Institute at Brown for Environment and Society
Date October 27, 2020

Understanding Delay on Climate Change

Our very existence is threatened by a warming world. Why aren’t we doing more?

Despite melting glaciers, intensifying storms and widespread disruptions to fragile ecosystems, many high-income countries have been slow to take decisive action against climate change. Groundbreaking research by IBES scholars has revealed why: for decades, an invisible network of actors has been operating to push narratives of climate denial and to slow, stop or roll back climate protections. 

IBES is now the home of the Climate Social Science Network (CSSN), an international organization of social science scholars dedicated to revealing the identities, funding sources and strategies of these actors, now known as the “climate change countermovement.”

“We want to be the hub of a global network that will build this field,” says sociologist J. Timmons Roberts, an IBES fellow and co-leader of the project. “We think it's one of the biggest areas in social science that has not been addressed.”

Brown visiting professor Robert Brulle, who is leading the project alongside Roberts, has been working for years to understand the nature of the climate change countermovement in the U.S. His findings reveal that decisive climate action is being thwarted by a well coordinated and high-level deluge of trickle-down misinformation.

"Many efforts on climate change are based on the idea that, if people just understood the issue better, they would push leaders to act, and leaders would develop and institute policies that would address the problem," says Roberts. "But we've seen that, in fact, that's not really the case at all."

As he explains, widespread beliefs about issues like climate change aren’t actually driven by the beliefs of the American public.

"Rather, public opinion itself is being driven by the leaders,” he says. “The arrow goes in the other direction. And so, the important thing to understand from my perspective is: who is influencing those leaders, and how are they doing it?"

Inside politics

Much like the misinformation campaigns undertaken by the tobacco and sugar industries in the second half of the 20th century, political interests appear to have played a formative role in Big Climate Denial. Indeed, climate change has become a deeply polarized issue in American politics. 

But it wasn’t always that way. Opinions on the environment have shifted over the last 20 years, according to Aaron McCright, a sociologist at Michigan State University, and Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University. Their work dates back to the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which dictated the first formally-binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions.

“In the 1990s, Democrats were slightly more concerned about climate change than Republicans, but everybody thought that it was an issue of concern and that the government should do something about it,” says Roberts. “And since the Kyoto Protocol, there's been a real divergence.” 

“Democrats have gotten more concerned; that is, instead of 70 percent, about 80 or 90 percent now say that it's an issue of concern and the government should do something about it,” he explains. “But among Republicans, the amount of concern actually dropped substantially. Now it’s at about 40 or 30 percent — because they were told by the Libertarian movement that climate change was a plot by the left wing to make the government take over your life and take away your freedom.”

This is not necessarily new. As Roberts explains, Libertarian ideology has driven public and private opposition to federal intervention for almost a century. 

In fact, it is this same coalition of small-government aficionados that first implemented the five key strategies that continue to fuel the American climate change countermovement today: lobbying, campaign contributions, public relations and funding of university programs and think tanks.

Public relations spending is one of the five tactics the climate change countermovement uses to slow, stop or roll back climate protections.
Public relations spending is one of the five tactics the climate change countermovement uses to slow, stop or roll back climate protections. Credit: Derek Russell

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“There are literally planning documents where Libertarian leaders say, ‘we're going to do these five things,’” he says. “They had a long-term plan and they stuck to it. And it's been remarkably effective.”

Monied interests

But according to Roberts and Brulle, politics alone cannot explain the climate change countermovement’s success. In this campaign, as in most intentional and choreographed obfuscation efforts, money speaks volumes.

“In some combination, many of the actors have the principled belief that government is bad, and also have their own personal interests tied to the high-carbon economy,” says Roberts. “They feel threatened by a low-carbon economy, since it is clear to them that the transition will be destructive to their pocketbook.”

That beneficiaries of fossil-fuel burning would want to stymie climate action is not surprising; but the identities of some of these beneficiaries are.

As Roberts explains, it isn’t just the high emitters like the petroleum and oil heat institutes that feel compelled to protect their financial interests when threatened with policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

One example is railroads.

“Everybody thought, ‘oh, railroads are very green,’ because they are the most efficient way to move stuff across a landscape,” says Roberts. “But a third of the freight that they haul is coal. They have this political spending and direct lobbying. They are part of the trade groups that have been actively denying the existence of climate change for a long time, and are now fighting the enactment of any legislation to fight it.”

Another example is the real estate industry. Across southern New England, realtors regularly stall meaningful climate action at the state level by fighting against legislation that would require disclosing a home’s energy costs or efficiency designations to potential buyers.

Lobbying in Massachusetts by energy and utility companies, 2005-18.
Lobbying in Massachusetts by energy and utility companies, 2005-18. Credit: Derek Russell

With support from the Barr Foundation, Roberts and his students are examining the arguments that these and other actors deploy during their testimonies at committee hearings in Rhode Island and neighboring states.

According to their research, many of these discourses have shifted away from outright climate denial and toward reasons for inaction such as size, timing, futility or job loss — and this, in so-called “blue” state governments.

“These are best-case scenarios. These are the states where climate action should be happening,” he says. “There are Democratic majorities and supermajorities in the legislatures in all the states. And yet, we're really kind of stalled."

Future work

The degree to which politics, money and misinformation have combined to derail climate action is disturbing; but most climate activists will not find it surprising, per se. 

“There are a lot of dots that have been out there that people suspected but that nobody has really connected,” says Roberts. “I think we're doing that in a way that nobody else is.”

Roberts and his students plan to continue unraveling the story of politics and monied interests. They will examine more testimonials from state legislatures. They will survey trade organization and corporation archives to determine what they knew about climate change, and when. And Brulle will lead students in an effort to identify and understand the implications of donations made by major oil company foundations to community organizations — including to seemingly nonpartisan groups like Masterpiece Theatre, orchestras and universities.

Ultimately, the team aims to use their findings to inform legislation and investigative journalism, and to support litigation against countermovement actors. They also hope to facilitate international scholarship on this issue.

“Our proposal includes postdoctoral fellowships, sabbatical fellowships and even external grants that we would solicit, screen and award through Brown,” Roberts says.

Turning point

A large part of the project involves coming together annually, during side events at the U.N. climate negotiations. 

Roberts is no stranger to the U.N. climate talks, having attended the conferences for decades as an academic and more recently as an organizer of side events with his Climate and Development Lab. 

Indeed, a moment of clarity at one of these side events was the catalyst for Roberts’ own pivot away from engaging in international climate adaptation and mitigation efforts and toward unraveling the climate change countermovement here in the U.S.

As he recalls, he experienced what he describes as a sudden “crisis of purpose” while attending the 2017 negotiations in Bonn, Germany, with 18 students and postdocs.

The previous June, the U.S. president had stood in the White House Rose Garden and shattered the tenuous and hard-won global agreement that had been forged just 18 months before.

“In order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens,” President Donald Trump had said, “the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord.”

“I realized, ‘Wait a minute. What are we doing in Germany?’,” Roberts remembers. “We need to go home and understand why our country is so backwards. And we need to understand what has been blocking global efforts so effectively for the last 30 years.”

In a lab chock full of brilliant undergraduates and accomplished supervisory scholars, Roberts believes the capacity exists to discover truths vital to the crux of climate inaction.

“We feel like we have some capacity to tell a story about these connections,” he says. “We feel like we have some capacity to explain why things are the way they are.”


J. Timmons Roberts is the Ittleson Professor of Environment and Society and Sociology. Robert Brulle is a visiting professor of environment and society