—12 years out is difficult to think about, or 2050, or 2100.
So, psychologically, like with anything else—whether it's thinking about your cholesterol levels or your weight or how much exercise you're getting—we tend to discount a risk that might be far off in the future. And that's one element that makes climate change so difficult to tackle. A societal problem is just simply the discounting of a far-off event. But we also discount it as something that's happening to other people or some other place in the world—and it's not currently affecting us or a severe threat to ourselves and our families. We see news of natural disasters that might be linked to climate change but, unless it's affecting us directly, we will tend to discount it as affecting people some other place in the country or somewhere else in the world.
Then on top of all that (all those sort of normal psychological tendencies), climate change has become this embittered, polarized political debate where people can easily view the issue through the lens of their political identity, particularly their partisanship and their ideology. In today's politics in the United States, partisanship has become the strongest predictor of opinion on most political issues that are being debated. So, for example, the Pew Research Center will often ask people in several surveys their positions on 10 different policy questions from gun control to taxes to abortion to environmental protection versus economic growth.
And what's happened over the last 20, 30 years as Republicans have moved very far to the right and Democrats have moved more to the left (but not to the same degree; it's not a symmetrical shift)—Democrats and Republicans among the public have also moved to the right and to the left. So this gets an alignment between partisanship and ideology so that most Republicans (strong identifying Republicans) are incredibly consistent in thinking about social and policy and environmental issues in a consistently conservative direction. And most Democrats increasingly think about these issues in a consistently liberal direction.
So the reason is that (apart from all this just normal, sort of psychological distancing of the issue and discounting) climate change—because it forces us to consider immense structural changes to our economy, to thinking about the role of the government, potentially our lifestyles (definitely our lifestyles)—it maps onto these underlying differences in world views we have about the role of the government versus the economy [...] individualism, emphasizing individualism over the welfare of the community. So climate change itself, people read into its complexity a lot of their own hopes and desires and their beliefs about what is a good society, and that then influences how technologies and policies are perceived in these political debates.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. I think you've listed a number of reasons why this is such a challenging topic on which to communicate, and perhaps particularly in this day and age in which we find ourselves now. I want to ask you a little bit about perceived solutions that you have in the realm of climate communications—and one in particular that you and your coauthors (Melinda Weathers and Edward Maibach)—you guys have written that climate change public engagement efforts have historically focused,exactly as you noted, on the environmental dimensions of the threat. But that messages focused on the public health impacts may have the potential to engage a wider range of people. Can you say a little bit more about that research that you've done with your colleagues and perhaps how you see those two sets of messages being different or complementary?
Matthew Nisbet: Yeah. The general concept of framing is that, with a complex issue like climate change, there are multiple dimensions to it. And by emphasizing one dimension of the issue over others, you start to create sometimes a slightly or dramatically different story line about the issue—why it matters, who is impacted, or who is involved, who is responsible, and what should be done. So the traditional story about climate change, the traditional frame of reference ( still the dominant frame of reference today) is that climate change is an environmental and pollution problem, and if we act on climate change through a variety of policies, we will achieve significant environmental benefits.
But what historically have been left out of that conversation, in the focus on the environment and species and ecosystems, are humans. And the discourse around climate change over the last 10 years has definitely started to focus more and more on human impacts, but the environmental frame tends to mobilize people already concerned about climate change.
But once you start to talk about climate change, if you shift the frame of reference to an equally scientifically valid dimension of the problem, which is that climate change is a major public health threat—and that if we act on climate change it will bring many benefits to public health and public safety—you start to expand the scope of relevance of the issue to segments of the public who maybe have never really considered climate change personally relevant to them. They've thought about it in terms of impacting Arctic regions, in terms of melting ice. They might think about it symbolically in terms of polar bears or other symbolic species. But they haven't really ever thought about it as something that's proximate to them, actually affecting their communities right now, people they care about—and having a human face on it.
And so we've done a series of studies, and other studies have shown this—that when you switch that frame of reference, in carefully designed experiments that are embedded in nationally representative surveys, when people read a statement (like a short news article) about climate change where it's framed as a public health problem, and the actions (or a variety of mitigation- and adaptation-related actions) [...] offer them at the local level but also at the national level [...] and if we take those actions, they lead to a whole set of public health benefits, like cleaner air and water, more walkable communities, protection against extreme heat, protection against extreme rainfall and storms—[we find] that people who might be ambivalent about the issue or disengaged in answering questions, after reading that frame of reference, the levels of engagement and also their emotional reaction of hope (which is very important, hope that actually something can be done about the problem)—their positive emotional reaction increases. And positive emotion is very important because positive emotion is directly related to forms of specific engagement: whether or not people are willing to become involved or think that, if they become involved, something good is likely to happen [...] that they can actually make a difference.
The one trade-off with that research (and we see this in a series of studies now, on framing and climate change) is that when you introduce a frame of reference—like reframing climate change as a public health problem or as a national security problem and the benefits to public health or the benefits to national security [inaudible 00:12:02]. If you put it in the context of a counter-frame, such as an opponent of action might offer (that the science is uncertain or any action is too costly)—the effectiveness of the public health and national security frame tends to go away.
The research has been important but I think less at an individual persuasion level. I think where it's been important is moving new societal sectors—activating and engaging, for example, people from the public health community, from the medical community, from the first responder and emergency preparedness communities—to think about climate change over time. Even such a thing as the Surgeon General's office under the Obama administration, and the Centers for Disease Control, is really important. You're just kind of widening the scope of kind of key elite sectors in society who are acting on climate change at the local, state, and federal levels.
Kristin Hayes: So, Matt, that's really interesting. One thing that that made me think of is that, here at Resources for the Future (we are an environmental economics research organization, so we do focus on both environmental impacts but also on economic impacts)—and just listening to your comments on the public health messages and the environment messages, have you learned anything in your research about the economic messages as well?
Matthew Nisbet: I haven't studied the specific economic messages but I serve as editor of the journal Environmental Communication, and I just edited a three-volume series with Oxford called The Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication, where we have about 115 contributors from 20 countries and 12 disciplines. So I've been reviewing the literature pretty extensively and, I think, with economic messages in considerations with the public—I think there are two dimensions to think about.
One is the research and the polling that's been done on public opinion about carbon taxes. In the United States right now, the good news is, you can go to the Yale University Climate [Opinion] Maps and you can drill down to the congressional district level—in terms of the polling data that they've collected over the last five years or so—and you can actually look district-by-district in terms of whether or not people living in that district say that they support a carbon tax (a carbon tax on on emissions from industry, I think it is, that they focus on).
And the good news is that a majority (and this probably surprises many listeners; we tend to overlook this)—but a majority of people living in every congressional district across the country (I think except for one in the deep South) [...] with the audio a majority say they support a form of a carbon tax. And we see that in other polling as well in the US, and we see that in other countries. The problem is (and there's a good review article of this by a political scientist in Canada in the Oxford series that I edited), the problem is—once you start to pose questions to the public about support for a carbon tax in the context also of mentioning, potentially, the rise in cost in terms of energy bills, for example, or the average household costs—much of the support for a carbon tax goes away.
So again, you have this counter-messaging problem. And I think this is what happened in the Washington State ballot initiative fight, where it seemed early on in the polling that voters in Washington State were going to approve the recent ballot initiative proposal for a carbon tax in the state. And then the fossil fuel industry, along with other opponents, spent a lot of money to counter-message. And, once you counter message around a carbon tax—with talking about costs and also the fairness of the tax, who is the revenue going to—it becomes very difficult to maintain public support under those conditions. It's also the same reason why it's difficult to pass gasoline tax updates in, even, states like Massachusetts. We had one here fail in 2014.
So that problem of public opinion and support for a carbon tax is going away in the context of making salient costs [...] is representative of a bigger problem when it comes to economics and the public—it’s that our lifestyles (particularly in the United States) are so embedded in a fossil fuel economy, based on travel and consumption and a certain standard of life. As we move forward and we talk about some of the really tough choices we have in terms of policies—when we look state-by-state at what's going to happen to energy costs as we switch to renewables—we're going to have to do a lot of dialogue and stakeholder engagement. Because what you're seeing in France right now, in terms of the protest against a diesel tax (which is really symbolic of some underlying divisions within that country and unhappiness with the Macron presidency)—but it's also a sign of revolt against what they perceive as technocratic decisions that they didn't have a say in that are favoring elites and not favoring people living in rural areas or suburban areas.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, very interesting. And that's something that we think a lot about at RFF as we look at carbon pricing policies and the various ways you can use revenue—because those revenue uses can be important contributors to alleviating some of those challenges for low-income households and other populations that are disproportionately affected by something like a tax. That's really interesting. Thank you for sharing that.
I wanted to turn to another piece of your research portfolio for just a second. You briefly mentioned earlier your work looking at philanthropy. And so I wanted to dive into that topic just a little bit. Why did you choose to look at the role of foundation funding (in particular, just earlier this year) in advancing energy and climate strategy and policy—and do you see a connection between that work and your broader interest in climate communications?
Matthew Nisbet: Yeah, definitely. So, studying public opinion and the role of media coverage and campaigning on voter decisions and broader public opinion, my assumption early on was that—if federal policy was going to pass and that the issue was going to be solved—that the main path would be to mobilize public opinion, that public opinion would really be the difference. I wrote an article in 2009 (as Barack Obama took office) that, with the various cap-and-trade policies on the table and Obama trying to pursue a more aggressive climate agenda—he would not be able to unless there was a shift in the public opinion polls and elected members of Congress started to hear a lot more from their constituents on the issue.
But as I studied the failure of cap and trade and I started to look at where the polls were moving [...] the good news about the public opinion polling is that the public opinion debate has been won. You look at polls—from independents to moderate Republicans to Democrats—there’s strong majority support for a broad suite of renewable energy policies, tax credits [...] even, as I mentioned earlier, a carbon tax [...] acceptance that climate change is human-caused and a problem. The public opinion is still not deep-rooted and a top-of-mind issue for the public—but I don't think it ever will be, simply because there are so many other competing issues and some of the other psychological distancing and discounting that we talked about earlier.
So I started to look at it. I said, well, a lot of the same dynamics that we know influence general public opinion—such as framing, such as the role of narrative, such as the role of social identity, the role that news coverage (particularly elite news coverage) plays—also influences how elites make decisions about climate change and how they view it as a social problem.
And so I started down two tracks. The first track was to look at public intellectuals who were writing and arguing on behalf of climate change action, trying to break them into, sort of, different narrative camps. These were sort of intellectual traditions and narratives they were drawing on, by which to talk about climate change as a social problem: What might be the solution set? And they would write best-selling books—people like Bill McKibben or Tom Friedman or Naomi Klein—they would write best-selling books and those books would serve as sort of the informal road maps. Many people didn't have to directly communicate with each other—but because they had read those books (and those books were part of a larger message stream, a larger narrative), they all tended to gravitate toward the same solution set or the same framing of the problem, the same type of arguments.
I thought that was really interesting, to try to understand that. And the second piece of that is, behind the scenes (often sometimes funding these books but particularly funding NGOs) were major philanthropies who had been working on climate change since the 1990s. In the paper that I published this summer, I kind of trace the history of the Energy Foundation, which was launched by some of the biggest foundations in the country, like the Hewlett Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts back in the 1990s. And they were formed as a re-granting organization, where they would take these really big block grants from these large foundations, and they would use their expertise to reinvest it and pool it around a shared set of strategies.
And that can be very influential, because—by putting out a call for proposals, putting out web statements and problem framings, whitepapers, annual reports, and choosing to invest in some NGO activities over others—a re-granting organization the size of the Energy Foundation (along with direct granting that organizations like the Hewlett Foundation might be doing) [...] The NGO community tends to then coalesce around that problem framing and solution set—simply because, in order to work on activities, they need the money. But, also, the foundations (from behind the scenes) sort of set the agenda and set the framing of the problem. So, the framing that was set by the Energy Foundation (historically and long term) was a highly technocratic one, in thinking about science and economics as being the main drivers of finding solutions—and that climate change, fundamentally, was a market failure and the best way to correct the problem, to solve the problem, was to correct for that market failure by passing a price on carbon, either through cap and trade or a carbon tax, that then would drive the adoption of renewable energy, without considering other clean energy or low-carbon energy technology that we might need.
So, what I looked at in this paper that came out in the summer was, I looked at this network of 19 of the biggest, most influential sort of opinion-leading, agenda-setting foundations on climate change over the last 20 years. And I assembled a database—drawing on their websites and their annual reports and their tax filings—of every grant that they had funded between 2011 and 2015.
Looking at, one: what was their problem framing—and how did they respond to critiques that emerged after the failure of cap and trade and the failure of Copenhagen, in 2010 and 2009 [...] Critiques in terms of changing course, in terms of making new investments. I went through all the different grant descriptions, and I coded each by its policy focus, its technology focus, its communications focus—and the total amount of grants that were distributed between 2011 and 2015 was about a little over $550 million in grants. And what's interesting is that the major foundations did, in part, respond to critiques after cap and trade, but responded selectively—in that they poured a lot more money into public mobilization than they had previously. So, out of the $556 million that they distributed, they put nearly 30 percent (or $150 million) into mobilizing the public on behalf of climate change, renewable energy—or against the fossil fuel industry, whether it's fracking or the fossil fuel industry generally.
But, consistent with their long-term strategy, they put one out of every four dollars into renewable energy and less than 2 percent of all dollars into other low-carbon tech (this includes carbon capture and storage or, for example, making natural gas more efficient and safer). Not a single grant was put into nuclear energy, either advanced nuclear or keeping nuclear energy plants open.
The other major shift they did do is that they did put a lot more money into resilience and adaptation, and they put a lot of money into making renewable energy and efficiency retrofits affordable and accessible to low-income communities, particularly in large urban areas.
Kristin Hayes: This is fascinating. I am wondering if you can tell us a little bit about what this means for the future, for philanthropic efforts. And perhaps you can also reflect on some of the research you discussed earlier. If you can call out any tips you might have for the research community, rather broadly defined, who might want to embark on better communications efforts related to climate change. Any lessons learned, from either or both of these research efforts, that you'd want to share with us?
Matthew Nisbet: Sure. I think the first thing is that the good news is that more than 20 foundations announced earlier this year that they're going to put $4–5 billion into climate change and energy over the next five years—not just in the United States but in efforts focused on other countries and at the international level. I think with federal policy paralyzed (and it's likely to continue to be paralyzed for the next two years, at least, and probably beyond that)—people are going to look more and more to philanthropies along with state and local governments for solutions in the private sector.
But I think the question for philanthropy is: Can they expand their solution set and also the variety of groups that they're investing in? When I looked at the $560 million (which is more than 2,500 grants), more than half the money went to just 20 organizations. And so I think part of the problem is that there's only so many big organizations that are set up to immediately receive the money that the foundations have to process every year and give away, basically. But I think there is a lot more diversity that's needed in terms of bringing new ideas and new NGO groups into the funding stream—and part of it's up to the NGO groups but also part of it's up to the foundations, to identify those groups and be willing to listen to their new ideas.
And the second part of that is that a much wider focus on innovation is needed, both in terms of the role of government but also the role of whatever type of market-pricing instruments (whether it's even a clean energy standard at the national level). So I think that's important. And then, second on communication, I think things are so polarized at the national level now that it becomes easy to fall into a kind of binary thinking about “good guys and bad guys,” and enemies and allies. But we need to create spaces for critical self reflection. The reason that we’ve tended to have a lot of groupthink and, sort of, path dependency in the strategies we’ve pursued on climate change (and narrow ideas about technology) is that we've often closed off alternative ideas by immediately attacking them as not part of our tribe. And I think that's really problematic.
I think trying to really listen and have dialogue and to invest in the forums that are bringing people together—from the center left, from the far left, and from the center right—to develop human relationships with each other in the process of trading ideas, in a way that is civil and open and at the same time leaves open the capacity to disagree. We’ve sort of lost our ability to disagree with each other politically. We don't know what that looks like anymore. And the only way we make good decisions—the social science literature on this is really clear, as a professor at Stanford University that just has a book out now called, In Defense of Troublemakers—
[...] Across every context (from individual decisions to group decisions to business decisions)—under conditions where we don't encounter ideas that are challenging and we don't engage with people who fundamentally disagree with us, we tend to make really bad decisions. And the conditions where we make good decisions is where we're encountering rival ideas. Even if those ideas prove to be wrong—we make better decisions under conditions when we're engaging with different ideas. And the problem is that our news media system and social media plays a huge role in this. Social media has been really destructive to the climate community, in my opinion. We really need to try to get off of Twitter and get off of Facebook and get off of blogs [...]
Kristin Hayes: And start talking to each other again?
Matthew Nisbet: Yeah, start talking to each other again. And also reward the really good journalism that's out there that's taking sort of a “big idea” look—that's also a critique of expert knowledge, even if we might disagree with it. We need more Andrew Revkins and we need more Charles Manns. We need other really good climate journalists out there who are broadening the scope of ideas that we encounter.
Kristin Hayes: Matt, thank you so much for your time. I do want to wrap up with our regular closing segment for the podcast, which we call “Top of the Stack”—this is where we ask our guests to tell our listeners something that you have read, are reading, you may have watched, or heard recently (related to the issues you just discussed) that you think is really interesting and that you would recommend to the audience for the podcast.
Matthew Nisbet: I have the book right on my table here; I think everyone should read it. It's not directly related to climate change but I think it's so important in understanding the environment in which we live in today. It's called Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, by Siva Vaidhyanathan (who is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia). Only a few years ago, we were celebrating Twitter and Facebook as leading to new avenues of discourse and ideas. But now—because these are such powerful, particularly Facebook, is such a powerful platform by which we interact with almost everything, from news to friends to colleagues—it really, as we saw in the 2016 election, has opened the door to a lot of problems. And if anyone wants to really look at the history of this and have a really reflective, critical understanding of what social media is doing to us—even impairing our ability to think clearly—I would strongly recommend that book.
Kristin Hayes: Well, Matt, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio. I really appreciate it—and we'd love to have you back.
Matthew Nisbet: Well I'd love to join you again. I'm really looking forward to following your podcast series as it gets off the ground.
Kristin Hayes: Thanks so much.
Matthew Nisbet: Thank you.
Kristin Hayes: Thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio. We'd love to hear what you think, so please rate us on iTunes or leave us a review—it helps us spread the word. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes.
Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Kate Petersen with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.