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Communication Strategies of Environmental NGOs and Advocacy Groups

Summary and Keywords

Environmental organizations have been critically important in publicizing and supplying arguments about climate change, just as with the other environmental issues facing contemporary societies. In their campaigns and activism, environmental groups need to be able to make influential and widely circulated claims about the state of the natural world or the ecological impact of human activities. To do this, they have to “manage” their relationship to science. Environmentalists (in contrast to many other campaigners) are obliged to be science communicators because the convincingness of their message depends on the underlying presumption that their claims have a basis in factual, scientific accuracy.

Facing the science and communication challenges of climate change, environmentalists have often found their role to be an unusual one. Unlike in most other ecological campaign areas, they have been committed to defending or bolstering mainstream scientific opinion about the nature and causes of climate change. Nonetheless, they have sought ways of distancing themselves from some of the policy and technological options apparently favored by leading scientific figures. And they have pioneered approaches based more on long-term investment strategies and normative values which, to some degree, allow them to sidestep difficulties associated with the adoption of a subordinate role in the science communication arena.

Keywords: ENGOs, environmental NGOs, science communication, authority of science/scientific authority, unburnable carbon, fracking, decarbonization, peer review and quality control

Introduction: Climate Change and Environmentalists as Obligate Science Communicators

Environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) and advocacy groups have long been renowned for their stunts and campaigning, not least in relation to policies around climate change. They run shadow events to accompany international climate negotiations, they mount noisy protests over airport construction projects, and have adapted their earlier antinuclear mobilizations to oppose new coal-fired power stations as well as carbon capture and storage facilities. Their opponents have frequently criticized bodies such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, Earth First!, and even WWF, as well as other more recent organizations such as Plane Stupid, for favoring the slick image over the accurate message. But this criticism—though interesting and sometimes telling—implicitly acknowledges something even more fundamental. The key point is that environmental pressure groups can be called to account on this score precisely because the convincingness of their message depends on the notion that their claims have a basis in factual accuracy—that they are not simply matters of opinion or ideology, but can withstand expert, scientific scrutiny. Environmentalists, more than any other type of campaigner, need to persuade the public that things are in fact the way they say things are (see Yearley, 1992) even when some of the claims they are making seem—at first glance at least—to be counterintuitive or implausible: that common aerosol propellants can affect the upper atmosphere, that minute plastic spheres in cosmetic products can end up accumulating in ocean creatures, or that burning coal, gas, and oil can unsettle the entire global climate.

In what is clearly the preeminent environmental debate of the early 21st century, environmentalists have for two or more decades been keen to assert that climate change is in fact taking place, is in need of urgent solution, and that it has been humanly caused alterations in the make-up of the atmosphere that are responsible. The centrality of this dependence on scientific evidence in relation to climate change was neatly illustrated by a recent development in Britain. The U.K. environmentalist and author Mark Lynas announced in 2013 a high-profile about-turn in his views on genetically modified crops, which he had previously denounced. In his statement to a U.K. farming audience that year he made clear that deference to science had been key for him. In the third paragraph of his speech he stated that the reason for his change of heart was:

. . . fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist. Having written two books about the science of global warming, I came to understand that defending climate science was incompatible with attacking the science of biotechnology.

(Lynas, 2013)

Without for the moment saying more about the rights and wrongs of Lynas’s arguments or the wisdom of this tactic from a campaigning point of view, the decisive point here is that Lynas felt that the need to support the scientific community’s claims about climate change was so vital that he was driven to reevaluate his scepticism about scientists’ views on agricultural biotechnology and to disavow those views publicly in front of his former opponents.

The key claim underlying this article is that there is an elective affinity between environmental campaign organizations and scientific claims that is to a large degree distinctive among pressure groups. This gives environmentalists and green campaigning bodies an urgent interest in science communication issues and makes them significant science-communication actors in the climate arena. But while it effectively makes them into obligate science communicators, this does not guarantee that the communications job is at all a straightforward or comfortable one in relation to global climate change.1

Climate Change as an Atypical Science Communication Challenge for Environmentalists

Environmental campaign organizations have been important in supplying arguments about and publicizing problems in relation to a very large number of environmental issues. In many respects their approach to climate change has been patterned on other campaigns around, for example, ocean dumping or acid emissions from power stations.

As is well known, scientists have been aware for over a century that the climate undergoes significant variation, and there has long been a concern that human society could not forever count on a stable climate. It might one day become significantly hotter or, alternatively, the world might return to widespread glacial conditions. As research on climate was refined, in part thanks to the growth in computing power in the 1970s and 1980s, the majority opinion endorsed an earlier suggestion that enhanced warming, driven by the buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide, was the problem more likely to confront humankind in the short to medium term. Leading environmental groups are reported to have been initially wary of campaigning around this issue in the 1980s (Pearce, 1991, p. 284), since it seemed such a long shot and with such high stakes. With acid rain high on the agenda and many governments active in denying scientific claims about even this comparatively straightforward effect, the odds seemed too steep to declare publicly that emissions might be sending the whole climate out of control. Worse still from a campaigner’s point of view, at a time when environmentalists were looking for concrete successes, the issue seemed almost designed to provoke and sustain controversy. The records of past temperatures across the globe as a whole were not then good and there was the danger that rising trends in urban air-temperature measurements in the West were simply an artefact: Perhaps cities had simply become warmer as they grew in size. Others doubted that additional carbon dioxide releases would lead to a buildup of the gas in the atmosphere since the great majority of carbon is in soils, trees, and the oceans, so sea creatures and plants might simply sequester more carbon. And even if the scientific community was correct about the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it was fiendishly difficult to work out what the implications of this would be in order to build campaigns with local or national resonance in most countries.

Hart and Victor helpfully tracked the interaction between climate science and U.S. climate policy from the 1950s up to the mid 1970s, by which time greenhouse emissions were beginning to be “positioned as an issue of pollution” (1993, p. 668). The climate, “scientific leaders discovered, could be portrayed as a natural resource that needed to be defended from the onslaught of industrialism” (1993, p. 667). Subsequently, according to Bodansky (1994, p. 48), the topic’s rise to policy prominence in the 1990s was assisted by other considerations. There was, for example, the announcement of the discovery of the “ozone hole” in 1987; this lent credibility to the idea that the atmosphere was vulnerable to environmental degradation and that humans could unwittingly cause harm at a global level (Christie, 2001). Also famously important was the coincidence in 1988 between U.S. Senate hearings into the issue and a very hot and dry summer in the United States. Nonetheless, most politicians responded to the warnings in the 1980s with limited policy measures and little more than a call for further research.

Perhaps the most significant outcome of this support for research was the setting up in 1988 of a new form of scientific organization, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) under the responsibility of the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program (see Agrawala, 1998). The aim of the IPCC was to devise a way of assembling leading figures in all aspects of climate change with a view to establishing in an authoritative manner the nature and scale of the problem and to review candidate policy responses. This initiative was accorded significant political authority and was novel in decisive ways. Among its innovations were the explicit inclusion of social and economic analyses, alongside the atmospheric and ecological sciences, and the involvement of governmental representatives in the agreeing and authoring of report summaries.

As widely discussed, the IPCC and mainstream climate research have met with determined opposition. At one end there have been scholars and moderate critics who have concerns about the danger that the IPCC procedure tends to marginalize dissenting voices and that particular policy proposals (such as the UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol, with which the IPCC was closely associated) were maybe not as wise or as cost-effective as proponents suggested (see, e.g., Prins & Rayner, 2007). There are also very many consultants backed by the fossil fuel industry who have been employed to throw doubt on claims about climate change (see Oreskes & Conway, 2010; see also Freudenburg, 2000); these claims-makers have entered into alliance with right-leaning politicians and commentators to combat particular regulatory moves, as detailed by McCright and Dunlap (2000, 2003). Informal networks, often Web-based,2 have been set up to allow “climate-change sceptics” to publicize their views, and they have welcomed all manner of contributors, whether direct enemies of the Kyoto Protocol or more distant allies such as opponents of wind farms or conspiracy theorists who see climate-change warnings as the machinations of the nuclear industry.

Gifted cultural players including leading U.S. radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and the late, star novelist Michael Crichton waded into this debate with—for example—Crichton’s 2004 climate-change tale State of Fear having a technical appendix and author’s message on the errors in climate science. Critics too had to become science communicators of a sort. In his book, Crichton even went as far as to offer his own estimate of the rate of global warming (0.812436 degrees for the warming over the next century, 2004, p. 677). Crichton and others have concentrated not only on the scientific conclusions (and their disagreements with them) but have looked at putative explanations for the persistence of error in “establishment” science and much of the media; these will be considered at the end of this section. At the same time, environmental NGOs tended to argue simply that one should take scientists’ word for the reality of climate change, a strategy about which they were clearly less enthusiastic in other cases (Yearley, 1993, pp. 68–69). Indeed, at the 2007 Camp for Climate Action at London’s Heathrow Airport, environmentalists protesting at plans for further airport expansion famously carried a huge banner declaring “we are armed only with peer-reviewed science” (Bowman, 2010, p. 177).3

The rhetorical difficulties of speaking up for mainstream science had already been foreshadowed in the strategy of Friends of the Earth (FoE) in London over 15 years earlier; campaign staff working on climate change issues were disturbed by a program aired on the U.K.’s Channel 4 television in the “Equinox” series in 1990 that sought to question the scientific evidence for global warming. The program even implied that scientists might be attracted to make extreme and sensational claims about the urgency of the problem in order to maximize their chances of receiving research funding. The program was criticized in the “campaign news” section of the FoE magazine, Earth Matters. An unfavorable comparison was drawn between the deconstructive views expressed in the program and the conclusions of the IPCC, with whose scientific analysis FoE was generally in agreement. FoE’s article invoked the weight of “over 300 scientists [who] prepared the IPCC’s Science Report compared to about a dozen who were interviewed for Equinox.”4 When apparently well-qualified scientists are seen to disagree, it is very difficult for environmentalists to assert that they know better. It seems like a reasonable alternative to invoke the power of the majority. But, of course, this remedy cannot always be adopted since in many areas where environmentalists believe themselves to be factually correct, they have been in the scientific minority, at least initially. This contrarian wisdom of ENGOs is even celebrated elsewhere, such as in publications like Late Lessons From Early Warnings (Harremoës et al., 2001). In this publication, successive case studies are used to argue that the scientific and policy consensus has often been erroneously conservative or unresponsive to environmental alarms precautionarily raised by ENGOs and other activists.

In March 2007, Channel 4 repeated its attention-seeking strategy, broadcasting a program unambiguously entitled “The Great Global Warming Swindle.” The argumentational response of NGOs and green commentators was essentially the same: We should trust the advice of the great majority of well-qualified scientists who accept the evidence of climate change. Environmental groups looked to invoke the possible vested interests of the critics in order to make sense of the program makers’ and contributors’ continued skepticism.

Thus, it can be seen that, in the relationship between the IPCC—indeed the whole climate-change regulation community—and its critics, not only the science but the various ways in which the science is legitimated have come under attack (see Lahsen, 2005). Critics have been quick to point to the supposed vested interests of this community. Its access to money depends on the severity of the potential harms that it warns about; hence—or so it is argued—it inevitably has a structural temptation to exaggerate those harms. As it was working in such a multidisciplinary area and with high stakes attached to its policy proposals, the IPCC attempted to extend its network widely enough so as to include all the relevant scientific authorities; it was clearly important that the IPCC should not be dominated by meteorologists or atmospheric chemists. But this meant that the IPCC ran into problems with peer reviewing and perceived impartiality; there were virtually no “peers” who were not already within the IPCC (for an analysis of the accusations which could be leveled on this basis see Edwards & Schneider, 2001). Conventional peer reviewing relies on there being few authors and many (more or less disinterested) peers; in many ways the IPCC reversed this situation (Yearley, 2009). This development also created problems for environmentalists’ claims to be “armed only with peer-reviewed science,” since it pointed to potential limitations with the quality-assurance offered by peer review itself.

If challenged, the IPCC tended to fall back in line with the classic line on “science for policy” (Yearley, 2005, pp. 160–162); the IPCC legitimated itself in terms of the scientific objectivity and impartiality of its members. But critics were able to point out that the IPCC itself selects who is in the club of the qualified experts and thus threatened to be a self-perpetuating elite community. This was exactly the point that Crichton picked up. His principal argument was that the key requirements are a form of independent verification for claims about climate change and the guarantee of access to unbiased information. Whether well or obstructively meant, this is clearly an unrealistic demand since there is no one with scientific skills in this area who could plausibly claim to be entirely disinterested. There is no Archimedean point to which to retreat. Some of the practical weaknesses associated with the IPCC’s strategy for maintaining its public legitimacy were also illustrated by the “Climategate” affair in 2009 (see Ryghaug & Skjølsvold, 2010), when pirated emails from the University of East Anglia were used to imply that climate scientists were not pursuing disinterested approaches to peer review. Any subsequent mistakes, erring in the direction of affirming climate effects, that were detected in the IPCC’s reports could also be used to indicate that the IPCC was not even-handed in its treatment of evidence; this was the basis of the “Himalayagate” episode, where an unnoticed error about the rate of glacier decline was left in the report. A central science communication challenge for environmentalists has been to distinguish between those who should be listened to on climate science and those who should not, without simply invoking an unquestionable cultural elite.

In the climate case, environmentalists have thus been stuck in an unusual dilemma. What they see as the world’s leading environmental problem is fully endorsed by the mainstream scientific community and, in principle at least, by most world governments whose representatives have now signed off on five sets of IPCC reports and, overwhelmingly, signed up to the 2015 UN Paris Agreement. Indeed, in January 2004 the U.K. government’s chief scientific adviser Sir David King had already given his judgment that climate change posed a greater threat to contemporary societies than terrorism.5 A large part of ENGOs’ efforts—even those with scientists on their staff—have accordingly been directed at restating and emphasizing official findings, identifying novel ways to publicize the message, and countering the claims of global-warming sceptics. The difficult part of the dilemma is—as Lynas seems to have found—that such statements in favor of the objectivity of the scientific establishment’s views mean that it is harder to distance themselves from scientists’ conclusions on other occasions without appearing arbitrary or tendentious. It is tricky for ENGOs to criticize scientists’ pronouncements or even policy recommendations without legitimating a kind of general skepticism about the things scientists say. On the other hand, a reluctance to criticize mainstream science threatens to make NGOs too accepting of establishment positions and to leave them with only a derivative stance on all policy matters since—lacking supercomputers, access to satellites, or polar research stations—they cannot easily generate new, fundamental knowledge about the climate themselves.

Emerging Science Communication Challenges Around Climate Change

Though for a long time they had found it hard to participate in the central scientific debate and have been obliged to take up the (for them) unusual and rhetorically demanding position of defending the correctness of mainstream science, environmentalists have identified other communication and campaigning activities central to climate-change policies that they have been eager to pursue. For one thing, they have been able to focus on the extent to which governments have failed to act despite scientists’ warnings. Moreover, because of the intergovernmental aspects of the IPCC process (whereby countries’ policy representatives sign off on summaries of chapters), ENGOs have formal, written acceptance of the IPCC reports to use to exert pressure on governments.

In the United States (which, alone among nations, signed but then did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol), ENGOs began to seek novel ways to press lawmakers and George W. Bush’s administrations to change their position on climate change. They tried to move on from simply bolstering the persuasiveness of climate science and aiming to rebut the claims of critics, though these were key activities for many. Thus, in 2006 the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace learned that their inventive use of the Endangered Species Act to sue the U.S. government for protection of polar bears and their habitat in Alaska had won concessions from the government.6 In its campaigning, the CBD had argued that oil exploration in the far north would harm polar bears and their hunting grounds, but they also suggested that ice melting caused by global warming was responsible for additional habitat loss and harms to bears who need large expanses of solid ice in spring for successful hunting.7 Potentially, the Endangered Species Act could force the government to examine the impact on polar bears of all actions in the United States (such as energy policy), not just activities local to polar bear habitat. This anticipated the sense in which activism and NGO activity could move beyond the framing associated with the Kyoto Protocol in which the central policy preoccupations are to prove the correctness of the scientific diagnosis and to demand corresponding emissions reductions.

At the same time, in the U.K., NGOs and other activists were able to take advantage of a prospering (pre-2008-crash) economy and easy wins in emissions reductions to introduce an internationally leading policy of mandatory, phased greenhouse-gas emission targets, aiming for an 80% cut in U.K. greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. At that point in the mid-2000s, the leaderships of both the Labour government and the Conservative opposition were in favor of action on climate change, and the U.K. was experiencing rapid and relatively painless declines in greenhouse-gas emissions as the country moved away from coal-fired electricity generation and as manufacturing production made up an ever smaller part of the economy (Carter & Jacobs, 2014). The campaign, known as “The Big Ask,” was highly successful and the “New Labour” government agreed to be bound by these targets and ushered in a new monitoring and overseeing apparatus effectively to also bind future governments to the greenhouse-gas emission goals.

The context for the science communication work of ENGOs and advocacy groups is not static, however. The debate around climate change and the policy options appeared reasonably clear at the very start of the 21st century. Apart from countries that did not wish to play along with international agreements, most other actors seemed to assume that the goal was to move away from the customary fossil fuels. The question was simply how quickly and by what means.

A key strategy that appealed to many was to find ways to reduce emissions by switching to other sources of energy. But science-communication complications for environmentalists arose around both the obvious early alternatives: nuclear and wind energy. In many ways nuclear power has made a strong come-back since the 1990s as a low-carbon, large-scale energy source, and the nuclear industry has become adept at publicizing its low-carbon status. This is true both in established “markets” and in emerging countries such as China, though the terrible disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant on Japan’s east coast in March 2011, when the plant was overwhelmed by a tsunami provoked by a large submarine earthquake, has reawakened enduring concerns over nuclear safety. Even by 2017 there was remarkably little certainty about the state of nuclear contamination in the main reactor facilities there. The Fukushima disaster had far-reaching effects with, for example, the German government opting to withdraw from nuclear energy, even while Finland, Sweden, and Britain (rather slowly) pressed ahead with it. Environmentalists have not been able to agree on a unified response to this issue; some prioritize decarbonization ahead of worries about nuclear safety, while others hold fast to the view that the risks (including the military and terror risks) are simply too great. In this case, the technical and scientific evidence has not been sufficient to determine the views taken, and both sides continue to argue that their preferred outlook is in line with the higher-level needs of climate policy and sustainability.

The other major source of alternative energy has raised somewhat similar difficulties for ENGOs. Wind has played a significant role in Denmark for 30 years and in the decade from 2005–2015 Germany enormously increased its wind-energy use, raising the total to around 10% of electricity production, all this as part of the well-known “Energiewende” (the energy turnaround). Chinese and U.S. engineering companies are also strongly represented in this sector. In this case there is essentially no concern over the safety of the technology, but the focus is on its acceptability in landscape, amenity, and wildlife terms. In several countries there has been little controversy about wind politics (Delicado et al., 2014). Portugal, for example, now has so much hydropower, solar, and wind generation installed that in May 2016 they were able to boast that the country had run exclusively on renewable electricity for just over four days.8 By contrast, in the U.K. there has been extensive and well-organized opposition to wind farms, often couched in environmental terms (“green on green” conflicts, as noted by Warren et al., 2005).

The arguments advanced have been various, ranging from debates over the principles for determining where to site turbines, to claims that landscape value has been undervalued, or that damage may be done—and even carbon dioxide released—by the footings required to anchor turbines on peat-covered hillsides. Community responses have often focused on the construction phase of wind arms as much as on their eventual operation (see Aitken, 2010). Finally, claims have been made about the effects in use of the turbine blades on birdlife and even on bats. The move to off-shore wind would seem to remove some of the amenity arguments though the value of seascapes has again been raised (see Haggett, 2008), and work continues on the possible negative impact on coastal birds, since these animals have evolved in an environment where there were effectively no collision dangers away from shore, rendering them ill-equipped for navigating turbine fields. In many cases an alliance has developed between opposition to wind-energy and climate skepticism, with a pastoral conservatism interpreting both things as the imposition of an untrustworthy modern discourse on the cherished rural environment.

ENGOs enjoyed significant communications successes in the first decade of the 21st century, notably in Europe, where official policies aligned to a high degree with campaigners’ ambitions. However, the continuing difficulties around the extent to which decarbonization should depend on replacing fossil fuels with nuclear or with wind energy (the principal options to date in Europe’s economic heartlands, where solar has appeared less practical) indicated that the arguments could not overall be recast as exclusively scientific ones. This point was reinforced by the contestation and disagreements in the scientific literature that followed Jacobson et al.’s publication (2015), which argued that the United States could move to “all wind, water and solar” by 2050 to 2055. There was too much interpretative flexibility about the “evidence” from the nuclear sector, while wind-energy debates seemed too multifaceted to be adequately captured in scientific terms. The earlier tendency to treat environmental communication as a form of science communication was beginning to look less tenable.

Climate-Communication Challenges from Social Change After Kyoto

For environmentalists, strategic issues around climate change have been further complicated by societal and technical developments since the commencement of signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, and these developments generally cannot be satisfactorily addressed through a focus on science alone. Wind and nuclear are complicated approaches for environmentalists to evaluate, and green advocates have arrived at conflicting positions. But the questions at stake are at least relatively stable. However, there are a series of issues that came to prominence after the Kyoto Protocol was devised and which have created significant communication problems for environmentalists, even if these have not been problems about how to communicate the science of climate change. The first of these arose from the success of developing economies—with China most obviously in the lead. Developing countries were specifically exempted from the Kyoto targets because of a concern that their socioeconomic developments needs could not be met without increasing (let alone cutting) their carbon emissions. But, in the ensuing years, rapid industrial growth led many of them to become major emitters. As early as 2006, China had already overtaken the United States as the world’s primary producer of carbon dioxide (Jones, 2007). It is of course difficult for ENGOs to champion a policy that specifically omits the country that makes the largest contribution to the problem. But a further complicating factor here is that China has in large part developed so rapidly because, with the rise of globalized sourcing and production, it has taken over vast sectors of industrial activity that were formerly located in Europe, North America, or Japan. And of course, it is this production—of consumer goods, vehicle parts, electronics—that generates so much of the carbon dioxide. Given the Chinese government’s lack of accountability compared to many political systems in North America and Europe, and the absence of traditional forms of democratic scrutiny of governmental policy, ENGOs have found it hard to exert pressure. Thus, in a curious way, during the 2000s China had no international obligations in the emissions reductions area and its politics did not pretend to relate to publicly available evidence in the Western mold. Novel ENGOs and third-sector institutions, such as the Global Carbon Project (founded 2001), had to devise new roles in relation to China and other non-Kyoto emitters. They began to monitor trends and emissions, comparing these data with acknowledged outputs, and sought ways to publicize emissions and thus bring international pressure to bear on China and other leading, non-Kyoto producers.

Closely related to the point about the growth in China’s emissions, it has also been noted that, in effect, European nations have allowed China to produce their manufactured goods and also therefore generate their greenhouse emissions. To put this another way, at least part of the good emissions performance recorded in such countries as Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands since the start of the 21st century has come about because China has taken over their emissions even while European citizens import Chinese manufactured products (Helm, 2012, p. 69; for more detail see Peters et al., 2011). These carbon emissions are often said to be “embodied” in the traded goods (Peters et al., 2011), even if for accounting purposes the emissions are generally associated with the producing (rather than the consuming) country. There is even the possibility that, because of the coal-fired electricity used in these manufactures in China, the overall amount of carbon dioxide associated with each manufactured dinner fork or toy car is higher than it would have been had the items still been manufactured in Europe. Helm argues that environmentalists have been much less good at communicating the economics of climate change; their priority has been on the atmospheric science and on human rights issues relating to climate change’s impacts. Tacitly, he argues, environmentalists have signed onto and communicated an interpretation of the carbon problem that does not match with economic realities.

This century, energy policies have also been decisively affected by innovations in the extraction of fossil fuels. In North America, vast new reserves of fossil energy have been identified in oil sands and shales. These nonstandard sources have been developed rapidly and in a way that lessens U.S. and Canadian dependence on the global market, reduces domestic energy prices and, at the same time, leads to some domestic climate-policy benefits if the shale gas is used to replace coal. The United States has seen its energy output transformed by natural gas from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the latest development in nontraditional fossil-fuel extraction. This won the United States the jocular new label of Saudi America, highlighted by the Economist magazine on February 15, 2014. So plentiful are these nonconventional supplies that the United States has begun to export liquefied natural gas products (usually ethane for industrial uses) by tanker, initially to Brazil and to Norway. The first batch for the U.K. market arrived in Scotland in September 2016 for the Ineos plant in Grangemouth and was met with ENGO protests on the way, primarily because campaigners feared that this trade legitimated fracking and would make hydraulic fracturing more likely in the U.K.

While several senior policy actors have spoken up in favor of a renewed switch to “fracked” gas, environmental groups have typically resisted these moves and been opposed to oil-sands-derived oil and especially to fracking. Extracting oil from the sands uses significantly more energy than conventional oil wells, so the carbon “footprint” for each liter is accordingly greater. For its part, because hydraulic fracturing involves using oil-industry techniques to split soft rock with pumped water at high pressure so that gas flows out, there has been concern over the fate of the now-polluted water that has been injected underground and the potential for it to contaminate ground-water sources. Anxieties have also been expressed over the possibility that the fracturing of the rock strata could give rise to subsidence and even small earthquakes. Environmentalists have faced the difficult situation of arguing for leaving gas in the ground, even if the gas could (in principle) take the place of coal, a much worse contributor to climate change.

The final key element in these societal developments relating to climate change communication arises because the Kyoto process focused very much on national emissions, particularly around power generation, domestic heating, national-level travel and transport, and industry. However, as the earlier mention of the Camp for Climate Action at Heathrow Airport indicates, a key site for contestation has been about international travel and transport. Since the end of the last century, airlines have radically changed their business model, away from relatively exclusive and expensive “national carriers” to lower-cost alternatives, particularly following European air-space deregulation in the early 1990s. The “small” carriers that emerged have become the new giants, with Ryanair recently claiming to be the first airline company to carry 100 million international passengers in a single year (Irish Independent, January 7, 2016). The most successful of these small carriers have become as large as Lufthansa or KLM/Air France. These developments are not just about travelers switching to cheaper airlines, but represent a huge number of additional passenger kilometers, constituting both a major new source of carbon dioxide and also a category of emissions that is hard to attribute since it is unclear whether the passengers, the companies, or the locations being linked by the flight should be regarded as the emitters. This business model is currently being repeated in the United States and in South and East Asia, and the growth in aviation is also causing pressure at airport sites. The low-cost airlines have generally based themselves at less-popular airports where the access charges are lower, but the general expansion in the sector has been associated with expansion in London and even at airports in countries one would think of as more environmentally progressive, such as Schiphol in the Netherlands, Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport, and Helsinki-Vantaa; Urry referred to this trend as the expression of “binge mobility” (2010, p. 91).

Airport expansion and airline growth have been the focus of general ENGOs’ campaigns and the target of specific groups such as Plane Stupid and the Camp for Climate Action, which has practiced direct action at airport sites. Emissions from planes are an acknowledged problem (Stern, 2015, p. 69) since they already constitute 2% or 3% of global emissions and show no signs of decreasing. Aircraft fuel is currently hard to substitute and, if one assumes that other emissions can be rapidly cut, it is possible that aviation emissions could constitute about a quarter of the entire global carbon budget by 2050. Though the marine sector generates around the same level of current emissions and exhibits some similar difficulties in relation to attributing emissions to nations, there is more optimism about reforms in this sector and it has featured much less as a communications issue for ENGOS.

ENGOs Beyond the Emissions Framing

The kind of policy approach, oriented at internationally agreed emissions reductions, enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol, has itself been criticized by those wishing to pursue action on climate change. Activists’ concern is that the Kyoto route takes too long to come to agreement about who should have rights to emit what amounts; it can also leave activities such as shipping and air travel out of the framework altogether. Moreover, it places a lot of responsibility on countries or other agencies to undertake monitoring and measuring, since it is generally nations that report on their own emissions levels. Even in the modified version of the Kyoto approach that was adopted at the Paris Agreement in December 2015, in which the countries offered INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) rather than a common rate of emissions cuts, the role of monitoring agencies remained critical. Following the work of the Global Carbon Project (begun in 2001), the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) consortium—established in 2009—stepped in with a distinctive ENGO role: to log and publicize the pledges about intended national contributions and to make efforts to assess countries’ compliance.

Nonetheless, because emissions reductions was the dominant and agreed international approach, many have been reluctant to abandon it. However, ENGOs have taken prominent roles in two other kinds of approach with practical policy relevance: reconceptualizing the issue as about turning off the supply or leaving carbon unburnt, and responding to proposed technical solutions for climate-related problems.

Beginning with the “supply-side” possibilities, these kinds of approach have been endorsed by many economists (see Sinn, 2012) who worry about the current demand-side orientation. They argue that if oil and gas producers really believe that future emissions will be capped, hydrocarbon-rich states will have an incentive to try to sell their reserves in the near term, thereby reducing the price, which will in turn promote the use of fossil fuels and make current Kyoto-like agreements harder to maintain.

ENGOs have taken a pioneering role in taking forward such arguments. Thus, Oilwatch—a network ENGO set up in Quito in 1996 with members from Latin America, Africa, and Asia—was established to oppose the expansion of hydrocarbon extraction especially in tropical, biodiverse regions. During the Kyoto process, it proposed a moratorium on new oil activities instead of emissions targets. It developed this idea in a report a decade later (2007), in which it argued that Kyoto had failed to stop the expansion of the oil industry, that tropical forests were under threat from hydrocarbon prospecting, and that the only successful strategy would be to agree to leave large quantities of oil in the ground (this became known as LINGO, leave it in the ground). This was adopted as the strategy of the then-president of Ecuador to avoid the development of oil extraction in the forests of the eastern part of the country (in the Yasuní National Park).9 He sought to raise international funds equivalent to half the projected value of the reserves in order to compensate his nation for keeping the oil underground and to allow Ecuador the resources to keep habitats intact. The scheme attracted high-level international support, and the money was to be administered by a Trust Fund of the UNDP (set up in 2010); the project was further endorsed by ENGOs and by celebrity backers including Leonardo DiCaprio. In the end, insufficient funds were offered in the initial years and President Correa reversed the policy in 2013, and oil extraction has begun.

This approach, focusing on the role of suppliers and concentrating on ways to keep hydrocarbons in the ground rather than on reducing emissions, was presented in an adapted form four years after Oilwatch’s publication in a report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative (2011), based in London. Carbon Tracker’s analysis highlighted that there is only so much carbon that can be emitted before the targeted 2oC rise will be exceeded. Anyone whose wealth relates to fossil fuel reserves after that point will find that the reserves may be unrealizable and therefore of much-diminished value. Carbon Tracker directed this message to investors and institutional shareholders rather than to oil-rich states, warning that their long-term assets could become devalued. As Jacobs expresses it:

If governments acted on their own commitments, it would leave many of the world’s fossil fuel companies with “stranded assets”, unable to continue planned production and with heavily devalued share prices. The world’s stock markets and pension funds were effectively sitting on a “carbon bubble”.

(2016, n.p.)

Seen in this way, therefore, holding oil or gas investments beyond a certain level is financially very risky, and current investment portfolios underwritten by the presumed future value of fossil fuel reserves may be drastically overvalued. Carbon Tracker presented this idea very cogently and in a manner far more tailored to institutions than had Oilwatch, and achieved a recognition for their idea from significant market actors.

The same kind of approach to supply-side actors can be used on a broader scale too. Activists can address institutions or holders of capital who have—or wish to be seen to have—higher ethical principles. U.S.-based lobby group (named for the target CO2 concentration of 350 parts per million) called upon universities and other institutions to divest from companies tied to fossil fuels. Student bodies have been effective in putting pressure on universities, particularly U.S. and other private universities (for example, the Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge in the U.K.), that may hold large investment portfolios, to get them to move their money out of carbon-intensive investments. Subsequently, in 2015, linked up with the left-liberal U.K. newspaper, The Guardian, to run a joint campaign targeting large-scale funding bodies, including the U.K.’s Wellcome Trust, to persuade them to disinvest from fossil fuel shares. The gigantic Norwegian sovereign wealth fund is also keen to be seen as an environmentally sensitive and sustainable form of investment. Universities, for instance, have no specific reason to hold energy shares, other than the idea that such investments are likely to be of long-term value. Promoting disinvestment becomes symbolically important and may also act to put downward pressure on the value of this class of assets.

The distinctive thing with this kind of approach is that, aside from continuing to affirm the reality and urgency of the problem of climate change, there is no significant science communication challenge involved. Campaigners no longer have to argue about the adequacy of emissions targets; they focus instead on creating a moral concern not to invest in certain kinds of stocks and a related financial concern not to be left holding soon-to-be-devalued shares.

The second way of reframing climate change operates at the technological rather than market level. The strategy here relates to geoengineering. Though there is no easy single definition for geoengineering, it refers to proposals to address climate change by intervening to deal directly with the physical effects, such as by finding ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere or by offsetting global warming by taking steps to lessen the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth. There are some feasible strategies here that are relatively straightforward, such as coloring roofs and buildings white in order to increase the reflection of solar radiation, though the straightforward ideas are projected to bring only modest gains. But at the other end of the range there are dramatic interventions. These include the idea of space-based reflectors designed to cut down the amount of heat from the Sun arriving at the Earth’s surface and proposals to spray materials high into the atmosphere to mimic the effects of vast volcanic emissions, which, in the past, have caused cooling (for an overview see Hamilton, 2013).

In this case the scientists’ and engineers’ ambition is clear: to find out if they are able to counteract climate change directly. ENGOs have found themselves with a difficult message to communicate. Like advocates of geoengineering, they want to stress that action on climate change is urgent, but they generally wish to disassociate themselves from geoengineering approaches. In part, this is because they are not confident the techniques would succeed, but it is primarily because they fear that if geoengineering came to appear plausible it would take away all the pressure to cut emissions and to decarbonize our economy. For that reason many environmental activists do not wish to even see any research into the viability of geoengineering. Though, even by its proponents, it is presented as a “Plan B,” ENGOs are anxious that the Plan B might eclipse a Plan A, either on grounds of cost or practical feasibility.

In Britain, environmentalists, including the ETC group, featured prominently in a campaign against a research project entitled SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering), which was intended to test a possible method for pumping droplets high into the atmosphere. The SPICE project was designed to have a public stakeholder dialogue component, but in 2011 campaigners argued that insufficient consultation had taken place. Progress of the research was disrupted, though the purely engineering aspects were able to continue in the laboratory.

A similar ambivalence has characterized environmental groups’ response to CCS (carbon capture and storage). The underlying idea of CCS is that carbon dioxide could be removed from the power-generation process (or possibly even from the atmosphere itself) and sequestered underground, typically in the geological formations which originally held hydrocarbons (see Markusson et al., 2012). For some commentators, such approaches will be indispensable to climate-friendly futures because they represent one of the only known methods for removing CO2 from the atmosphere and thus for contributing “negative emissions.” However, ENGOs have noted that CCS has sometimes been advanced as a way of making coal-fired power stations more environmentally “acceptable.” Indeed, as well as the Heathrow Airport protest, the Camp for Climate Action focused on a new coal power station with CCS just outside London (see Corry & Reiner, 2011; Corry & Riesch, 2012). Critics may even class CCS as just one further geoengineering option and highlight the possibility that carbon dioxide may be pumped into hydrocarbon-bearing strata in order to flush out even more gas for burning.

In the case of the technical strategies for combating climate change ENGOs have tended to be antipathetic. They argue that the most popular technical solutions tend, in practice, to be ways of avoiding deep decarbonization. ENGOs may even campaign against research even into the feasibility of geoengineering or certain forms of carbon sequestration, fearing that evidence that makes a Plan B look plausible will inevitably undermine support for a comprehensive Plan A.


In this article it has been shown how much the climate change communication strategies of ENGOs and advocacy groups have revolved around scientific communication. Environmentalists, more than most other political and reform movements, are obliged to act as communicators of science and technology because empirical claims about the state of the natural environment are core to their message.

In the past they have often had to do this communication under circumstances where they disagreed with the orientation of large parts of the scientific and technological “establishment,” and they developed argumentational tools for tackling this job. But with climate change campaigns, things changed, as Lynas (2013) noted. They had to devise a strategy for bolstering the IPCC and other mainstream scientific findings and for countering critics. ENGOs have had to find ways to communicate not only about what scientists claim the climate story is, but also about why scientific claims are to be trusted. Thus, the article has indicated how ENGOs have highlighted scientific peer review and other forms of quality assurance in their slogans and campaigns messaging. They also needed to work out ways to use governments’ official support for the IPCC conclusions, as represented in the periodic IPCC Assessment Reports, as a way of holding national authorities to account. Consortia such as the Global Carbon Project and later Climate Action Tracker (CAT) developed the role of global actors in the monitoring and assessing of emissions. Subsequently, ENGOs needed to work out ways of distancing themselves from aspects of the scientific mainstream (on fracking and geoengineering, for example) without giving encouragement to climate sceptics and denialists. And they also offered new kinds of communication, for example to investors and to student activists, about ways one could move on from campaigns around emissions reductions to novel narratives about unburnable carbon and the need to leave oil and gas in the ground.

In this sense—as Hulme nicely pointed out in The Guardian (2009)—the slogan of the activists at the camp for climate action was significantly misleading. Environmentalists and activists are equipped with more than peer review alone; they have distinctive ethical, economic, and political arguments which set them apart at times from the views of mainstream scientists. ENGOs’ and advocacy groups’ climate change communication strategies are still evolving and still malleable. A key challenge now is to devise communication strategies appropriate to the rapid decarbonization of the industrialized parts of the world which leading ENGOs, and the IPCC and the United Nations, believe is indispensable.


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                                                                                      (1.) The information on ENGOs’ role in climate knowledge, especially around monitoring, is based on research conducted with support of the U.K. ESRC research award: ES/K005170/1; I would like to also acknowledge the contribution of my colleagues Prof. C. Boswell and Dr. E. Rodrigues to this overall project.

                                                                                      (2.) Among well-known sites are Climate Depot and Watts Up With That?, though there are also influential bloggers who get publicized through such sites as well. The scientific community has responded by establishing its own sites (most famously RealClimate), though, of course, for research scientists writing for this medium tends to be less important than authoring for formal publication.

                                                                                      (3.) Photos of this banner are widely available on the Internet; indeed, the banner text has become something of an Internet meme.

                                                                                      (4.) There was no author given for this report in Earth Matters, Autumn/Winter 1990, p. 4.

                                                                                      (5.) “US Climate Policy Bigger Threat to World than Terrorism” was the headline in the U.K. newspaper The Independent (January 9, 2004).

                                                                                      (6.) See the report by the “Climate, Air, and Energy Program” of the Center for Biological Diversity (2007) entitled “Not Too Late to Save the Polar Bear: A Rapid Action Plan to Address the Arctic Meltdown” (Tucson, AZ: CBD); continuing news of legal reviews was also carried in The Guardian March 1, 2016, see

                                                                                      (7.) According to the CBD website: “‘Short of sending Dick Cheney to Alaska to personally club polar bear cubs to death, the administration could not have come up with a more environmentally destructive plan for endangered marine mammals,’ said Brendan Cummings, ocean program director of the Center. ‘Yet the administration did not even analyze, much less attempt to avoid, the impacts of oil development on endangered wildlife’.” see

                                                                                      (9.) In fact, the specific zone is known as Yasuní-ITT, for the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini prospecting block.