Date October 27, 2020
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With global scholarly network, Brown faculty to advance study of climate change countermovement

The Climate Social Science Network, based at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, will bring together leading scholars to catalyze collaborative research on the interests that are stalling climate action.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Despite melting glaciers, intensifying storms and widespread disruptions to fragile ecosystems, many leading countries have been slow to take decisive action against climate change. Research by scholars at Brown University 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.

Study by faculty members at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society has at multiple points surfaced the identities, funding sources and strategies of these actors, often known collectively as the climate change countermovement. Now, the same scientists are partnering with researchers across the globe to advance understanding on climate issues and advocate for science-driven climate policy in legislatures everywhere.

IBES is now home to the Climate Social Science Network, a new organization of social science scholars across the world dedicated to expanding research on the global climate change countermovement.

“We want to be the hub of a global network that will build this field,” said J. Timmons Roberts, a professor at IBES and a co-leader of the network. “We think it’s one of the most important areas on climate change that has not been systematically researched.”

Two years ago, Roberts helped bring Robert Brulle, also a network co-leader, to IBES as a visiting professor. Brulle, Roberts said, has worked for years to understand the nature of the climate change countermovement in the United States. His findings have revealed that decisive climate action is often stymied by lobbying, funding campaigns and philanthropies as well as the highly coordinated release of misinformation in press releases, advertisements and more.

“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,” Roberts said. “But we’ve seen that, in fact, that’s not really the case at all.”

What’s truly stalling progress on climate change policy, Roberts said, is a large coalition of think tanks and lobbyists supported by the fossil-fuel industry. They include advocates from the railroad, automobile and real estate sectors who believe they stand to lose profits if federal leaders take decisive climate action. Many spend money and time running pro-fossil-fuel advertisements on television, giving climate-action obstructing testimony at legislative committee hearings, and publicizing research whose findings support the fossil fuel industry.

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

With the Climate Social Science Network, Roberts and Brulle will collaborate with leading scholars from six continents to continue unraveling the story of politics and monied interests. Within the network are six working groups that bring together scholars with shared interests to catalyze discussion and collaborative research. The groups focus on climate change in media coverage, climate change obstruction in the Global South, the politics of geoengineering and more.

Several network-led research projects are already underway, including an investigation into how bots on social media influence discourse on climate change, an analysis of efforts to delay climate action at the state level, and an examination of the ways in which corporate firms harness the power of public relations to change the narrative about climate change and climate action.

At Brown, Roberts and the students in his Climate and Development Lab will continue investigating the climate change countermovement. They plan to examine more testimonials from state legislatures, trade organizations and corporation archives to understand efforts to influence academia and community organizations.

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