Climate Activism: a March of True Believers

Rachelle Peterson

A version of this article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on June 4, 2014.

Last week, several hundred students, professors, and advocates descended upon lower Manhattan to debate how to make the college campus more receptive to politically correct ideologies. You might think this akin to carrying coal to Newcastle. But these activists worried that some students and faculty members viewed their PC duties with tepidity. 

The New School on Thursday and Friday hosted its 31st annual Social Research conference. In previous years, the conference has looked at topics such as human rights in China, AIDS, and the relationship between religion and secularism. This year, the conference openly advocated a particular type of behavior modification in order to align with a progressive ideology. It posed the question, “Climate Change Demands We Change. Why Aren’t We?” and invited twenty or so psychologists, philosophers, economists, political scientists, and environmental advocates to explain why.


The New School, just around the corner from Union Square’s farmers’ market and organic coffee shops, prides itself as the place for urban progressives to progress their progressivism and urbane their urbanity—a place where “active scholars, artists, and pacesetters” can “challenge the status quo.” (NYU, which supplied a good number of conference panelists, probably follows The New School as close runner-up.)

This year’s conference looked at one of The New School’s favorite progressive causes: sustainability. Sustainability pairs environmentalism with social activism. It takes aim at the free market, which it holds responsible for destroying the environment. It also takes aim at traditional social structures (especially “the patriarchy”) and social norms (especially gender roles), which it believes deprive society of the full value of communal human resources and entrench capitalism’s detrimental effects.

Environmental responsibility is of course a good thing. No one should advocate wanton avarice. But sustainability goes beyond stewardship to encompass a full-scale ideology. In many ways, it serves as the unspoken intellectual framework that students rely on to supplement the disintegration of metanarrative in a postmodern culture and to stitch together the frayed seams of dismantled core curricula. Sustainability provides a workable lens through which to view all of reality, complete with its own ethics. Last October, a cohort from NAS slipped in on the “Campus Sustainability Day” festivities at The New School, where sincere sustainability believers advocated divesting the college endowment from fossil fuels because “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from the wreckage.” That same moral imperative was on display here, as well, where the conference description bemoans, “There is no more urgent issue than climate change, yet government, corporations, and the public are reluctant to change.” 

Climate Change

On the whole, though, American colleges and universities have been very eager to change to conform to the sustainability mindset. Six hundred eighty institutions have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Change, for instance, and vowed to eliminate 100% of all carbon emissions. And more than 300 campuses have student campaigns to divest the endowments from fossil fuels. The New School, itself a signatory of the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, held the conference at  its Tishman Auditorium, which is LEED certified Gold for energy efficiency. The university holds a STARS silver rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. And the Office of Sustainability administers a “sustainability pledge” for students to promise to reduce their environmental footprints.

But such action is not enough, panelists held, because climate change is imminently threatening our way of life. They cited repeatedly the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and one of the IPCC’s authors, Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton, delivered a paper here. Perhaps The New School’s conference might be dubbed the IPCCC: the Inter-collegiate Panel on Climate Change Conformity.

Indeed, non-conformity to the IPCC was a serious crime. Of all the speakers, only one raised serious objections, which of course angered the audience. A Yale professor of economics, Robert Mendelsohn, dared to suggest that the IPCC might have misjudged the harms of climate change. Mendelsohn himself is an environmentalist, and he believes global warming is real. He has spent his career measuring and assigning values to goods that don’t bear market prices, such as coral reefs and old-growth forests, and monetizing environmental damage due to climate change. But where the IPCC recommends that the temperature ought not warm above 2 degrees centigrade, Mendelsohn argues that the costs of so radically curbing climate change far outweigh the associated benefits. Instead, we should aim for no more than 4 degrees warming. He paid dearly for his daring. During Q&A, the dean of Parsons at The New School accused Mendelsohn of miscalculating environmental benefits (the audience applauded this question), and an ecologist from Rutgers asserted that he must not have read the associated ecology literature (the audience applauded again). Mendelsohn said that he had read the literature, but that ecologists had a tendency to exaggerate their findings to fit global warming dogma. Three or four others questioned him, accused him of defecting from the environmental party line, and expressed anger at his research. In a true example of meekness, Mendelsohn answered them patiently but never budged an inch.

Homo Emotional

So if climate change is such an urgent danger, why aren’t more people doing more to stop it? Perhaps the biggest reason for mankind’s inaction on climate change, most speakers held, is that man is not, after all, a rational animal. He is emotional, prefers the status quo to the unknown, lives by rules of thumb, relies on secondhand knowledge, and overvalues his own past experiences. If he were thinking clearly, weighing the evidence evenhandedly, and calculating in a rational, utility-maximizing way, he would conclude that anti-climate change action is the way to go.

But if not all of us act rationally, those reasonable few can prod the rest of us to mimic their behavior.  Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s bestseller Nudge, which advocated prodding consumers towards the best choices rather than educating them to choose wisely of their own accord, was a favorite among many of the speakers, who wanted to see society-wide nudges to get people to act (if not think) green. In the first session, “Psychological Factors and Social Change,” Dr. Elke Weber from Columbia’s Earth Institute suggested that one way to change behavior is to implant an idea into a person’s mind. Weber has developed the “query theory,” which holds that when people make a decision, they first argue within themselves about their options. It turns out that most people favor whichever possibility they consider first. So if careful choice architects can prompt decision-makers to consider the green option first—making it the default, perhaps—more consumers will choose to help the earth.

Another solution, suggested by Jennifer Jacquet from NYU, is to reward people for making the green choice. In her laboratory experiments on group activity, participants were more likely to coordinate their actions and donate money towards environmental ends when they were rewarded immediately with money, than if they were rewarded with trees planted to help future generations. Incentivizing sustainable behavior might do wonders for collective action.

The Dreaded Republicans

If man isn’t acting rationally, what are the forces that toy with his psyche and prevent him from doing so? Weber suggested that the enormity of climate change paralyzed people, immobilizing them in fear and preventing them from taking action. Paul Stern, a scholar at the National Research Council, argued that some people simply didn’t understand the harms that accompany climate change or how urgent the situation is.

But one recurring issue was politics. John Jost, a professor of psychology and politics at NYU, and himself a graduate of The New School, is an expert in the ideological assumptions that prejudice people against believing in climate change. He says that people with a strong “systems justification” (that is, people who generally like the social status quo, which he takes to apply mostly to Republicans) resist social change as “progressive” and hence unnecessary. Jost attempts to demonstrate this with experiments that ask people to estimate the temperature. When they are indoors, people with both strong and weak “systems justifications” will estimate close to the correct temperature. But in the outdoors, the strong systems justifiers will estimate too low, in what Jost believes to be an intentional attempt to convince themselves that it is not hot outside and that global warming is not happening. Another panelist, Jennifer Jacquet questioned Jost on how to proselytize these Republicans: “Should we just present environmental action in language that’s appealing to them? Or do we have to tackle their entire ideology?” Jost and several other panelists concurred: these Republicans’ entire ideology must be changed.

Changing those mindsets was hard, the panelists agreed, because of entrenched interests in fossil fuels. The Koch brothers, in particular, had engaged in “a campaign of disinformation” that seeded skepticism about global warming and convinced the general public to wait passively as the earth burns.  Frances Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the evening keynote speaker of the conference, echoed the concern that “well-heeled interests” from “fossil fuel companies” posed the greatest hurdles. And Steven Cohen, the executive director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, asserted that “Climate change is a fact. There is no question when you look at the data. It’s beyond absurd. It’s like questioning the existence of gravity. The fact that they (corporate lobbyists) are able to make that part of a serious political dialogue shows you something about their political capital.”

Later, the audience had the chance to hear from one of those dreaded Republicans who championed the dreaded free market. Robert Inglis is a former Congressman from South Carolina who now heads the Energy and Enterprise Institute at George Mason University, where he works to use free market principles to curb global warming. Inglis argued that conservatives can get behind environmentalism once they see that capitalism should internalize externalities, and that God expects mankind to steward his creation. He castigated the crowd for failing to respect their conservative counterparts, and for intentionally offending them by holding to their own “theological rigidity” that declares that only atheist secularists are welcome. For the most part, the audience accepted Inglis’s olive branch and wanted to learn how to partner with the conservatives. But during the Q&A, one attendee vented into the microphone that building bridges to conservatives was “a waste of time,” because the “white conservative male” is dying out. Our real allies should be minorities and labor unions. This got a round of applause.


The New School’s conference showcases how entrenched the sustainability mindset is in the academy, where it occupies a privileged place as a dogma to be cultivated, not a tenet to be debated. At one time, college was a place to educate students and to equip them with the knowledge to make good choices. That required discussion, and open debate as part of the quest for truth.

But the settled “consensus” around climate change forbids debate, and lays down as law that dissenters—even such tame dissenters as Mendelsohn, who quibbles over the precise extent of global warming—will be punished. Those in the middle, undecided but curious, are to be pressed into conformity, nudged by campus policies engineered by social scientists and psychologists who know how to sidestep students’ reason. So much for rational debate.

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