Several months ago, Google announced with some fanfare the creation of a new Science Communication Fellowship program with the initial focus on climate change.
In an effort to foster a more open, transparent and accessible scientific dialogue, we’ve started a new effort aimed at inspiring pioneering use of technology, new media and computational thinking in the communication of science to diverse audiences. Initially, we’ll focus on communicating the science on climate change.
Paul Higgins is one of the 21 Google Science Communication Fellows selected for the climate science communication effort. He describes the goal of the program as making climate science more understandable to the general public and policy makers.
"The vast majority of people don't know and understand the details of climate science. The science of climate change spans 20 to 30 disciplines and sub-disciplines, at least. It is an enormous amount of information, and distilling it is a bit of a challenge."
A well-functioning democracy requires a well-informed populace so it is hard to argue with the premise of the Google initiative. I have my doubts whether it will translate into policy changes, but Google has a track record of success that cannot be easily dismissed. However, an early effort by one of their communications experts does not bode well.
The challenge for Google will be for it to out-Fox and out-Luntz the fossil fuels corporations in building public support for a low carbon economy.
The most profitable corporations in human history sell fossil fuels. They will be the big losers in any rapid transition to a low carbon economy. With trillions and trillions of future profits at stake, these corporations have spent billions to undermine policies that favor clean energy and increase the price of fossil fuels. The investment in political capital has paid off handsomely.
In our dysfunctional democracy, you merely have to convince one party to say no to bring change to a grinding halt. Fueled by free-spending dirty energy corporations, a steady stream of climate disinformation has been churning out of conservative think tanks, media outlets, and politicians over the past few years. The strategy has been extraordinarily successful. Countless surveys have shown a widening gulf between conservatives and the rest of the population in beliefs regarding climate change. Conservatives are much more likely to question the reality of climate change, particularly the idea that it stems from the use of fossil fuels.
So it seems to fair to say Google is rolling the stone of Sisyphus. Unfortunately, one of its new Science Communication Fellows has decided to shoot Sisyphus in the foot. His name is Matthew Nisbet, a communications professor at American University.
Nisbet just published a report entitled, "Climate Shift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Public Debate." The report makes two demonstrably false claims: (a) environmental groups outspent fossil fuels corporations in the debate over climate change, and (b) the media has been "fair and balanced" in covering climate change. You can probably add a third to that list as it also implies that Al Gore is responsible for the partisan divide over climate change.
Joseph Romm at Climate Progress has eviscerated the report in posts here, here, and here. One of the paid reviewers of the report, Dr. Robert Brulle, withdrew his name from it after reading the final draft.
Brulle told me the study has “many flaws,” and “selectively used the literature.” Indeed, Brulle, who is past chair of the Environment and Technology section of the American Sociological Association, says “I gave him refereed articles that countered his thesis and he ignored them.”
It is clear from publicly available sources that the energy corporations have outspent environmental groups by at least an 8-to-1 margin over the past several years. Nisbet also discounts the significance of conservative media outlets like Murdoch's Fox News while pronouncing media coverage of climate change and energy policy as fairly balanced. From the executive summary of Nisbet's report:
“The era of false balance in news coverage of climate science has come to an end. In comparison to other factors, the impact of conservative media and commentators on wider public opinion remains limited.”
The message Nisbet seems to be trying to sell is that environmental groups are somehow to blame for the partisan divide over climate change and the lack of progress toward a low carbon economy. He basically asserted that groups like the Sierra Club have confused the public by treating greenhouse gas emissions as just another pollution problem. It is all part of what can only be described as a deliberately false narrative.
Nisbet's hatchet job found favor with publications like The New Republic, calling the climate push "a total flop."
Nisbet, for his part, seems to favor the third camp, those in support of the “we need bold new ideas” theory. He certainly doesn’t believe greens were woefully outmatched by powerful fossil-fuel interests. In his report, Nisbet estimates that green groups and their allies spent $394 million on climate-change activities in 2009—ads, organizing, lobbying—compared with just $259 million from conservative and industry groups. Nor does he think media-assisted denialism was a decisive factor. His research found that the biggest news outlets—The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and Politico—tended to reflect mainstream climate science in their coverage. The implication, then, is that environmentalists have no one to blame but themselves for failing to sell their climate policies.
What's more, Nisbet argues that the climate cause was hurt by getting too wrapped up in partisan politics. Back in 2007, it wasn’t a problem that Al Gore was the single figure most associated with raising awareness about global warming—after all, his erstwhile foe George W. Bush was wildly unpopular and Democrats were on the rise. But, Nisbet argues, the fact that tackling climate change became identified as a Democratic cause, in an era when Republicans have steadfastly opposed any and every Democratic position, ended up hurting the environmental movement.
While there is little question about Nisbet's intent, his motivation is less clear. Why create a false narrative? The only reason I can see is that he hopes to attract funding as a go-to climate science communications guru. Given his track record to date, it would be wise for Google to find a new expert. Nisbet's vision seems anything but clear.