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Response to Joe Romm, Media Matters for America on Climate Shift Report

UPDATE: See additional reponse to statements made by Joe Romm.

Last night marked the release of the report Climate Shift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Public Debate, part of a new research initiative housed in the School of Communication at American University. The report was formally scheduled for release Wednesday, April 20, but the media embargo was broken by the blogger Joe Romm.   In this post, I address several questions or statements that have been made about the report and will continue to provide updates via this blog and the blog at the Climate Shift site.   Other frequently-asked-questions are also addressed in the main section of the site. 

Why did you write the report?

I wrote the Climate Shift report to inform the decision making of environmental leaders, philanthropists, scientists, scholars and others as they consider next steps in the effort to mobilize societal action on the undeniable, human causes of climate change. The report is the first independent, academic analysis to examine several longstanding questions that remain at the center of discussion over the cap and trade debate.

With the goal of timeliness and wider engagement and dissemination, I wrote the report to be broadly accessible  to an audience of non-specialists, including policy professionals, journalists and interested members of the public. I encourage individuals from the community of groups working to address the challenges of climate change to contact me to discuss the report – including Joe Romm.

My hope is that the report encourages a substantive discussion of the questions addressed, the implications of the findings, as well as further study and analysis.

What does the report focus on?

As I write in the report, following the failure of cap and trade, environmental groups are identifying a new policy agenda while also focusing heavily on the role of spending by opponents and on investing in communication efforts. As these plans move forward, a range of scholars and policy thinkers have argued for a deeper reconsideration of the problem and for a diversity of new policy approaches.

In order to inform planning and discussion, I spent the past five months gathering and analyzing data relevant to the following major dimensions that remain the subject of interest and much speculation.  In no place in the report do I make recommendations about what policy path should be taken.

The dimensions include:

  • The financial resources and spending of environmental groups and their opponents;
  • The planning efforts and investment strategies of major foundations;
  • The patterns in news attention and media portrayals of climate change;
  • The factors shaping the recent decline in public concern and belief in climate change;
  • The factors influencing how scientists and environmentalists interpret and make sense of climate change politics.
  • Who reviewed the report?

    To ensure the report’s accuracy, quality and rigor, I assembled an expert review panel comprised of internationally-recognized scholars from the respective fields of political science, policy studies, communication and environmental studies. The reviewers were chosen based on their research in one or more of the dimensions examined. They included Christopher J. Bosso, Ph.D. (Northeastern University), Max Boykoff, Ph.D. (University of Colorado-Boulder), Edward W. Maibach, Ph.D. (George Mason University), and Roger Pielke, Jr. (University of Colorado-Boulder), and Robert Brulle, Ph.D. (Drexel University).

    I consulted several of the reviewers early on to elicit feedback on research design and data sources. Each reviewed a draft version of the report, providing written critiques, suggestions, feedback and requested revisions. I then conferred with each reviewer over the phone or in person, and several provided additional feedback on revised versions of chapters. Although the expert review panel provided many constructive comments and suggestions, they were not asked to endorse the report’s conclusions or recommendations. Responsibility for the final content of this report rests entirely with the author.

    Why did Robert Brulle withdraw as a reviewer?

    Last week, Robert Brulle of Drexel University requested that his name be removed as a reviewer on the report, a request which I immediately granted. I had turned to Bob as a reviewer based on his expertise specific to Chapters 1 and 2 which deal with organizational spending and foundations. I also believed that his often-voiced opinion on what needs to be done politically added to the perspectives on the panel. Bob received the full report and based on his review and our conversations during the revision stage, I made several rounds of revisions to Chapter 1, additional revisions to Chapter 2 and revised other parts of the report. In all, I spent an extra 3-4 weeks on the project working to incorporate Bob’s suggestions and recommendations.

    Indeed, Bob’s suggested revisions are incorporated throughout the report, his past work is cited heavily, and his own perspective on the future of the environmental movement is given strong prominence in both the Introduction and Conclusion.

    Who funded the report?

    The report is funded by a $100,000 grant from the Ecological Innovation program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation. The goal of the Ecological Innovation program is to “address the challenges of climate change and to promote vibrant and sustainable ecological systems that support healthy communities and a just economy.” Past recipients of funding from the Ecological Innovation program include universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of Maryland; media organizations such as PBS Frontline/World and the Investigative Reporting Workshop; think tanks such as the Center for American Progress, the Breakthrough Institute and the Third Way Institute; and environmental groups such as the Clean Air Task Force and Friends of the Earth.

    Are the efforts of conservatives downplayed in the report and is Gore instead blamed?

    When Bob Brulle asked that his name be removed last week, I called him to discuss his concerns. He told me that he believed Chapter 4 was too critical of Al Gore’s role in contributing to polarization, did not spend enough time discussing the role of conservatives, and had overlooked citing studies he had recommended. These factors have been explored at length across many studies, which I cite in the chapter extensively, several of which Brulle suggested.

    My intention in Chapter 4 was to discuss other, often overlooked factors shaping public opinion including the role of the economy. The role of Gore and other Democratic leaders in contributing to polarization is also addressed, based on what we know from the field of political communication generally and on studies specific to climate change. The chapter also examines the views of members of the scientific community, discussing how their own political identity likely shapes the ways in which they assign blame for inaction on climate change.

    I encourage readers to judge for themselves whether or not the influence of conservatives is adequately addressed and emphasized in the Chapter.  I include more than a dozen citations to works on the topic, including my own work. See multiple studies cited in each of the End Notes numbered # 9, 10, 11, 23,24,25,26,27,28, and 29.  Several were added at Bob Brulle’s suggestion.

    In my own work, I have praised Gore for the bi-partisan framing strategy employed in the WE campaign and for the sophisticated use of an opinion-leader strategy as part of the WE campaign.  I have also noted that the message strategy employed in An Inconvenient Truth likely appeals to a base of those already concerned about climate change and that Gore’s visibility on the issue and political efforts likely have unintended negative consequences relative to public opinion.

    Notably, while there are dozens of studies examining the influence of conservatives and Republicans on public opinion or the media, there are comparatively few studies in the literature examining the influence of Democratic leaders and other climate advocates in either unintentionally or intentionally contributing to polarization.

    The Climate Shift report is one of the first to examine this possibility which is strongly suggested by research in the field of political communication on elite cues and messaging generally and by the findings from a study by Jon Krosnick that evaluated the Clinton White House campaign in support of the Kyoto treaty. Krosnick traces the origins of polarization among strong partisans back to this campaign by the Clinton administration and this likelihood has been cited by other scholars. [Go here for More]

    Are you saying that conservative media and Fox News have not had an impact on public opinion?

    While Fox News and other conservative media have some persuasive influence on viewers, this influence tends to reinforce existing doubts rather than create them anew. This finding relative to limited, reinforcing effects is a consistent finding across several decades of the political communication literature generally (see this recent overview) and in the studies specific to climate change discussed in the chapter.  As I describe, similar processes likely shaped the impact of Climategate on perceptions.

    Media Matters for America has also blogged about the study. In their post, they argue that I overlook past studies by Krosnick that show a direct persuasive effect in experiments for the influence of falsely balanced portrayals  such as those that appear on Fox News. In fact, this study by Krosnick opens the section of the report.

    Media Matters for America and Romm also suggest I mischaracterized studies by Ed Maibach and by my colleague here at American University Lauren Feldman. Maibach reviewed the report and offered no objections to how his work was characterized.  In our collaborations on other projects together, the reinforcing nature of the framed messages found in conservative media is a consistent finding from the literature that guides our work.  Feldman, whose office is across the hall from mine, read Chapter 4 and offered praise for the discussion. You can find the full discussion and section here .

    Who spent more in the cap and trade debate?

    I encourage readers to engage with the complete Chapter 1 of the report, which reviews for the first time in systematic detail total revenues, spending, climate specific spending, advertising spending, and lobbying spending by the coalitions mobilized in support and against cap and trade. There is a great deal of complexity to the discussion and the conclusions which has been lost in the blogging and comments so far. Please read thefull chapter and I invite you to leave your comments and thoughts below. The section specific to lobbying is here.

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    In the report, I talk about the difficulty in drawing judgments based on available data specific to direct lobbying expenditures and how environmental groups by investing in partnerships with corporations sought to try to close the spending gap with past legislative debates.

    To open the chapter, I also discuss the importance of considering a broad range of factors other than spending in drawing conclusions about why cap and trade might have failed. Just as it is a mistake to assume that environmental groups were vastly outspent in the cap and trade fight, it is also a mistake to assume that by holding an overall spending edge, they should have won.

    How did you choose the five national news organizations included in the media analysis?

    The New York TimesThe Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal were chosen for the analysis because they remain the trend-setting news outlets of record in the U.S. and their selection also replicates the three most influential U.S. newspapers analyzed in previous oft-cited studies on false balance by Max Boykoff.   In addition, the websites of these organizations—with their print editions still serving as the central content—are among the most heavily-visited news outlets. These outlets are also often the main targets of advocates on both sides of the debate, with a quote or op-ed at these papers symbolizing success.

    Similarly,, which produces its own Associated Press-style syndicated coverage, is the No. 4 visited news site online.  Politico has become the paper of record for members of Congress and the White House. Politico also strongly shapes the agenda of news at the cable networks and blogosphere, setting the tone for political reporting and commentary. Moreover, despite their prominence, no other analysis to date has examined climate change coverage at these two influential outlets.More Info]

    Why did your content analysis not include blogs or cable news such as Fox?

    Past studies show that the coverage appearing at the five national news organizations analyzed strongly shape the news decisions made at the cable networks and the discussion at blogs.  Future research should apply a similar methodology to tracking coverage at cable news, discussion at blogs, and the linkages back to the legacy media analyzed in the report. I note also in Chapter 3 that the findings for the opinion pages at the Wall Street Journal are consistent with other studies which have tracked the portrayal of climate science at News Corp owned outlets. In addition, in Chapter 4, I discuss recent research by colleagues which has analyzed patterns in coverage at the three cable news networks.

    How was false balance in coverage of climate change evaluated?

    One out of every four articles were sampled within month appearing at the five news organizations across the period Jan. 1, 2009, to Dec. 31, 2010, resulting in a representative sample of 413 news and opinion articles.  Specially-trained graduate students scored each article using a measure similar to that used in previous studies by Max Boykoff, recording whether the article conveyed the “consensus view” that humans play a role; the “falsely balanced view” that it is uncertain whether climate change is real and/or that humans are a cause; and the “dismissive view” that either climate change is not occurring or, if so, humans are not a cause.  Following standard social science procedures, to ensure inter-subjectivity and consistency in coding, the three graduate students were first tested on a common, purposively chosen sample of 45 articles.  The students agreed on coding decisions 72 percent of the time, with this test for reliability correcting for chance agreement.   [More Info]


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