What is the Climate Shift Project at American University and why was it created?

Climate change and energy insecurity are much more than physical threats requiring scientific expertise to understand and public will to solve, they are the dominant social challenges of our time. Progress in dealing with these pressing problems requires a shift in how we participate in politics, think about government, define policy action, communicate with others and invest in media and communities.

The Climate Shift Project at American University is dedicated to understanding and communicating about these challenges, producing interdisciplinary research and independent media.   Housed in the School of Communication, Climate Shift’s network of social scientists, scholars and professionals work with a diversity of organizations and agencies; train students, scholars and leaders; and convene forums and events that engage the Washington, D.C. community. [More Info on Faculty, Projects, Studies, Events & Talks]

What is the focus of the first report?

As a range of environmentalists, scientists, philanthropists and scholars consider next steps in the debate over climate change, the report examines several longstanding questions that remain at the center of discussion.  The study is the first to systematically analyze the financial resources, strategies, communication activities and impacts of those advocating for action on climate change and to draw comparisons to those opposing action among conservative groups and industry.  [Download the PDF version] [Read the HTML version] [Executive Summary]

Who reviewed the report?

A panel of four experts served as formal reviewers of the report.  The reviewers were chosen for their diverse perspectives and their internationally-recognized research in one or more of the topics examined.  Although the reviewers 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. [More Info]

Who funded the report and project?

Climate Shift’s inaugural report and web site was 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. [More Info]

How was the coalition of conservative groups and industry associations identified?

For conservative groups and industry associations, analysis included a list of 42 organizations that had opposed cap and trade legislation, had dismissed expert consensus on climate science through various communication strategies and/or had exaggerated the economic costs of action.  These conservative and industry organizations had been identified and analyzed in previous scholarly studies and in investigations conducted by journalists, environmentalists and others. [More Info]

How was the coalition of environmental groups identified?

The 45 environmental groups were selected from among the major national environmental organizations analyzed by political scientist Christopher Bosso in his book Environment Inc:  From Grassroots to Beltway, an award-winning study of the history, financing and political strategies of the U.S. environmental movement.   The 45 analyzed organizations coordinated their work through alliances such as the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, the Green Group, Clean Energy Works and The Partnership Project.

In addition to the longstanding national groups analyzed by Bosso, the organizations analyzed also includes a number of climate change and energy specific groups such as 350.org and the Alliance for Climate Protection, groups that have formed over the past decade. The total of 45 groups also includes 501(c)(4) affiliate organizations such as the Environmental Defense Action Fund, which maintains a separate operating budget from their larger 501(c)(3) parent.

Each of the 45 organizations list climate change as either their lead or among their top policy priorities in their annual reports or at their Web sites.  Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth did not support cap and trade legislation, though both organizations ran communication and mobilization efforts advocating for action on climate change generally.  [More Info]

How was spending specific to climate change and energy policy estimated?

Estimates on spending are compiled from Internal Revenue Service filings and annual reports.  Records from 2009 are analyzed, the year for which data is most recently available.  In this year, cap and trade legislation passed in the U.S. House, debate began on a U.S. Senate version of the bill, and international climate accord meetings took place in Copenhagen.

In the majority of cases, environmental groups provided specific information in their annual reports and tax documents on how much was spent on climate change and energy-related program activities.  Details and sources of these estimates are provided in the notes to each table and/or in the end notes to the chapter.  [More Info]

Specific figures on spending specific to climate change and energy policy were not provided by conservative think tanks, groups and industry associations.  Estimates based on a review of annual reports and web sites are used with details in the notes to each table and in the main text of the chapter.  [More Info]

How were the Design to Win foundations identified?

Several lines of evidence suggest that the nine foundations analyzed relied heavily on the Design to Win report’s definition of the problem and its specific recommendations to guide their investments in programs related to action on climate change.  Four of the nine funded the report; several describe the report at their web sites as guiding their funding decisions; and all of the nine are listed as “aligned” funders at the ClimateWorks website.  There are also similar ties among foundation leaders and personnel.  [More Info]

What proportion of climate change funding do these foundations account for?

Estimates on total U.S. foundation support for programs related to action on climate change and energy between 2008 and 2010 are not yet available.  Several of the analyzed foundations are among the top funders of environment-related programs and among the wealthiest nationally, suggesting that the estimated $560 million they distributed during this period constitutes a substantial proportion of overall funding focused on climate change and energy. The foundations analyzed include the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (#1 in environmental funding for 2009), the Sea Change Foundation (#4), the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (#5), the Kresge Foundation (#13), the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (#24), the McKnight Foundation (#39), the Oak Foundation (#41), the Energy Foundation and ClimateWorks.  [More Info]

How were the grants by these foundations analyzed?

In a review of tax documents, annual reports and web sites, all grants that in their description and/or title included a substantial focus on climate change, energy, greenhouse gas emissions or carbon were included in the analysis, resulting in a sample of 1,246 grants distributed between 2008 and 2010 across the nine foundations.

Each grant’s title, description, amount and recipient were entered into a database.  Each grant was then categorized based on the description provided by the funded organization, which usually in a few sentences summarized its intended focus, activities and goals for the supported initiative.  Some funded requests described a narrow and specific focus, while most described multiple goals and related activities.  As a consequence, each grant could be assigned more than one category.  Specific categories were organized by “policy focus,” “research focus” and “communication focus.” [More Info]

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

The New York Times, The 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, CNN.com, 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.
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Why did your content analysis not include blogs or cable news?

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. [More Info]

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]

Are the views of AAAS members representative of the views of climate scientists?

The survey of AAAS members should not be interpreted as representative of scientists who are actively engaged in climate change research.  On the reality and causes of climate change, there is no debate among these specialists.  A 2009 survey of 3,100 earth scientists found that among the most productive climate change researchers, 96 percent thought temperatures had risen over the past century and 97 percent thought humans were a cause.

Respondents to the AAAS survey instead are representative of the organization’s interdisciplinary and professional composition, with 44 percent of surveyed members working in the biological, medical or agricultural sciences. The analysis in the report therefore examines the ideological make-up of a community of non-specialists from a diversity of science-related fields. Just as is the case among the public, ideology shapes how these non-specialists view the reality and seriousness of climate change, as well as how they interpret political events and trends. [More Info]