Despite more than $150 million being invested in messaging, polls show that the push has failed to register climate change as a top-tier policy concern for Americans.
A recent study detailing how and where environmental philanthropic grants are allocated shows a lack of “intellectual diversity on the climate issue,” according leading political scientist, Roger Pielke, Jr.
The study, authored by Matthew Nisbet, Professor of Communication Studies and Affiliate Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, analyzed $556.7 million in “behind-the-scenes” grants distributed by 19 major environmental foundations from 2011-2015 in the immediate aftermath of the failure to pass cap-and-trade legislation in 2010.
Nisbet found that more than 80 percent of those funds were devoted to promoting renewable energy, communicating about climate change and opposing fossil fuels, while only two percent, or $10.5 million, was invested in technologies that would lower carbon emissions like carbon capture storage or nuclear energy. The donations themselves were also very concentrated; more than half of the money disbursed by the philanthropies was directed to 20 organizations in total.
Some of the more prominent recipients and grant totals cited by Nisbet include the Sierra Club receiving at least $48.9 million, National Resources Defense Council’s $14.1 million, and Environmental Defense Fund’s $13.4 million.
“One of the conclusions that I think is probably the most important from the Nisbet study is that there’s not a lot of support for intellectual diversity on the climate issue, which is a shame because what the world’s doing isn’t working,” Pielke, a professor at the University of Colorado Center for Science & Technology Policy Research, told Western Wire. “So you’d think that there’d be at least some resources going into looking at new approaches, alternatives, even if they’re contingency plans.”
But according to Nisbet’s research, that is not where the vast majority of environmental grants are being applied. Funding for non-profit journalism, communications plans, and political campaigns dwarfs that of developing new technologies for carbon abatement. And yet, despite more than $150 million being invested in messaging, polls show that the push has failed to register climate change as a top-tier policy concern for Americans.
In fact, a recent study found that millennials born between 1981 and 2000 are no more likely than previous generations to “do something” about climate change. According to Pielke, that shows a need to change the way foundations, activists and policy experts approach to the issue, which consistently ranks near the bottom of the top 20 issues surveyed.
In the years preceding the Nisbet study timeframe, major foundations like the Hewlett Foundation, Energy Foundation, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund signed on to the “Design to Win” strategy that resulted in the collective pooling of resources rather than scattered, individualized disbursements. While Pielke says creating and pursing a shared climate agenda may make sense, “That also probably helped contribute to some of the monoculture that Nisbet documents in his latest work.”
“If we’re worried about the accumulating amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, then for all the politics, for all the noise, for all the heat, it is ultimately a technology problem,” said Pielke. “To stabilize the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere the global economy has to go from being about 15 percent powered by carbon-free sources today, to well over 90 percent by the end of the century. That’s a big ask. I’ve long argued that the only way that happens is not by making fossil fuel energy so expensive, we have to go to alternatives. It’s by making alternatives so cheap that we’ll prefer them instead of fossil energy.”
The key in doing so will be to shift the characterization of climate change from that of a political football to a question of innovation, according to Pielke.
“If we’re going to make progress, we’re going to need things we don’t have now. We’re going to need modular nuclear reactors, we’re going to need big batteries, we’re going to need the ability to capture carbon directly from the air at a reasonable price. And the only way we get those sorts of technologies is we set out to do it,” said Pielke. He noted that achieving the emissions targets delineated in the Paris Agreement is dependent on technologies that don’t yet exist.
One of the major reasons for the stagnation in climate progress can be attributed to the extreme polarization of the issue over the past few decades. Nisbet notes in his study that environmental causes began partnering with other grassroots organizations seeking “social justice-oriented solutions to climate change” and employed an “intersectional” strategy which connected the issue to other causes more aligned with the liberal ideology in order to build a larger movement. Nisbet says this strategy “likely contributed to deepening political polarization, serving as potent symbols for Republican donors and activists to rally around.”
In an absence of legislative action and failure to cultivate broad, bipartisan support for long term solutions, policy has been relegated to executive action, which can be reversed once another administration enters the White House.