MeCCO Monthly Summary: This is Not the Way to Reduce Emissions!

Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO)
March 2020 Summary

March 2020 has been a pivotal month in human history. In terms of media coverage of climate change and global warming, March 2020 has demonstrated the adage of the ‘finite news hole’ across legacy and traditional media (television, newspapers and radio). Amid a global media focus on coronavirus especially as the month unfolded, media attention to climate change and global warming at the global level dropped off dramatically from February 2020 coverage, down 36%. Amid a backdrop of steadily rising levels of coverage in recent months and years, March 2020 nonetheless dropped 17% from a year earlier (March 2019). Across all regions and countries monitored, coverage in March 2020 was dramatically lower in quantity compared to coverage in March 2019. Regionally, the ongoing stream of stories in this past March decreased most in Oceania (declining 52.5%), Europe (dipping 36%), North America (falling 33%) Latin America (sliding 27%), the Middle East (lowering 24%) and Asia (descending 23%) from the previous month.

Figure 1 shows trends in newspaper media coverage at the global scale – organized into seven geographical regions around the world – from January 2004 through March 2020.

At the country levels, United States (US) newspaper coverage of climate change or global warming tumbled 28% while US television coverage slumped 43%. Meanwhile, the steepest country-level declines in March coverage from February were seen in Australia (down 61%), Norway (down 51%), Spain (down 46%), Canada (down 39%), India (down 36%), the United Kingdom (UK) (down 34%), Sweden (down 33%) and Germany (down 31%).

New in March 2020, we have integrated three new Spanish-language sources:

  • El Espectador is a newspaper in Colombia, founded in 1887 in Bogotá
  • Folha de São Paulo (also commonly known as ‘Folha’) is a Brazilian daily newspaper founded in 1921 in São Paulo. Folha has had the biggest circulation among Brazilian newspapers since 1986
  • Clarín is the largest tabloid newspaper in Argentina, founded in 1945 in Buenos Aires

In March, political and economic content significantly contributed to media coverage of climate change or global warming. Prominently, in early March – before coronavirus stories began to dominate the media landscape – General Motors made news for its plans to invest heavily in manufacturing and selling new models of electric vehicles over the next years. For example, CNN journalist Peter Valdes-Dapena reported, “In a major challenge to electric car leader Tesla, General Motors announced it has created a new electric vehicle battery that offers up to 400 miles of range and will be cheaper to produce than today’s batteries…The announcement was part of a broader presentation on the company’s aggressive plans for electric vehicles. “GM is building toward an all-electric future because we believe climate change is real,” GM CEO Mary Barra said during a presentation for media and investors. She said the company would be investing more than $3 billion annually in electric vehicle research and development between 2020 and 2025”.

In addition, preceding and amid coronavirus-dominated coverage, in March many media organizations reported on decisions by large corporations to both ramp up rhetoric about the importance of addressing climate change, and also to shift financial assets and commitments to confront it.

For example, early in March Swiss bank UBS decided to stop funding oil sands and tar sands projects as well as offshore drilling in the Arctic. Wall Street Journal reporter Dieter Holger noted, “UBS Group AG said… that it would no longer finance new offshore-oil projects in the Arctic, thermal coal mines or oil sands on undeveloped land as banks tighten their restrictions on fossil fuels amid pressure from environmentalists and investors. The Swiss bank declined to provide figures on previous projects it financed, but pointed to how its investments in carbon-related industries are falling. Assets on the bank’s $972 billion balance sheet tied to the energy and utilities sectors, excluding renewables, water and nuclear, shrunk more than 40% last year to $1.9 billion, representing 0.8% of the bank’s product exposure. It added that it would take a closer look at the environmental impact of liquefied natural gas and ultra-deepwater drilling projects before committing financing. The bank also hit its three-year sustainable-investment goal one year ahead of schedule, as measured by supporting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Core sustainable investments rose to $488 billion last year, more than doubling from 2017 to reach 13.5% of its invested assets”. Furthermore, The Associated Press reported, “A multinational investment bank has ended support for offshore drilling in the Arctic amid efforts to tackle climate change, a move that could affect future funding for oil and gas projects in Alaska”.

At the end of March, the large European bank Barclay’s – the largest funder of fossil fuels in Europe and the sixth-largest funder in the world – proclaimed it would zero out emissions for its investments by mid-century, while harmonizing future investments with terms of Paris Agreement targets. Among stories covering this pledge, journalist Maitane Sardon from The Wall Street Journal reported, “The British bank, which has come under fire from investors for having a weaker climate policy than some of its European rivals, said it would start with the energy and power sectors and provide targets to measure its progress in 2021… Some of the measures the bank will implement will lead to a reduction in the carbon-dioxide intensity of its power and energy portfolios of 30% and 15% respectively by 2025, Barclays Chairman Nigel Higgins said in a letter to shareholders included in the bank’s annual report on environmental, social and corporate governance”.

In early-to-mid-March, coronavirus (a.k.a. COVID-19) stories relating to climate change and global warming took hold. For example, early stories linking these two critical issues noted decreases in Carbon Dioxide and Nitrogen Dioxide levels (both important greenhouse gases) in hard-hit and quarantined places. Amid these data from the European Space Agency and others, and amid these stories of silver-linings in otherwise very dark clouds, journalist John Schwartz from The New York Times posed the question, “As the nation shifts abruptly into the fight against coronavirus, a question arises: could social isolation help reduce an individual’s production of greenhouse gases and end up having unexpected consequences for climate change?” He then walked through four main ways in which coronavirus has impacted climate change: transportation, food choices, home activities and consumption (shopping) habits.

Meanwhile, Washington Post journalists Chris Mooney, John Muyskens, Brady Dennis and Andrew Freedman wrote, “First, it happened in China. Now, Italy. The coronavirus struck hard, and authorities responded with sweeping interventions to keep people from spreading the disease further. As citizens hunkered down at home, businesses and roads suddenly fell empty and silent. One startling result: a decline in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The Washington Post analyzed data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite, which can measure concentrations of greenhouse gases and other pollutants in the lower atmosphere. It shows that between Jan. 1 and March 12, concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, fell drastically, especially over hard-hit northern Italy. Nitrogen dioxide is not one of the major greenhouse gases linked to climate change. But it is produced from combustion — by cars, power plants, and other industrial sources. So it serves as a proxy for other emissions that warm the atmosphere. It also is a pollutant that can increase the risk of asthma, inflammation of the lungs and other harmful health conditions… While the ongoing crisis has drastically slowed emissions in China, Italy and potentially elsewhere, that has offered little cause for celebration. “It is, of course, not a good thing,” [Dr. Riccardo] Valentini wrote. “This is not the way to reduce emissions!” Read more …

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Colorado Climate Webinar to Discuss Decarbonization, Energy, Climate Change

CU Boulder Today

CU Boulder will host the regional version of a national effort to “make climate a class.” 

Associate Professors Max Boykoff (Environmental Studies) and Phaedra Pezzullo (Communication) along with undergraduate student Andrew Benham (Engineering) are hosting the webinar “Power Dialog: Climate Solutions for Colorado“—mainly targeted to college and high school educators—on Tuesday, April 7. The aim is to foster discussions focused on decarbonization, energy and climate change in Colorado over the next decade. 

The event in Boulder is taking place simultaneously with similar online events in every U.S. state and also in Puerto Rico, as well as in Washington, D.C. 

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis will first offer his comments on these issues in a prerecorded message specific for the event. Then, Boykoff will moderate a panel called “A Just Transition in Colorado and Beyond.” 

Panelists include: former Gov. Bill Ritter, founder of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University and author of Powering ForwardWhat Everyone Should Know About America’s Energy Revolution; Phaedra Pezzullo, founding co-director of the Just Transition Collaborative and co-director of Inside the Greenhouse; and Jorge Figueroa, a Water Education Colorado board member who runs El Laboratorio to promote agricultural and food security in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. 

Teachers of all disciplines are encouraged to use this webinar to “make climate a class,” and help refocus the nation and the world on the challenge that still lies beyond COVID-19: climate change. The recorded webinar, plus subject-area online resources, will be available through May. 

“The success of these efforts in Colorado over the coming decade will depend on each of us recognizing that our individual perspectives and expertise have great value when confronting a set of collective-action challenges like energy, decarbonization and climate change,” said Boykoff.

This Colorado discussion is part of a national effort of 55 university-hosted webinars, led by Eban Goodstein from Bard College in New York, with support from David Blockstein from the Association of Environmental Studies and Sciences. For more information, visit

“We are living through a unique moment in the history of this country where the role of states in safeguarding the wellbeing of its peoples is highlighted like never before,” Boykoff said. “We are seeing in real time the criticality of cooperation, civic-mindedness and trust across our communities and institutions. Going forward, we must continue to invest in these values for the benefit of Colorado.”

This event is co-sponsored by the Colorado Energy Office, the Conference on World Affairs, the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, the Boulder Faculty Climate Science & Education Committee, the Media and Climate Change Observatory, and Inside the Greenhouse at CU Boulder.

Registration is required. Those who RSVP will be emailed the log-on information just before the event to participate. 

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CSTPR Good News Friday

During our time of remote staffing and learning, CSTPR recently began a weekly coffee hour through Zoom to share upcoming news and announcements. Below are a few announcements that were shared the past two weeks.

CSTPR grad student Patrick Chandler (Environmental Studies), Beth Osnes (Theatre and Environmental Studies) and Max Boykoff (Environmental Studies) recently wrote a chapter ‘Creative climate communications: Teaching from the heart thru the arts’ in Teaching Climate Change in the United States (Joseph Henderson & Andrea Drewes, eds., Routledge 2020). Patrick was also recently awarded a Summer 2020 Fellowship from the Center for Humanities & the Arts. This award was given to support his work in the Creative Climate Change Curriculum project. Congrats Patrick!

CSTPR grad student Olivia Pearman recently was awarded a CIRES Graduate Student Research Award for 2020. The Graduate Student Research Award program was established to promote student scholarship and research excellence. The goal of the program is to recognize the scholarship and merit of CIRES’ outstanding graduate students. Congrats Olivia!

CSTPR grad student Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey recently received an Institute of Behavioral Science (IBS) summer research grant for work with IBS researchers Drs. Amanda Carrico and Lori Peek of the IBS Environment and Society Program to study the role of inter-community social ties and migration on knowledge transmission about adaptive agricultural practices among Bangladeshi farmers. He also received a CU Boulder Graduate School Summer Fellowship to conduct dissertation research, analysis and writing. Lastly, Jeremiah just received an Association of American Geographers (AAG) and Gamma Theta Upsilon (GTU) Student Travel Award! AAG and GTU have partnered to raise funds to support student attendance at the AAG annual meeting.  The 2021 Annual AAG meeting will be held in Seattle next spring. Congrats on your recent awards Jeremiah!

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Power Dialog 4.7.20: Climate Solutions for Colorado

Tuesday, April 7, 2020
5:00 – 6:30 PM
Registration Required
| More Info

The Power Dialog will support College and University partners across the US, focused on the potential to solve the energy side of climate change by 2030. Here in Colorado, the Dialog gives students and community members a voice in critical decisions that will determine their future, and the future of the earth.

Messages from National PowerDialog and Governor Jared Polis

On A Just Transition in Colorado& Beyond

Ask Questions & Talk with Panelists


  • Phaedra Pezzullo, Environmental Communication,CU Boulder
  • Bill Ritter, Former Governor of Colorado, Center for the New Energy Economy, CSU
  • Jorge Figueroa, Co-Founder and Director, El Laboratorio
  • Max Boykoff, Center for Science and Technology Policy Research
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Climate Researchers Fear the Coronavirus Pandemic Could End Up Politicized

CPR News
by Sam Brasch

It’s been a strange few weeks for academics who study the climate debate. 

Benjamin Hale, an ethicist and an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, started paying attention to the coronavirus outbreak in China in January. He quickly noticed a familiar pattern from his work on climate change. Only with coronavirus, that pattern played out at warp speed. 

At first, the U.S. news media reported the virus as a far off threat. Then, as outbreaks grew in countries like Italy, Hale watched outlets portray the virus as a more immediate crisis. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump and other conservative leaders downplayed the pandemic as a “new hoax” meant to damage the economy and the current administration. Slowly, as abstract predictions became a visible reality, right-wing politicians called for a response, but one that doesn’t cause undue economic harm. 

Hale knows the parallels between the two issues aren’t perfect, but he thinks they contain one big lesson: be careful not to politicize the crisis. Partisanship has buried the urgent science of global warming. A similar development around the coronavirus could make an unfolding pandemic even worse. 

“If we learned something about our experience with climate change, it’s that we are better off if we disagree about the various policy responses, but nevertheless try to work together to acknowledge the problem and address it,” Hale said. 

There’s no question climate change has become a deeply partisan issue. One recent Pew Research survey found only 21 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters believe the climate should be a top priority in Washington D.C. By contrast, 78 percent of Democrats said it should be a top priority. The gap marked the largest partisan split of the 18 issues polled. 

That divide has had a clear impact on U.S. climate policy.

While President Barack Obama signed onto the Paris Climate Accord, President Trump made the U.S. into the first country to begin to withdraw from it. While a growing number of blue states have embraced aggressive climate policies, those ideas appear dead-on-arrival in red states. 

Max Boykoff, an associate professor at CU Boulder and the director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, worries a similar split could damage the national response to the coronavirus. Neither infectious diseases nor greenhouse gases respect state boundaries. Boykoff said that means both problems require national leadership.

“Irrespective of left-right politics, the current administration has not put forward a coordinated, clear plan in order to address climate change or COVID,” he said. 

Boykoff added any conclusions should be seen critically, but there’s a need to follow scientific advice, especially in moments of crisis. What he worries about are efforts to depart from experts for economic or political reasons. That’s what he said happened to climate change when the fossil fuel industry realized what a national response might mean for their bottom line. 

While it might feel like the distant past, Boykoff recalled Republicans once promised to address the climate crisis. President George H.W. Bush said he would fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect in the late 1980s. Right-wing policymakers changed their tune after energy interests funded think tanks and propaganda efforts to, as the backers of one 1991 ad campaign put it, “reposition global warming as theory” and not fact.

Boykoff said the split ossified further during the 2000 election when Vice President Al Gore and President Bush split over whether the U.S. should join the Kyoto Protocol. 

Dominique Bossard, a professor of Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies risk communication, said Gore’s later emergence as the leading spokesman for climate action likely only deepened the divide. 

“Everybody knew who he was,” she said. “Everybody knew he was a Democratic candidate.”

It appears the debate over the novel coronavirus could be on a different political trajectory. While climate change has become more political over time, the partisan gap around the pandemic appears to be shrinking. Republicans, initially unconcerned about the threat of an outbreak, increasingly say they’re worried about the disease reaching into their own communities. 

The trend aligns with a change in tone from the president and his media allies. As outbreaks and market shocks have grown in recent weeks, the president has shifted from downplaying the pandemic to calling for a response. 

Bossard is doubtful the debate could ever be apolitical, though. The crisis is playing out in an election year and Trump’s response will be analyzed through the prospect of a second term. But Bossard has noticed less partisanship from governors and mayors, who she said have mostly tried to communicate to protect public health rather than their own political careers. 

Hale, the CU Boulder ethicist, fears support for specific policies to address the pandemic could become a question of political identity. That’s already largely happened with climate change. To make sure the same doesn’t happen with coronavirus, he said people should be careful about how they assign blame for the crisis. 

“It’s important to be critical of policies or decision-making for sure, but we have to be careful not to add a tagline that this entire community or political party is somehow derelict or bad,” he said. “We don’t want people retreating to their safe space as Democrats or Republicans. We have to find a way to work together to solve this.” 

With coronavirus or climate change, he said there should be some clarity about shared values. Noone wants to cause deaths or tank the economy. The question, he said, is how those outcomes can be most effectively avoided.

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Move to Online Learning Mostly Smooth

by Katie Langford
Boulder Daily Camera

More than 30,000 University of Colorado Boulder students and their professors have transitioned from traditional, in-person classes to all online classes within a matter of days.

Every CU class switched to remote, online learning Monday, and faculty and students so far say the transition is relatively smooth, though campus leaders reported a few hurdles.

Assistant professor Matthew Burgess started preparing to take all of his classes online days before campus leaders announced the change in a bid to stop the spread of the new coronavirus on campus.

“I was so sure it was coming on Monday of last week that I drafted a plan for both of my classes and sent it to my students on Tuesday,” he said. CU Boulder announced the plan to take all classes online March 11, the next day.

Burgess teaches two courses, Introduction of Developing Environmental Solutions and Sustainable Economies.

While Burgess said he was most concerned about his introductory class because it’s focused on students doing work in class and learning concepts through reading outside of class, so far things are going smoothly. He has two teaching assistants and two lecture assistants for the course. For each class, more than 100 students are on a Zoom call, and Burgess has a separate Google meeting going at the same time so that students can meet with him or an assistant one-on-one if they have questions.

“I would say the overwhelming majority of those students we’ve heard from seem very happy with how it’s being handled,” Burgess said. “A small minority of students are very frustrated with the technical difficulties, and part of that is the fact that they are paying the same tuition for what they see as an inferior product.”

Senior Mallie Bruce, an architecture major, said she was nervous about the switch to remote learning. She had never taken an online class before this week.

Most of her classes focus on hands-on learning, and professors and students are still figuring out what that looks like in an online-only classroom.

Bruce’s professors are also using Zoom calls to have class at regular times, and students can see each other and their instructor.

“Having campus closed has been difficult because we use a lot of computer programs that are really expensive and we use school licensing for and we don’t have access to those,” she said.

But her professors are working to get students remote access to the programs they need, and several of her projects and exams have been postponed while the wrinkles are worked out.

“It’s been really good that the university has given this week as a transition period, and they’ve been understanding,” she said.

In an email to faculty, Provost Russell Moore asked instructors and professors to be flexible with exams, quizzes and graded assignments in light of “significant upheaval” in students’ lives. Faculty could postpone assignments until after spring break or give students the option to make up quizzes or exams they take this week, Moore said.

“This step will ensure that none of our students delay their departure from Boulder solely because they must take an exam or quiz on a particular date the rest of this week,” Moore wrote.

Moore also wrote that there has been some confusion about the transition to online learning, including instructors telling students that their classes will be canceled for the rest of the semester or that they will have to retake labs, studios or workshops next year. None of that is true.

CU Boulder’s Office of Information Technology also reported that some faculty have required hours of oneon- one help or have used “abusive language emails or conversation.”

“Be respectful of the OIT staff members’ time and your colleagues’ similar need for help, and above all, be patient,” Moore wrote to faculty members. “Abusive language toward any member of our staff is unacceptable, no matter one’s level of frustration.”

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Crisis Response and the Standing of Expert Knowledge

by Steve Vanderheiden
CSTPR Core Faculty and Associate Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies

Photo above: A nurse wears protective gear at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site in Seattle on March 17, 2020. Photo: Brian Snyder, Reuters.

As I write this, the University of Colorado is starting its first week of fully online teaching and learning as part of an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. This and other social distancing efforts aim to “flatten the curve” of new infections in order to mitigate impacts on an overwhelmed health care system and buy time for that system to build the capacity it needs to treat those likely to be made seriously ill by the virus. Italy and Spain are in lockdown, restaurants and other facilities across the country have been closed, and financial markets are in freefall as global commerce grinds to a halt. We are now living in one of those times that more attentive societies anticipate and for which successful societies prepare.

Thus far, our social response might charitably be described as mixed.  Many states and localities have been proactive in efforts to contain the virus and respond to the needs of those least able to withstand weeks of school closures and mandatory social distancing. The Boulder Valley YMCA is providing emergency day care for the children of first responders, medical personnel, and parents that live paycheck-to-paycheck and cannot afford to take leave from work, and BVSD is providing food for families whose children can no longer access it through school cafeterias. With minimal resources from or coordination by the federal government, states have ramped up their own pandemic response capacities in an effort to fill the huge void left by an inept and broken government In Washington DC.

My aim here is not to detail the full scope and scale of the federal government’s failure to adequately respond to the pandemic, but as a professional political scientist neither can I refrain from making a few critical observations about it. Testing capacity remains abysmally low, the result of well-documented problems that will offer a cautionary tale about the perils of poor political judgment and politicized interference in science policy. The president’s response has been so inept and counterproductive that it has shaken even his most ardent supporters, along with financial markets, which no previous crisis could manage. Throughout his public appearances, he has appeared to be pathologically unable to avoid spreading misinformation about the virus or to take any kind of responsibility for his administration’s failure to prepare (or dismantling of pandemic preparations put in place before his presidency) for this crisis. The absence of even basic administrative competence throughout the executive branch has been on full display, with the need for expert knowledge and guidance made painfully evident.

The postmortem of American social and political analysis that inquires into what led to our being so catastrophically unprepared before the outbreak, as well as during its first two months, will be critical to our identifying failures, and should serve to point the way to being better prepared for such crises in the future. Crises like this one expose our vulnerabilities as a society, giving us the opportunity to learn from and correct our failures. Some of this analysis has already begun, with early diagnoses focusing upon the president’s personal pathologies and those associated with his governing style.

Certainly, these tell an important part of the story. A chief executive that relies upon ideological litmus tests and demands for personal loyalty rather than administrative competence as criteria for key appointments would predictably result in an executive branch that is less effective in advancing its routine mission, with very low capacity to respond to a genuine crisis. One that subscribes to and occasionally perpetuates fringe conspiracy theories but attacks the mainstream media and dismisses mainstream science as unreliable sources of information is unlikely to be circumspect enough to identity his own errors, much less take steps to correct them. Indeed, a president that has literally and metaphorically sought to wall off the country from the world and in so doing exclude and malign those blamed for its problems is unlikely to be prepared for a virus that disembarks at airports and resists the discursive weapons that he maintains in his arsenal. However, focusing on Trump’s shortcomings as a leader or the missteps of his administration can obscure a more pervasive malaise that predates his presidency but may also have contributed to the paucity of competent federal government responses to the current pandemic: the diminished standing of expert knowledge in politics.

While this president surely regards any other source of knowledge or information as a threat to his authority, the marginalization of some of those sources has been ongoing for decades. Observers have long decried the declining influence of expertise of various kinds in government actions, institutions, and policies. Indeed, I’ve previously written in this forum about the silencing of experts in critical policy areas and CU’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research has long served as an advocate for effective translation of science into policy-relevant assessment and guidance. To fully understand why the federal government’s pandemic response failed so badly despite the prodding of recent H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks, we must look to the ways in which expert knowledge has been valued or devalued, how this has affected its standing and influence in policy formation (including emergency preparedness) and how these in turn might help to account for some of the failures and deficits noted above.

A reasonable starting point might involve examination of federal support for scientific research, hypothesizing that this should correlate with the standing of expertise in politics and society. But if the standing of expertise in policy-making has been in a decades-long decline—perhaps punctuated by occasional reversals based on party control of government in Washington but nonetheless on a marked long-term decline from its post-Sputnik peak —this trend would not appear to correspond with trends in science agency research grant budgets. Three years into an administration that has in most ways been overtly hostile to science, and thanks to effective science advocacy within and beyond the U.S. Congress, research funding budgets at the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science will all see healthy increases in 2020, despite several months of deadlock.[1] We’re continuing to support scientific research, but making less use of it and in some cases seeking to distance ourselves as a society from some of what we learn from it. Why is this?

Looking deeper, perhaps the declining standing of expert knowledge in policy is a product not of how much overall research is funded, but what kinds of research get funded. Perhaps the declining standing of expertise in state policy formation is a function of declining state support for the kinds of knowledge creation that might in a more evidence-based political system provide a counterweight to the whims of policymakers that also set science research funding budgets. Here, we might postulate that less policy-relevant science would flourish as the standing of expertise in policy declines, whether to contain any epistemic authority that it creates within a domain where its influence on policy is rare and ineffective or to punish those researchers whose work appears to be too policy-relevant for policymakers to control or dismiss. Perhaps the epistemic authority of expert knowledge poses a potential threat to the political authority of policymakers when the two meet in a single domain, as when the research informs the design or evaluation of policy or institutions, but not otherwise. Here, a recent study about how climate research funds have been allocated across different fields of knowledge production is enlightening.

Analyzing data from 4.3 million research grants for climate research from 333 donors between 1950 and 2021, Overland and Sovacool found that only 0.12 percent of the $1.3 trillion spent to support climate went toward social science research on climate mitigation, which is perhaps the most urgent and policy-relevant problem related to climate change. Overall, the natural and technical sciences received nearly eight times the support as the social sciences over the past three decades, despite “one of the most urgent unsolved puzzles” being fundamentally social scientific in nature – i.e. “how to get people to act on what they know, that is to say, how to alter society to mitigate climate change.”[2] Whether funds for research into climate policy and governance have been restricted in order to minimize the standing of experts that might challenge the authority of policymakers that are disinclined to take action on climate change, or because that decline in standing resulted from being starved of research funding, the gap between government funding of knowledge that can readily be translated into policy guidance and that which cannot is striking, and consistent with funding agencies seeking to avoid the wrath of politicians.

Such wrath and its impacts upon research funding—and with it, entire areas of research—has been seen before. In 2013, longtime critic of the NSF political science program Tom Coburn (R-OK) attached an amendment to funding legislation to ban any use of research funds unless the program director could certify in writing that the project would be “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States,” effectively killing the $10 million political science program. Among the ideological reasons for the program’s elimination was that it had supported social science research into climate impacts and mitigation, angering some legislators that viewed such research as posing an obstacle to their attempts to avoid taking action to control greenhouse emissions. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who had authored a bill to defund the program the previous year, specifically cited the program’s grant of “$700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis” in his rationale.[3]  Science can be more or less threatening to incumbent politicians, with more policy-relevant research posing a greater potential threat than does research that has no specific implications for policy. Research that is “safe” from threats like those made against the political science program may well be more attractive from a funding agency management perspective, but it may also contribute toward the declining status of the enterprise of science insofar it fails to engage contemporary public problems. Its marginalization from state decision-making during times of emergency may be the most visible consequence, but the sidelining and silencing of experts and suppression of expert knowledge has been ongoing for decades.

A similar dynamic can be seen in the status of various fields of knowledge creation (a term that I prefer for reasons to be explained forthwith) within the university. Those of us that recall taking philosophy of science as part of our social science methods training may cringe when asked whether our research should be categorized as “science,” recalling bitter debates between positivists and their critics but also recognizing what is often at stake in the question for our professional lives. In the academy, it pays to at least emulate the natural sciences, with a hierarchy of faculty salaries and research funding availability within and among social science departments often tracking the extent to which one’s research program embraces methodologies shared with the natural sciences, like the quantitative analysis of large data sets. Scholars utilizing critical and normative methodologies to study the same subjects tend as a result to find themselves low in this hierarchy, near their colleagues in the humanities that share their distance from science as conventionally defined but nonetheless engage in knowledge-creation. Not all “science” is policy-relevant or socially useful in an instrumental sense (nor should it be), and some knowledge that serves to better equip society to understand and address its problems occurs outside of STEM fields. We all stand in solidarity against proposals to cut research funding as an attack on knowledge-creation and the social value of university research, but we don’t all benefit when those attacks are repelled.

If a society’s values can be gleaned from what forms of knowledge-creation it decides or declines to support, we might infer that the contemporary United States continues to value many forms of knowledge of the natural and physical world (if perhaps less than knowledge with more commercial potential), cares relatively less to know how the social and political worlds work or fail to do so, and cares still less for the humanistic disciplines that eschew the scientific method altogether. As for questions of equity or justice, or generally the sort of critical inquiry that is designed to highlight our failings so that we might correct them, the almost complete absence of government research funding support for such research suggests that we value these very little. Apart from intellectual prejudices about whether these count as knowledge at all, their persistent questioning and criticism are often viewed as a nuisance to those making research funding decisions at the legislative level. Indeed, the NSF political science program was viewed as a nuisance and accordingly cut, despite providing little or no support to scholars engaging in critical or normative research. Society might value knowledge about the wider world but does not value (or even actively disvalues) knowledge about itself and its shortcomings.

The university’s values might be inferred in a similar way. The relative standing of its various knowledge areas can be discerned by their budget lines and this hierarchy has driven and is further entrenched with the reorganization of the College of Arts and Sciences into separate and more autonomous colleges of science, social science, and arts and humanities. The recent decision to shutter CSTPR likewise reveals the relative standing of the social and natural sciences on campus, which is itself a product of how knowledge-creation is valued and funded by the state and society. While the university has only a limited capacity to assert the value of knowledge creation areas that have not been valued by funding agencies, it has largely accepted and reinforced this hierarchy rather than challenging or flattening it.

As we watch with dismay at how damaging the intentional marginalization of expert knowledge has been in the nation’s initial response to COVID-19, we might consider how best to restore the standing of those with the knowledge and expertise to help. We might start with the university, where much of our knowledge and expertise originates, and look for sources of obstruction or diminution. As we continue to follow current events with the realization that some of the errors that have already been committed or are committed in the future could have been avoided if relevant fields of knowledge-creation been properly valued and their contributions constructively utilized, we might wonder how to better appreciate their value, even if as a kind of nuisance. We must of course remain cognizant of elevating the standing and influence of such experts beyond what prudence or democratic norms allow, but this lies within the intellectual wheelhouse of areas of expertise that have been chronically undervalued and so gives us more reason to be inclusive of critical and normative methodologies in the process.

In looking back to diagnose what failed and what worked in our response to this crisis so that we can more intelligently look ahead to the next one, we might recall the story of Socrates in Plato’s Apology. Put on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates was unafraid to speak truth to power, casting his role in that society as that of a “gadfly” whose critical role was to irritate others out of complacency. As he declares at the end of his trial, “you may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping” and so be inclined to eliminate the nuisance that disturbs your slumber, but the expert that provides evidence-based crisis preparation or response guidance as well as the researcher that inquires into how to improve our political institutions should be appreciated for the discomfort that they occasionally cause given their value to society in performing this critical function, and be supported as such. (Those familiar with the story know that Socrates made this very argument at his trial, angering his listeners and resulting in his being sentenced to death, but we’ll leave that part aside here.) Among the more important reasons for public support of knowledge-creation is this ability for society to engage in self-criticism—or to paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined society is not worth having—which is a prerequisite to self-correction and thus an imperative that is particularly urgent given our failings in the present crisis and our need to learn from them.

[1] Jeffrey Mervis and David Malakoff, “Final Spending Bill is Kind to U.S. research,” Science (online edition), 16 December 2019.

[2] Indra Overland and Benjamin K. Sovacool, “The Misallocation of Climate Research Funding,” Energy Research & Social Science 62 (2020).

[3] Timothy Noah, “Political Science in the Crosshairs,” The New Republic, 22 March 2013.

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Homeward Bound Alumni Speaks on Gender Issues in Antarctica

CU Independent
by Mairead Brogan

Cassandra Brooks, an assistant professor in Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, spoke to students and community members Monday night in the CU History Museum on her experience leading Homeward Bound, a global women’s leadership initiative in the Antarctic.

Brooks received a Ph.D. in international ocean policy with a focus on marine protection in the antarctic from Stanford University. She was a core member of the Last Ocean Project, helping derive the creation of the world’s largest marine protected area in the Ross Sea. Brooks has published over 150 stories on marine science and the environment. She has traveled to Antarctica several times on various research trips.

“Despite being such a harsh climate, its waters actually teem with life. In fact, Antarctica contains some of our last healthy marine ecosystems left in the world,” said Brooks.

Homeward Bound is a global leadership network that aims to create a healthier planet through women’s leadership initiatives. Women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and  medicine go on 11-month trips in Antarctica.

“The more diversity of voices we have, the better we are gonna solve the problems,” said Brooks.

Brooks briefed the room on the history of Antarctic protection. In 1959 global leaders signed the Antarctic Treaty which made the continent of Antarctica a scientific exploration center. The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources resides on this treaty and governs fisheries and other activities in the oceans surrounding Antarctica. The two main fisheries in the southern ocean are for krill, a small aquatic crustacean, and toothfish, which act as the top fish predator in the Southern Ocean.

“It’s inspiring to see how much activity there is for female scientists and leaders…there’s a very large momentum of shifting leadership at a time where we’re facing environmental crises,” said community member Cal Brackin.

Brooks asked attendees how many of them have eaten a southern ocean species. Besides a few audience members aware of the relabeling of these species, no one had seen krill or toothfish on any menus or ingredients labels.

Most people have in fact eaten a southern ocean species. Supplement companies use krill for fish oil omega-3 pills and restaurants market toothfish with the more appealing name, Chilean Sea Bass. Toothfish have long life cycles and reproduce at a late age, making them especially vulnerable to overexploitation.

“Chilean Sea Bass are not Sea Bass, they’re not from Chile, they are toothfish from Antarctica,” said Brooks.“It brought home for me how bad off the rest of our global fisheries are if we’re actually sending ships all the way to Antarctica.”

Brooks then expanded on her role in the establishment of the largest marine protected area in the Ross Sea. Looking at the map of protected areas, Brooks said “this is an amazing start, but really to safeguard biodiversity in the Southern Ocean we need a network of protected areas.”

Brooks said that she and her husband named their daughter after Antarctic Adélie penguins. “I really want my Adélie to be able to live in this world thriving with Adélie penguins,” Brooks said.

Last year, around this time, a colleague of Brooks called her and asked if she would be willing to come to Antarctica on a women’s leadership expedition, Homeward Bound.

Brooks discussed the history of women in Antarctica. Women have only been allowed for the last 50 years and the first came in November of 1969. She explained that when women tried to come they were told, “It’s not a women’s place, the climate is too harsh, women can’t handle crisis situations (and) they can’t lift heavy equipment.”

The United States let the first women work in Antarctica in 1979 with the US Antarctic program — Britain followed in 1983 allowing women in their British Antarctic Survey. Today, women represent a third of the people at the South Pole. Only 10% of senior leaders are women.

“It was really nice to see the leadership, the actual things that were being done on the ground,” said CU undergraduate Elizabeth Woolner.

Throughout the course of the program, Brooks learned that being a leader “means being authentic.”

“It made me realize that a leader can look like anyone. It could look like everyone. It could look like all of you,” Brooks said.

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Ecological Economics, Dangerous Ideas, and Academic Freedom

by Matthew Burgess
CSTPR Core Faculty and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies

Few things make me appreciate the importance of leaving space for discussing dangerous ideas—without fear of reprisal or censorship—in academia than teaching ecological economics and interacting with ecological economists. I developed a course at CU called “Sustainable Economies” (ENVS 3555, offered in Spring 2021, for those interested), which brings ecological economics together with traditional macroeconomics and some other topics related to political economy (tribalism, democracy, inequality, social capital, etc.). I also recently joined the International Society for Ecological Economics, and attended their U.S. affiliate’s annual conference this past summer.

Ecological economists discuss some pretty dangerous ideas. For instance, some ecological economists—and some students who take my class—argue that environmental sustainability demands radical de-growth, i.e. a radical decrease in the size of the economy. These arguments don’t always include specific numbers, but when they do they can be pretty drastic.

For instance, one argument I’ve seen starts from the target of halving CO2 emissions by 2030 (following the recent IPCC report on 1.5 degrees of warming), and assumes U.S. growth rates in population (0.5%/year) and CO2 intensity of GDP (–1.5%/year over the past two years) stay constant. To square these numbers with the target of halving emissions, some students calculate—correctly!—that we would need a ~6%/year decline in GDP per capita. To put this in context, this means we’d need an economic contraction larger than the Great Recession in 2008-2009 (which was about –5% per-capita GDP in the U.S.) every year for the next ten years. I have little doubt that an economic shock this severe would cause total sociopolitical breakdown, large increases of poverty, unrest, violence, and probably political movements far scarier than anything we have now.

I’ve also heard (e.g. here from a prominent climate journalist) arguments for immediately banning fossil fuels—despite the fact that they currently make up the vast majority of global energy use. Again, I have no doubt that doing this would cause widespread suffering, poverty, death, and probably violence—likely most acutely felt by the poor and marginalized.

Whether they’re right or wrong, these are very dangerous ideas!

But, I’m glad my students—and my colleagues—are willing to put these ideas forward. These ideas nicely tee up discussions of the sociopolitical implications of radical de-growth, which students might not otherwise discuss. Through rigorous, open, and unencumbered debate, my students, and our profession, will get to grapple with these concerns about radical de-growth or immediate de-carbonization, and weigh them against other very legitimate concerns about the consequences of not meeting climate targets, menus of other options, etc. As a result, we will all become better, more thoughtful, more precise scientists, climate advocates, policy makers, voters, and whatever else we may do in our lives and careers.

What would happen if we instead censored or reprimanded students, journalists, and scholars who put forward these ideas and opinions? Would they change their minds? Would students, parents, and politicians sympathetic to these views trust academics as arbiters of truth and public education? Would we be able to grapple with the important but unsettling tradeoffs that their views might raise (e.g. is it possible to cut emissions in half by 2030 without major de-growth? If so, how? If not, what should we do?)? Would the quality of education and scholarship improve? To my mind, the answer to all of these questions is clearly ‘no’, which is why I would never advocate for such censorship, nor would any of my colleagues, I suspect.

Nonetheless, I think this is a useful analogy for understanding why academic censorship—of even dangerous ideas—does more harm than good. It’s also useful for understanding why many conservatives have recently become skeptical of the value of higher education, as ideological concentration among faculty, and the censorship and chilling of conservative speech, have become more acute on many campuses (e.g., see here, here, and here). I suspect that many leftists would have the same jaded views of academia as many conservatives currently do if folks were harassed or hounded out of their jobs, administrative duties, teaching assignments, speaking engagements, etc., for expressing views in favor of radical de-growth or immediate fossil-fuel bans—ideas that are, objectively, far more dangerous than most of the conservative ideas that have invited censorship on campuses recently.    

Of course, even if we decide that some ideas are worth censoring, it usually doesn’t work, especially for political speech. Firing and de-platforming people for their ideas tends to give them and their ideas a bigger platform as martyrs, and tends to make their adherents angrier and more radical, rather than more willing to listen to countervailing facts or points of view. In other words, an academy with very robust academic freedom norms/policies, and an ability to discuss even dangerous ideas, makes our discourses and institutions smarter and stronger, not weaker; and it makes our policies better and less dangerous, not more dangerous. And constructive, rigorous discourse across ideological and political difference pours water on the fires of our division. Censorship usually pours gasoline on these fires. Credit where it is due, by the way: the ecological economists I have met get this, and are very open to both criticism and vigorous debate.

This will be my last Prometheus column before CSTPR closes this summer, and one reason I wanted to devote it to this topic is in honor of our founding Director, Roger Pielke Jr. Reactions to some of Roger’s work—from politicians, online pundits, and occasionally other scientists—have sometimes tested the guardrails of academic freedom—tests we at CU have passed at the institutional level. I have found Roger to be a smart and insightful voice, including in instances when I disagreed with him (e.g., we disagree on the implications of Robert Gordon’s work on economic growth, but we have since collaborated on a paper on a related topic). His book, The Honest Broker, provides helpful guidance for scientists on how to inform and interact with contentious policy debates.

Our CU Regent policies on academic freedom and free speech are now some of the best in the country, in my estimation. If we maintain this, it will only improve our reputation—as it has at the University of Chicago. It will also improve our ability to build a harmonious, inclusive, and diverse campus, as I argued previously in response to Academic Futures. I hope that our campus leadership and community will continue to appreciate this as we move forward with our “yearlong focus on academic freedom”. Schools that fail to uphold academic freedom tend to suffer in terms of reputation, enrollment, and also diversity—as has happened at Evergreen State College and the University of Missouri for instance, following high-profile rows on their campuses.

Thank you to all the staff, faculty, and leadership at CSTPR, who have made this a fun and intellectually stimulating place to work over the past two years.

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Opportunities for Agent-Based Modelling in Human Dimensions of Fisheries

Fish and Fisheries, 2020

by M.G. Burgess, E. Carrella, M. Drexler, R.L. Axtell, R.M. Bailey, J.R. Watson, R.B. Cabral, M. Clemence, C. Costello, C. Dorsett, S.D. Gaines, E. S. Klein, P. Koralus, G. Leonard, S.A. Levin, L.R. Little, J. Lynham, J.K. Madsen, A. Merkl, B. Owashi, S.E. Saul, I.E. van Putten, S. Wilcox

Abstract: Models of human dimensions of fisheries are important to understanding and predicting how fishing industries respond to changes in marine ecosystems and management institutions. Advances in computation have made it possible to construct agent‐based models (ABMs)—which explicitly describe the behaviour of individual people, firms or vessels in order to understand and predict their aggregate behaviours. ABMs are widely used for both academic and applied purposes in many settings including finance, urban planning and the military, but are not yet mainstream in fisheries science and management, despite a growing literature. ABMs are well suited to understanding emergent consequences of fisher interactions, heterogeneity and bounded rationality, especially in complex ecological, social and institutional contexts. For these reasons, we argue that ABMs of human behaviour can contribute significantly to human dimensions of fisheries in three areas: (a) understanding interactions between multiple management institutions; (b) incorporating cognitive and behavioural sciences into fisheries science and practice; and (c) understanding and projecting the social consequences of management institutions. We provide simple examples illustrating the potential for ABMs in each of these areas, using conceptual (“toy”) versions of the POSEIDON model. We argue that salient strategic advances in these areas could pave the way for increased tactical use of ABMs in fishery management settings. We review common ABM development and application challenges, with the aim of providing guidance to beginning ABM developers and users studying human dimensions of fisheries. Read more …

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