New research network spotlights obstruction to climate change action

Backed with alumni support, the newly formed Climate Social Science Network is working to understand why climate change has become such a divisive issue—and how to counter the misinformation and barriers to progress surrounding it.

Climate change is one of the most important issues society faces today. It's also become one of the most controversial, with a counter movement contesting the veracity of the scientific consensus. Others deny the need to act or emphasize the difficulty of doing so.

With support from alumni donors and a framework for collaborative scholarship built by the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES), researchers on College Hill and around the world are identifying and publicizing the groups that are sowing climate misinformation and the methods they use to obstruct the changes we desperately need to make.

“The promulgation of misinformation about climate science is the result of a well-planned and institutionalized effort made up of conservative think tanks, supporting foundations, sympathetic media outlets, and public relations firms,” says Visiting Professor of Environment and Society at Brown Robert Brulle. 

To examine and reduce the influence of these “half-truths, exaggerations, and outright lies,” Brulle and J. Timmons Roberts—the Ittleson Professor of Environmental Studies at Brown—created the Climate Social Science Network (CSSN), headquartered at IBES and made possible by alumni funding.  

“Our aim is to create a whole new field of research,” says Roberts. “We know that climate change is real. There is just a huge amount of physical science telling us that. But, there is very little research about the ways in which private interests are managing to so completely influence policymakers and state agencies.”

Understanding and combating obstacles to progress

J. Timmons Roberts
J. Timmons Roberts (Ittleson Professor of Environmental Studies at Brown)

CSSN staff, affiliated scholars, and students work together to conduct peer-reviewed research into the institutional and cultural dynamics of political conflicts around climate change. They communicate the results of this research to policymakers and the wider public, and seek to educate the political, legal, and media communities about the effects this misinformation and obstruction will have on our planet for years to come.

The network engages established and early-career social scientists from Spain, Japan, Sweden, Canada, Germany, Australia, Brazil, Finland, the U.K., the Netherlands, and Taiwan in addition to several U.S. scholars both at and beyond Brown.

“We knew the network needed to be global,” says Roberts. “Studying climate denial has typically been a U.S.-dominated area because there is such a strong effort here, but it also happens in other countries around the world. It just looks different.”

Some recent works by CSSN scholars examine the agriculture industry in the U.S. and the U.K., the influence of the oil industry in Canada, and think tanks in Europe that model their discourse on that of U.S. climate change-denying organizations. As the network recruits more scholars from both industrialized nations and developing countries, Roberts hopes that they will be able to learn from one another and apply observations about how climate denial and obstruction plays out in diverse settings.

Promoting innovative research and collaborative communities

The Climate Social Science Network is just one of many efforts to address diverse aspects of climate change through IBES. The institute raised more than $11 million for its work last year from alumni, parents, and friends, and the scope of its contributions ranges from conservation and land-change science to the health consequences of shifts in our physical environment.

“IBES is an exceptional organization that approaches climate change through multiple perspectives,” says Brulle, who was recruited to Brown following a career of teaching and research at institutions in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Germany, and Sweden. “This integrated perspective allows for fruitful collaborations of natural and social scientists in working on this issue together. It also enhances the depth of social science contributions to the climate change discussion.”

I think people have seen that you can do as much science as you want, but if you are not defending that science and addressing the people who are undermining that science, then your science isn’t going to have any impact at all on public policy.

J. Timmons Roberts Ittleson Professor of Environmental Studies at Brown

Donors are attracted to IBES’s mission of bringing together scholars from a variety of disciplines to both uncover crucial insights about our interactions with the environment and devise effective strategies to accelerate climate action. The donors supporting the CSSN, in particular, are helping to advance research that could potentially lead to the removal of obstructions from an array of industries, including utilities companies and real estate.

“Donor involvement has been absolutely critical,” says Brulle. “Academic work is usually conducted in isolated silos, without much collaboration. We knew that there were a larger number of scholars engaged in researching this topic, but they were not connected. This funding has allowed us to create a strong and effective community.”

The steady growth of this network will allow Brown to involve more students in original research and develop a new generation of scholars who choose this focus area in hopes of having an enduring impact on society.

“Ultimately, we want to make it less acceptable to be part of organizations that are creating this misinformation and delay in solutions,” says Roberts. “I think people have seen that you can do as much science as you want, but if you are not defending that science and addressing the people who are undermining that science, then your science isn’t going to have any impact at all on public policy.”

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