19 April 2011

Analysis of The Nisbet Report -- Part I, Doomed to Fail

Matt Nisbet of American University has issued a report that includes some fascinating information and compelling analysis of a number of issues related to the US environmental community, the media and scientists as related to climate change.  I was a reviewer of the report, which means that I read an early version and provided some critical comments to Matt which he considered (or not) in the revision.

With a few posts, starting with this one, I want to provide a brief discussion of the top line empirical findings in the Nisbet report and why I think that they are important.

Top line finding number 1
The environmental community spends a truckload of money on a strategy doomed to fail

While horse race aficionados will continue to focus attention on the minutia of financial accounting in order to argue about who spent more on the cap and trade battle, the good guys or the bad guys, far more interesting is data gathered which documents the sheer magnitude of expenditure by the environmental community in support of a specific approach to climate policy.

The data show quite clearly, no matter how one may try to parse it, that the debate over climate change is not David versus Goliath, but rather two Goliaths slugging it out in high stakes, big money power politics.  According to data gathered by Nisbet, the leading environmental advocacy foundations spent upwards of half a billion dollars from 2008-2010, largely in support of a collective strategy expressed in the little-known but crucially important Design to Win strategy document for environmental philanthropy (here in PDF):
Approximately $368 million was distributed across the 1,246 individual grants. However, given that not all foundation records are publicly available for this period, the total of $368 million likely underestimates the actual amount distributed between 2008 and 2010. If an average based on a foundation’s previous year giving is used as a stand-in for missing years, these nine foundations would have distributed more than $560 million between 2008 and 2010.
The Design to Win strategy is encapsulated in the following figure which helps to explain what the mainstream environmental community thinks it has been doing on the climate issue over recent years.  It also explains what you see many climate bloggers doing which often includes wringing their hands over what they believe to be a lack of education among the public, the media and the politicians.
The figure shows that the theory at work here is that "education" of the public and the media is expected to "push decision makers" which "creates context for new policy" and along with "education" of decision maker "enables new policy" to drive "massive change" in investments.  This framework is one important reason why we have the climate wars, as it shows that the environmental community believes that in winning a war for public opinion lies the key to policy success.

Yes, of course there are conservative and other groups opposed to action on climate change who also have truckloads of resources at their disposal and who also think they are fighting a battle over public opinion.  But we know this, as it has been well documented and discussed for years, with many such studies cited by Nisbet in his bibliography. What Nisbet's report does is help to fill a notable gap in the study of climate policy and that is to document the efforts devoted by those in support of action. What his analysis clearly shows is that the environmental community has enormous resources at their disposal which are clearly focused on a strategy of public education.

While the underlying strategy adopted by the US environmental community may be titled "Design to Win" it is in fact "Doomed to Fail." As I document extensively in The Climate Fix, the battle for public opinion on climate change has long been over and the environmental community has won, as a majority of people consistently believe that humans affect the environment and are in support of action.  Further, the idea that public education leads to new policy is deeply flawed political science  and has been routinely debunked in the science studies literature as the so-called "deficit model." More fundamentally, it is simply contrary to history, experience and plain old common sense.

The following data from Gallup shows little change in aggregate public opinion over many years. Such data is fairly representative of public opinion polling over the past decade and longer on public views of climate science and action (see The Climate Fix for more detail).
And while public understanding, concern about and support for action have been largely stable (albeit with various ups and downs) for decades, the most notable shift has been the dramatic partisan divide that has opened up on the issue.
“Of those who identify as Republicans, about 49 percent said in the 2001 Gallup survey that they believe the effects of global warming have already begun — a number that dropped to 29 percent in 2010,” states a summary of Associate Professor Aaron McCright’s study, which appears in the Spring issue of Sociological Quarterly.

“Meanwhile, the percentage of Democrats who believe global warming has already begun increased from about 60 in 2001 to 70 in 2010. All told, the gap between these ‘believers’ in the two parties increased from 11 percent in 2001 to 41 percent in 2010,”
Of course, one could look at this data and conclude that environmental groups simply haven't done enough education of the public or that the forces of darkness are still in the lead, as measured by spending, so more spending on "education" is needed.  It is certainly a convenient argument to advance if you are in the business of trying to "educate" the public, especially if you are a recipient of foundation funding under the Design to Win strategy.  It is also insane to expect to continue the same behavior and to see different results.

But what if the Design to Win strategy is in fact fanning the partisan divide and as a consequence making action less likely?  What if the "education" strategy has morphed into destructive efforts to silence or discredit alternative voices in the climate debate other than those which espouse the narrow set of policy prescriptions endorsed by Design to Win?  What if the entire theory behind the idea of rectifying a deficit of public understanding is based on flawed premises?

Nisbet suggests that there are consequences:
[F]ocus and strategy are only as effective as the premises upon which they are based. As described, the Design to Win report appeared to define climate change in conventional terms, as an environmental problem that required only the mobilization of market incentives and public will. With this definition, comparatively limited funding was directed toward fostering the role of government in promoting new technology and innovation. Nor was there equivalent investment in such important human dimensions of the issue as adaptation, health, equity, justice or economic development.


  1. I think they did a credible job with their report. I was somewhat dissatisfied they only provided a tally of opposing articles. That leaves size and location unknown.

    I assume they must have at least skimmed each article to classify it. Since all the other figures were in dollars, it would have been nice to show the value of the articles in dollars using standard advertising rates. Even just total word count would have been a better gauge of the effort each side invested in convincing the public.

  2. As a regular reader of your blog, as well as Joe Romm's Climate Progress, I can't help but notice the substantially different coverage about the robustness and legitimacy of this new publication.

    I've not yet read the report, but Dr. Brulle's fairly damning critiques and decision to entirely withdraw support from the report seem inconsistent with your own presentation of it.

    I'm not interested in provoking a useless flamewar, but as you were also a reviewer, I would value seeing your take on Brulle's rather substantial misgivings.

  3. To prevent the planet’s mild fever from becoming a life-threatening illness, we must reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by a staggering 30 gigatons (Gt) by 2030. That’s about how much carbon the world emits today, and about half of what’s expected by 2030 if
    development and energy consumption continue apace.

    The good news is that we already have the technology and know-how to achieve these carbon reductions – often at a cost-savings. Design to Win’s synthesis of the latest scientific and economic analyses, including the Stern Review, Vattenfall climate abatement map prepared by McKinsey & Company, and reports by the
    Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concluded that about 80 percent of the needed mitigation – 25 gigatons of carbon – can be achieved with existing technologies.

    That's good to know.

  4. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/8462626/Energy-saving-light-bulbs-contain-cancer-causing-chemicals.html

    Education of the public and policy makers can take multiple forms in respect to "green" solutions. the Daily Telegraph article at the URL above indicates that energy saving light bulbs emit carcinogenic gases, disrupt body mechanisms ...

    Education can serve many masters

  5. -2-todd

    Here is a good response to your question:


    In particular:

    "Unfortunately, Romm has drug the discussion down to a focus on simplistic and, if not irrelevant at least secondary, concerns. If the climate change advocacy community dwells exclusively on these matters and fails to address the need for serious attention to the content of their message and the way it is framed, Romm will have won the battle while helping lose the war."

  6. -3-Roddy,

    "The good news is that we already have the technology and know-how to achieve these carbon reductions – often at a cost-savings. "

    I have the title to a bridge in NYC I'd like to sell you, also some land in Florida. /sarc

    The technology may exist on paper, but it won't be less expensive and it can't be implemented that fast.

  7. 'Designed to win'

    There is a reason that engineers of all stripes(social,environmental, industrial) are generally kept off the sales floor. They believe people should buy the product for the same reasons as they would.

    Educating the public on the value of a 16 valve, dual over head cam, hemi with EFI might sell some cars. It will certainly be of some interest to some small market segment.

    Offering a selection of appealing colors and features like heated seats will sell even more cars.

  8. Nisbet, and the other members of the AGW community, contiue to overlook the obvious reason why they are fialing despite their massive hold on the public square.

  9. What do you suppose the net value of free media coverage has been? The news media is overwhelmingly pro-alarmist. To generate that kind of support through advertising would be impossibly expensive, especially because consumers understand that ads are not unbiased and often fail to realize how biased the media "news" is.

  10. The question was rather curious in lack of context. Since the climate had been warming in fits and starts since the end of the last ice age and it is safe to assume nearly everyone understands that, then why the "Already begun" answer is not near 100% is a bit of a mystery.

  11. Roger,

    I'm glad that you've highlighted the growing partisan divide on the issue shown in the Gallup poll, as it cuts to the heart of the problem in context of federal u.s. politics.

    THe big question is why? As in, why have Republicans abandoned reason for madness :) ? Therein, I think, lies the success of the Heartlands, CEI, and the Global Climate Coalition work . They -- not the dems or Big Enviro -- managed to turn belief in climate change and the corresponding need for policy into litmus test for party fealty, along the same lines as gun control, abortion, etc. If you're a strong advocate for climate change policy (e.g. Schwarzenneger) then you're a RINO. They've also managed to convince more of the all-important independents that the urgency of climate policy is overstated and that the science is somehow corrupt.

    Wrt to Big Enviro's strategies, I'd be curious to hear your advice to them. Should they abandon public education and outreach efforts? Should they instead fund cleantech R&D? Personally, I think that they should spend more efforts to de-politicize the issue (i.e. narrow the divide) but I have absolutely no idea how they should go about doing so in the current political environment where reality is a part-time guest at the best of times.

  12. Canada is in the midst of a national election for Parliament. In the previous (2008) election, the Liberal Party (a major party) proposed a set of policies that they called the Green Shift whose major proposal was a carbon tax. Liberal insiders then tried to win votes by indicating how the carbon tax money would be used to fund projects. It was viewed not as a climate proposal but as a means to transfer wealth from the newly wealthy oil producing region of Alberta to the Liberal home base in Toronto.

    The Toronto region was declining in influence and political power as its manufacturing base declined. The carbon tax was a means to preserve Toronto's power and to bolster its economy. The carbon tax is seen as a major reason for the defeat of the Liberal Party in that election, In the current election AGW is a non-issue.

    Perhaps if AGW proponents could resist the temptation to link AGW mitigation measures with other unrelated issues then it would be easier to de-politicize the issue.

  13. -11-Marlowe Johnson,

    "As in, why have Republicans abandoned reason for madness :) ?"

    Smiley face or not, when you poke someone in the eye with a sharp stick, you shouldn't be surprised when they reply in kind. When you stop demonizing the opposition and stop doing things like characterizing adaptation as failed mitigation, then maybe we might start getting somewhere. Mitigation isn't going to help those already at risk now.

  14. Since this addresses a political effort to pass cap and trade, it's important to note that the proponents gave the public only a brain-dead option. Even assuming that everything the most extreme advocate of CAGW might claim were true, it is also true that the USA cannot do anything about the 'problem' by itself. Proponents were asking people to take a huge financial hit, depress the economy and reduce employment, and all for a measure which cannot solve the problem.

    Who's insane? Who has abandoned reason from madness?

    There are all kinds of very good reasons to doubt the extreme claims of alarmists. But even if there weren't, the proposed legislation didn't solve the alleged problem. It only brought massive pain. How damn stupid is that?

  15. As in, why have Republicans abandoned reason for madness :) ?

    Since the left has always characterized the GOP as insane, it's unpersuasive to claim they have abandoned reason. :-)

    But I think what you're seeing is the cry wolf, a.k.a. Reefer Madness syndrome. Five decades of environmentalist hysteria have convinced conservatives that all predictions of environmental calamity can safely be assumed to be junk. And the substantial 2008 effort to align Obama with science or science with Obama have been worse for science more than better for Obama.

    So, knowing most of the bad things said about cannabis are nonsense, and the people saying them are uncool, they're ready to ignore the other drug warnings and mainline heroin. :-)

  16. Surely, DeWitt, Marlowe Johnson didn't need to insert "some" in front of "Republicans" so's not to offend sensitive souls such as yourself? It's that degree of hyper-alertness in those who see themselves as correct (and there are only two factions of this multi-faction discussion who give themselves this kind of credit) that creates a perception that a winner must be declared before anything substantive can be done about the problem. It's divisive and distracting.

  17. Marlowe,
    If Republicans are the ones who have abandoned reason for madness, why are lefties so unreasonable, angry and full of self-righteous twittery?
    The question is better asked:
    How have Republicans and other conservatives resisted the peer pressure of falling for AGW for so long?
    Maybe better yet:
    History demonstrates, through study of prior large scale pop-science/social manias like eugenics, that academic and intellectual elites trip over themselves in backing half-baked science if it supports their social desires.
    Why are so many on the left so easily fooled into thinking that there is a climate crisis caused by CO2, and why are the answers to their perceived crisis all coincidentally from their political point of view and helpful to their friends?

  18. Hit the submit button too soon.
    From the other responses it is clear very few are thinking about the most obvious reason that the incredible amount of paid and free promotion of AGW is failing to work:
    That it is a wrong idea and that the policy demands associated with it are stupid and impractical.
    The lack of introspection and arrogance implicit in most believer posts is amazing.

  19. Marlowe Johnson:

    If most of the falloff in support of CO2 mitigation policy (and in belief about the seriousness of the problem) has come among Republicans, then that is the audience you have to target. Since I are one (holding my nose quite often),I can give you some suggestions to improve your persuasive efforts.

    1) Focus on replacing coal plants with nukes. This will cost money and require more government intervention than free-market types like, but it has a high-tech, engineering-oriented flavor and is an anathema to the Birkenstock crowd, and so will go over well with Republicans.

    2) Stop talking up windmills and solar panels. Ethanol is stupid, but at least Midwest Republicans like it. No Republican likes vast subsidies for obvious non-starters like windmills and solar PV, though. Research in high-altitude wind power might be interesting.

    3) A carbon tax is a tough sell, but it would be easier than the obviously crony-capitalist cap-and-trade, especially if packaged with cuts in capital or payroll taxes. And I don't mean as an afterthought--the tax cuts should be talked up as the front end of the policy, "An x% cut in capital gains taxes financed by a carbon tax of y%."

    4) No double-dipping with a carbon tax plus regulations against incandescent light bulbs, SUVs, or other offenses to yuppie sensibilities. The whole rationale for market-socialist policies like a carbon tax is that they allow individuals and firms to allocate their resources optimally while accounting for their "externalities." Double-dipping makes the whole thing feel like just another front
    in the culture wars.

    5) Use research into geo-engineering as both a token of sincerity and a threat. "We hate to consider it, but we might have to give federal bureaucrats the chance to show how well they can manage the weather. If you like their management of the economy and immigration, you'll love what they do to temperature and rainfall."

    6) Publicly speculate in land purchases that only make sense if the alarmist case is correct. Get Soros or one of the other tycoons on the Green side to make a big deal of this. "Markets are often in error, but never insincere." Move out of the coastal enclaves supposedly subject to marine inundation into the heartland. That would at least make the alarmists appear to be sincere.

    You can thank me later.

  20. "With this definition, comparatively limited funding was directed toward fostering the role of government in promoting new technology and innovation."

    Similarly from Lomborg:

    "This is the green lesson China holds: A green future will result not from subsidizing immature technology today but from developing competitive green technology that is effective and cheap. Wind and solar power are not yet competitive. Research would be a much better investment for Western countries than subsidizing imports of today’s green technology from China. Until we can make alternative energy technology effective and affordable for everybody, there will be no happy ending to the “green” success story."


  21. Roger,

    I appreciate your efforts to act as an honest broker. Perhaps you can help some of us understand the other side of the fence.

    1) I would hope everyone recognizes that a lot of politics has an element of tribalism about it. We pick a team and we root for it. Part of rooting for your team is embracing the same major positions. As a libertarian/conservative/Republican, I have no doubt that people who generally vote for the GOP were more likely to express doubt about AGW as it became a political hot button issue. My question -- do alarmists really think that liberals/Democrats do not also have a tribal instinct to believe AGW as part of their support for their political team?

    2) I would have thought that anyone paying attention would have recognized that the resources pouring into the alarmist political effort totally dwarfed those going into the opposing camp. Having read about Romm's screed and noting the discussion at Kloor's, I realize that some are angry about Nisbet's conclusions. But is the anger because the talking point was contradicted or because they genuinely believe that alarmists are being outspent? Is that possible?

    I'm not trying to score points here. I'm really curious. For myself, I guess I just assumed that all the alarmist rhetoric about being outspent (like Mann's recent quote) was just standard political BS. Politicians spout BS all the time. It's part of the game. No one really expects them to believe it all. [e.g. when Obama made all his claims about Obamacare, no one who was paying attention believed him because the bill hadn't been written yet and even Pelosi had yet to find out what was in it. Just standard politics.]

    Looking at all the resources that back AGW politically (govt at all levels, news media, entertainment media, NGOs, corporations, hedge funds, national science groups, the academy, unions, public schools, research recipients, the huge charitable foundations, and the enormous political operation of paid staff), it should be obvious to everyone that no one, not even the evil oil companies, can muster enough cash to buy the resources necessary to match the alarmists.

  22. Stan:

    Christina Hoff-Somers noted in a different context some time ago that although many institutions (esp. universities) are run by people who are more-or-less feminist, although multiculturalism and diversity are the canon for most of us, it is still necessary for the self-image of feminism to see itself as the oppressed vs. the patriarchy. Feminism would not be feminism any more if it were the dominant paradigm.

    In this respect feminism is just a subset of leftism in general. Romm's party holds the Presidency and the Senate and held the entire legislature with a filibuster-proof majority for a while. They couldn't pass meaningful climate-change legislation. They can't function as policy makers, but only as negative critics. It is necessary for them to see themselves as the underdogs. There is no more visceral accusation against them that they are, in fact, the establishment, the system, the big money. Even when they run the government, they must be fighting a still bigger adversary. Exxon-Mobil just isn't that big, but it's the best they can come up with.

    Re the oil companies; I hold stock in several, and I read their reports and news releases. They are vocal about their significant financial commitments to green technology (though I'm sure, not being run by idiots, they know it's mostly a political gambit and
    loss-leader). Me, I'm just along for the inevitable increase in oil prices, which will do more for alternative energy than any amount of government 'investment'.

  23. Gerard,

    It's also part of their identity to think they are against special interests and for the little guy despite the reality that they are far more dependent on special interests (e.g. they'll screw inner city kids at the behest of the teachers unions in a heartbeat). Just like their 'belief' that Republicans are evil, racist, sexist, homophobes bent on exploiting workers and the environment.

    But my point is that most thinking observers, even those who vote Democrat know this is posturing (see e.g. Mickey Kaus). They know this standard litany is to keep the rubes in line and fired up. What I was trying to address to Roger is whether the intelligent, rational, sensible alarmists genuinely believed that the AGW promoters were outspent. Because that would be surprising and puzzling to me.