Category Archive: Phenomenal Works

  1. Phenomenal Works: Davarian Baldwin

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    In his new book, In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities, Davarian Baldwin identifies an “increasingly parasitic” relationship between universities and the cities they occupy. Looking at Hartford, Phoenix, Chicago, and New York, Baldwin examines the hope and harm that comes with higher education’s growing control over housing costs, low-wage labor, policing practices, and political power; or what he calls “the rise of ‘UniverCities.”

    Baldwin’s latest work expands upon his research on urban spaces and the Black diaspora. His previous publications include Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life and a collection of essays co-edited with Minkah Makalani, Escape From New York! The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem. His Phenomenal Works recommendation, highlighting a 1945 ethnography of Chicago, offers an early look at the use of different methodologies to study and describe Black community formation, race relations, class, and social structure in urban America.

    Baldwin currently serves as Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College.

    Davarian Baldwin

    Black Metropolis

    Even 75 years later, St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton Jr.’s 1945 tome Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in the Northern City remains my aspirational model for social scientific scholarship. Written by two graduate students, with an introduction from their comrade and friend Richard Wright, the text uses interdisciplinary methods strategically to offer a rare materialist analysis of urban inequality and community formation. Their work disrupts the dominant human ecology vision of the day, led by their mentors of the “Chicago School,” which saw the organization of cities emerging from an organic process dictated by the cultural tastes and temperaments of racial groups, rather than being driven by the accumulation of socioeconomic power. Drake and Cayton’s work directly challenged not only those who controlled their immediate professional fate, but also scholars who propped up the segregationist outlook of both the real estate industry and public policymakers in the Federal Housing Administration.

    With the text at just under 800 pages, it’s easy to lose sight of the pathbreaking methodological brilliance found in Black Metropolis. For example, Drake and Cayton drew from South Side activists in the 1930s to offer one of the first academic uses of the term “ghetto” as an analytic for engaging the state-sanctioned racial segregation of African Americans in cities. Their “Black Ghetto” chapter overwhelms the dominant human ecological paradigm of their Chicago forbearers with detailed sociological data to document racial disparities in housing, labor, health, income, and other metrics—challenging any claims about the organic structure of cities. Drake and Cayton used the term “ghetto” to shed light on municipal policies like racially restrictive housing covenants, white vigilante violence, and financial divestment from Black communities, arguing that the racial organization of urban space looked not like a human ecology but fascism. Still, the authors immediately placed this sociological rendering of the “Black Ghetto” in conversation with an ethnographic account of what residents called “Bronzeville.”

    The shift between the statistical and the ethnographic informs the authors’ multilayered analysis of the neighborhood’s racial and class dimensions. The “Bronzeville” chapter reads the racialized economic homogeneity imposed on the community alongside “non-economic factors” of the Black lived experience, providing a more nuanced understanding of class relations. They found that occupation, income, or even one’s relationship to the means of production inadequately measured how class was lived—especially in a community where many residents shared similar economic restrictions. Drake explains, “two stockyard workers getting the same wage are both proletarian in the Marxist sense, but one might be middle class” based on where they attended church, their social club affiliation, leisure pursuits, dress, and/or public behavior.

    Drake nor Cayton dismissed the fundamental force of productive relations, but in their study of Black life, they knew they needed to delve deep into the cultural practices and associational life that shaped socioeconomic experience. This attention to both the political economy of everyday life and the cultural meaning of productive relations foreshadowed a similar shift by Marxist social scientists in the 1980s. The authors’ social and historical approach to racial hierarchy also led them to quickly dismiss the concept of “caste” in ways that anticipated today’s fascination with the term by authors like Isabel Wilkerson.

    Black Metropolis was certainly not perfect. The book relied on heavily gendered ideas about “normal” and “deviant” community structure, especially when evaluating the social lives of Black women. In retrospect, Drake lamented their failure to engage in a more complex discussion of working-class urban culture while remaining silent about the “disreputable” behavior of the middle class. Yet even with these limitations, the book’s awe-inspiring mixture of statistical data, ethnographic texture, and cultural criticism was far ahead of its time and has still rarely been surpassed.

  2. Phenomenal Works: Laleh Khalili

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    “What if infrastructure is designed, financed and adopted into the habits of everyday lives of its users in such a way that it is not a harbinger of apocalypse?” In a recent essay, Laleh Khalili notes a key dilemma of infrastructure projects—in both colonial and postcolonial contexts, and even in the service of revolutionary ideals, infrastructure carries destructive environmental impacts. She urges us to reimagine infrastructure beyond the economic growth paradigm, instead looking to projects that are redistributive, participatory, and egalitarian.

    Khalili’s most recent book, Sinews of War and Trade, conveys this complex nature of infrastructure in the global maritime trade in the Arabian peninsula. In the text, she examines various forms of infrastructure in the region, for example, road and rail infrastructures that were constructed just before decolonization, legal infrastructures that organize trade in the maritime industry, and “strategic infrastructures” of ports as listed by the US Department of State. As she explained in an interview with Phenomenal World last year, legacies of empire, war-making and contemporary dynamics of global power coalesce around the Gulf ports, in a trade powered by a large migrant labor force. Khalili’s Phenomenal Works recommendation builds on this critical work and looks more broadly at the dynamics of infrastructure and power in settler economies.

    Khalili is Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London and also the author of Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration, Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgency, and the co-edited volume Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion.

    Laleh Khalili

    Decolonizing Infrastructure

    One of my favorite recent publications has been ​Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen’s article, “Beyond Wiindigo Infrastructure” published in South Atlantic Quarterly. The essay is a beautiful piece of writing, unapologetic about its critical approach to infrastructures. The authors write, “We suggest that choosing a good path requires the revolutionary but also profoundly practical work of infrastructure. At the center of Wiindigo’s violence and destruction is infrastructure’s seemingly banal and technical world.”

    LaDuke and Cowen’s boldness stems from their standpoint as members and allies of first nations, in their struggle against extractive infrastructures in Canada. The essay ranges over how such infrastructures reinforce settler jurisdiction and settler economies in material structures. They offer ways of mobilizing in “communities, classrooms, court houses and city streets” to decolonize infrastructures such that planetary survival is guaranteed.

  3. Phenomenal Works: Ho-fung Hung

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    Ho-fung Hung investigates the role of economic development in state formation and global power, with a specific focus on China and East Asia. In his 2015 book The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World, he argues that despite predictions that China’s growth would fundamentally challenge the prevailing power relations between the East and West, the nation continues to depend on the existing global order—in a system maintained by the interests of Chinese elites. Hung’s 2011 book Protest with Chinese Characteristics: Demonstrations, Riots, and Petitions in the Mid-Qing Dynasty examines over one thousand protest actions in China over the 18th and 19th century. Hung studies the state and market conditions that catalyzed popular protest in the form of petitions, rallies, riots, and market strikes, and ultimately challenges the dominant narrative of dissent as tied to Western political thought.

    Hung currently serves as the Henry M. and Elizabeth P. Wiesenfeld Professor in Political Economy at the Sociology Department and the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University.

    Ho-Fung Hung

    Capitalism & Imperialism

    Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism is a well-known but long misunderstood work. For decades, many have used it to critique the “(neo-)imperialist” relation between developed and developing countries. But the book’s insight is much greater. Lenin drew on British economist J. A. Hobson’s works to look at how inequality, lack of purchasing power of the working class, and overproduction urged advanced capitalist economies to export capital to underdeveloped regions of the world with a higher rate of return. Capital exporting powers needed to carve out their empires or spheres of influence to protect their investments. Such acts fomented rivalry among capitalist powers, precipitating world war.

    Lenin paid particular attention to the urge of Germany, as a late imperialist power, to finance railroad construction projects in Latin America, Central-Eastern Europe, and the Middle East on the condition that the projects procured German equipment, train cars, and other materials. This put German banks, German industrialists, and German diplomatic-military apparatus into direct competition with established capitalist powers, above all Britain and France.

    Many passages in the book read like they are addressing current discourses around China’s underconsumption and economic slowdown, China’s urge to export capital through public loans and construction projects under the Belt and Road Initiative, and China’s threat to US influences in Eurasia and Latin America. In one example, Lenin mentions Wilhelm II’s plan to finance the construction of the Berlin-Baghdad railroad that cut through the spheres of influences of Britain and other great powers, intensifying international tension and paving the way to WWI. The Berlin-Baghdad railroad is Germany’s Belt and Road at the turn of the twentieth century.

    In recent years, non-Marxist political economists including a banker, a Wall Street Journal columnist, and a US Treasury economist have noticed Imperialism’s relevance to the understanding of contemporary US-China relations. The political economy behind the UK-Germany antagonism in the early twentieth century resembles the dynamics underlying the US-China tension today in many ways. Rereading Lenin might offer us insights into whether and how we could prevent an unavoidable inter-capitalist competition from escalating into inter-imperial war.

  4. Phenomenal Works: Mehrsa Baradaran

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    Mehrsa Baradaran‘s research situates the American banking system within a dense network of legal, historical, and political dynamics. Her first book, How the Other Half Banks exposed the vast disparities in access to credit aided by the financial deregulation of the 1970s. Unequal credit—as evidenced by bank deserts and the proliferation of payday lenders and check-cashers in poor neighborhoods—has become a defining feature of American racial and economic inequality. One solution to these disparities, Baradaran argues, is the restoration and expansion of US postal banking. (See Baradaran’s 2014 Harvard Law Review paper on the potential of the USPS as a financial services provider.)

    Baradaran’s 2017 book The Color of Money further investigates institutional factors that perpetuate the racial wealth gap. The book forcefully argues that, in a segregated economy, black banks suffered from the same poverty they were meant to mitigate. Her many journal articles assess the post-2008 financial regulatory framework, recount the forgotten history of government-sponsored banking in the US, and urge a profound reconsideration of how banking systems can be structured to serve public ends.

    Baradaran is a contributing editor to Law and Political Economy, co-editor at Just Money, and her recent popular articles can be found in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. She tweets here.

    Mehrsa Baradaran

    Banking between States and Markets

    The most exciting intellectual conversations happening right now in the academy and among policy thinkers involve reviving theoretical approaches to understanding capitalism. This is happening in history departments, and among economists and legal scholars. Just as the Mont Pelerin Society helped shape decades of free market policy, a new group of scholars and thinkers are now trying to develop a different vision for society that recognizes that values beyond free markets must shape public policies. This scholarship is concerned, broadly, with inequality, climate change, and globalization.

    Several schools of thought have emanated from a variety of disciplines that take a similar critical approach to the status quo—much of which grapples with state power and law as a force of economic change. This wealth of new research offers a framework for scholars and policymakers to think about restructuring markets after neoliberalism. By presenting markets as primarily a natural, rather than a social, phenomenon, neoliberal ideology justified the deregulation of financial markets and the weakening of welfare protections in countries across the world. Below, I recommend recent work that, by analyzing the complex interconnections between politics, statecraft, and the economy, reminds us that markets are continually shaped by law, policies, and political power.

    • Making Money by Christine Desan is an excellent history of the creation of money as a state enterprise. One of the central, but forgotten, projects of neoliberalism was to exclude money and its creation from the economic calculus, reducing money to a measure of value. Desan’s thorough and insightful history recenters money as the core of state power.
    • Democracy Against Domination by Sabeel Rahman revisits the progressive tradition in American history, and its relationship to structural power. The book expertly demonstrates how state interests mobilize resources away from the public, and advocates a renewed movement oriented towards democratization.
    • Katarina Pistor’s The Code of Capital shows how law and lawyers create property rights and, consequently, capital. What resources, rights, and ideas can be owned, traded, and valued are a result of law and policy. Having been devised by law and policy, these ‘codes of capital’ can also be revised through the same channels—an essential insight for policymakers thinking about issues of climate change, data surveillance, access, and inequality.
    • Tressie McMillan Cotton is one of my favorite writers and thinkers of the moment. Her book, Lower Ed brilliantly exposes the destruction and suffering that has been caused by the clash of neoliberal dogmas—specifically “self-help bootstrapism” and shareholder supremacy. The book is specifically focused on for-profit colleges, but the theories and insights can and should be applied across the economy.
  5. Phenomenal Works: Nathan Lane

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    Nathan Lane is an economist working on political economy, development, and economic history. Assistant Professor at Monash University, he is the co-founder of, an interdisciplinary research hub for data-driven work in the social sciences.

    Lane’s research has focused on comparative development, in particular on state-led development patterns, including work on industrial policy in South Korea, the way historical states shape development and political action, and an indispensable look at the challenges of studying industrial policy and how new empirical strategies can overcome them.

    Nathan blogs here, and tweets here. Below, his recommendations for Phenomenal Works.

    Nathan Lane

    The Effects of Trade Policy,” by Penny Goldberg and Nina Pavcnik

    My energy at the moment is focused on a number of projects related to postwar growth and development policy in the era of globalization. This research considers the role of the state in promoting (or stymying) industrialization during that period. While I’m an empirical economist, a number of intellectual and global histories have been inspirational for helping me (and my co-authors) grasp the complexity of the last century. Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism and, most recently, Sara Lorenzini’s Global Development: A Cold War History helped me think more broadly about the construction of contemporary international development institutions.

    As contemporary trade and development economists, we tend to be very much “in the weeds,” and often take for granted this recent period of development. Like Slobodian and Lorenzini’s work, Amy Offner’s Sorting Out the Mixed Economy: The Rise and Fall of Welfare and Developmental States in the Americas has been humbling in this regard. By tracing the rise of capitalist developmental policy in Latin American, her scholarship shows that the levers of international economic policy don’t always stack into neat dichotomies. Nor do they comport to standard narratives.

    Reading these histories has been inspirational, even for a mainstream economist like myself. By taking history seriously, by digging into the empirics of “what happened,” we often learn that our received understanding of the recent past is crude. In economics, I suspect we have a lot to gain from revisiting the developmental experiences we assume we understand.

    To this end, I recommend “The Effects of Trade Policy,” a fantastic review article by economists Penny Goldberg and Nina Pavcnik. Goldberg and Pavcnik argue that, in the era of globalization, our field hastily concluded that scholarship on trade policy was now largely beside the point. Their overview of recent work on liberalization shows that empirical research is perpetually adding nuance to our understanding of these events. If there is still much to be written about the historical forces of liberalization, Goldberg and Pavcnik make the case that our core empirical understanding of these policies is incomplete—especially when it comes to basic measurement.


    NB: I initially started with the following aside:

  6. Phenomenal Works: Mark Blyth

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    Mark Blyth is William R. Rhodes Professor of International Political Economy at Brown University and a Faculty Fellow at Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies. His research examines how the interests of state level economic actors shape ideological consensus and institutional development at a global scale. His most recent book, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea argues that throughout the 20th century, public spending cuts have been an irrational, ineffective, and inequitable response to debt crises born of a dysfunctional banking system. His 2002 book, Great Transformations, considers the role of economic ideas in paving the way for the embedded liberalism of the 1930s, and its disintegration in the 1970s. His co-authored and edited publications consider how powerful finance sectors shape policymaking, complicate existing narratives on EU economic policies, and ground the study of international political economy in a rigorous macroeconomic framework.

    Blyth’s academic and popular writings are available on his website, and you can follow him here. Below, his selection for Phenomenal Works.

    Mark Blyth

    “American Hegemony: Intellectual Property Rights, Dollar Centrality, and Infrastructural Power” by Herman Mark Schwartz

    One of the key questions that international political economists struggle with is why the world continues to hold and trade in US Dollars, while the US runs massive internal and external deficits, and behaves in an increasingly irresponsible manner toward the rest of the world. The two common responses to this question—pointing to a lack of alternatives, or saying “don’t worry, it’s on its way out”—don’t really cut it.

    Enter Herman Mark Schwartz, who finally puts all the pieces together. What explains US Dollar persistence, in his account, is twofold. First, the structural shift of the world economy as a whole to export-led growth models, which creates a deflationary bias in the system; and, second, the control of global supply chains and the intellectual property rights that undergird them. The former locks exporter economies into recycling US Dollar earnings, while the latter gives US firms higher than average profits, which creates further demand for US Dollar assets. So despite tariffs, Trump, and trampling all over the international order, the Dollar becomes a kind of global “Hotel California,” where you can check in, but never leave. Herman’s work is unique in mapping these dynamics, and his insights are penetrating.

    Further reading

  7. Phenomenal Works: Alice Evans

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    Alice Evans is a Lecturer in the Social Science of International Development at King’s College London, and a Faculty Associate at Harvard’s Kennedy School. She is writing a book on “The Great Gender Divergence”, which explores why European countries rapidly drew closer to gender parity over the twentieth century. This builds on a decade’s research on how societies come to support gender equality, and why rates of progress vary across the world. Evans has also studied how to improve workers’ rights in global supply chains: demonstrating synergies between export incentives and domestic labor movements; as well as corporate accountability. She runs a podcast, Rocking Our Priors, which is an excellent source of engaging and rigorous interviews with social scientists, and she tweets here. Below, her selections for Phenomenal Works.

    Alice Evans

    Four books and papers on the ‘despondency trap’

    If government is unresponsive or belligerent, people may lower their expectations, and reluctantly accept the status quo. This ‘despondency trap’ perpetuates a negative feedback loop. Only when people see responsive governance or successful activism, do they come to believe they can change politics, and relentlessly mobilize for reform.

    Four brilliant new works demonstrate this powerful feedback loop between observations, expectations, and behavior. Jamila Michener shows that people who live in US states with poor Medicaid entitlements expect less from the state, and engage less politically. Alisha Holland establishes parallels in Colombia. Having observed pro-rich government spending, the poor have diminished expectations. Gabi Kruks-Wisner similarly illustrates that if poor rural Indians only encounter a belligerent state, they are less likely to anticipate support, so do not complain about the lack of wells. Rajasthan’s villagers only mobilize relentlessly when they have already seen, or heard of, successful claims-making. So too in Europe: historically, citizens became more demanding as state capacity strengthened—claim Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

    Learning from these books, we realize a global challenge: to understand how societies overcome negative feedback loops, and generate hope for reform.

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  8. Phenomenal Works: Alexander Hertel-Fernandez

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    Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is a political scientist who studies the mechanisms of political influence. Focusing on the strategies of organized interests, including both business and labor, Hertel-Fernandez’s research illuminates crucial but often poorly understood levers of American political economy. His 2019 book State Capture details the growing predominance of conservative lobbying groups at the state level across the country. His first book, Politics at Work, revealed the ways that employers actively shape the voting behaviors of their workers, shedding new light on the instruments of corporate power in American society. And his forthcoming book, Millionaires and Billionaires United, co-authored with Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, documents the growth of wealthy donor networks across the political spectrum.

    Hertel-Fernandez’s academic publications range widely in subject matter—from the gap between legislative staffers and constituent opinion (co-authored with recent contributor Leah Stokes) to the political effects of Right to Work laws, and the impact of strike activity on public attitudes towards the labor movement—but each identify under-studied dynamics of political power.

    Hertel-Fernandez’s many papers as well as his writing for popular press can be found on his website, and you can follow him here. Below, his selection for Phenomenal Works.

    Alexander Hertel-Fernandez

    In the Interest of Others by John Ahlquist and Margaret Levi

    I’ve found myself returning to this book lately, drawing on it for a project studying the recent teacher strikes and labor organizing in constrained environments. In it, political economists John Ahlquist and Margaret Levi ask why some unions manage to convince their members to look beyond narrow self-interest to take action—including risky and costly action—in the interest of others. It’s a question that has preoccupied labor organizers for over a century, and that has implications well beyond the labor movement as we think about building solidarity in our increasingly unequal and fractured society.

    Ahlquist and Levi’s argument—which points to the role of founding moments, leadership selection, and internal governance—underscores the importance of small-d democracy within civic organizations. I really admire the book’s facility with weaving together multiple kinds of evidence—oral histories, union archives, close readings of past labor scholarship, and contemporary public opinion surveys—to test the argument, recognizing that no one piece of evidence can shed light on the whole picture. Beyond academia, I think the book holds powerful lessons for funders, civic activists, and organizers hoping to foster a more inclusive democracy and economy.

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  9. Phenomenal Works: Beth Popp Berman

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    Editor’s Note: This is the second post in a new series, Phenomenal Works, in which we invite our favorite researchers to share notable readings with us. We’ll be publishing new editions every two weeks, around our regular output of interviews and analysis. Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date with every post.

    Beth Popp Berman is sociologist whose research focuses on the history of knowledge, organizations and public policy making. Her first book, Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine, examines the transformation of American academia from partially noncommercial institution to innovation-oriented entrepreneurial university. Berman’s forthcoming book, Thinking Like an Economist: How Economics Became the Language of U.S. Public Policy, charts how a style of economic reasoning pioneered among a small group of Department of Defense technocrats became institutionalized at the core of the policy process—and its fundamental consequences for political decision-making.

    Below, Berman’s selections reflect the import of her own work, illuminating how and why certain forms of knowledge came to be produced, and how they are put to use in the construction of policy and institutions.

    Click here to visit Berman’s website, where you can find links to all of her research, and click here to follow her on Twitter.

    Beth Popp-Berman

    Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History, by Alice O’Connor

    My recommended reading is neither new nor particularly obscure; historian Alice O’Connor’s 2001 classic, Poverty Knowledge, has been cited more than a thousand times. Nevertheless, I think it’s a book that everyone working at the intersection of social science and social policy should read. Through compelling historical narrative, O’Connor shows both the promise and the limits of social science to usefully inform our understanding of the persistent problem of poverty. She demonstrates how social science is a product of, as well as an informant to, policy, and highlights how our frameworks for understanding problems inevitably limit how we try to solve them. The book is a challenge to academic hubris, but inspires reflection, not hopelessness.

    Further reading from Berman:

  10. Phenomenal Works: Leah Stokes

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    Editor’s Note: This is the first post in a new series, Phenomenal Works, in which we invite our favorite researchers to share notable readings with us. We’ll be publishing new editions every two weeks. Sign up for our newsletter to get every post in your inbox.

    Leah Stokes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Santa Barbara. Stokes’s research spans representation and public opinion, voting behavior, and environmental and energy politics, and her forthcoming book, titled Short Circuiting Policy, examines the role of interest groups in weakening environmental protection policy across the United States. Her academic work has been published widely in top journals, her journalism and opinion writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other places, and she is frequently cited in news media of all kinds. You can follow her on Twitter here.

    Stokes’s work is indispensable for anyone who wants to understand the politics of energy policy—and think through possible ways forward in the climate crisis. Below, her selection of must-read research.

    Leah Stokes

    Network structure and influence of the climate change counter-movement” by Justin Farrell

    This paper by Justin Farrell maps the web of fossil fuel-funded corporate climate denial. It shows how the exact language used in climate denial reports has ended up in the media and in the mouths of politicians. From a data collection perspective, it is extremely impressive work: Farrell uses all written and verbal texts about climate change between 1993 and 2013 from US presidents, the US Congress, and three major news outlets. With only 62% of Americans today believing that that climate change is caused by humans, this study provides important evidence of how fossil fuel interests have diffused contrarian information through the media and the political system to shape public perceptions of science and successfully delay climate action.

    This paper is particularly important because it is extremely difficult to research climate denial and its effects. It’s difficult for two reasons. First, most organizations that fund climate denial—including fossil fuel corporations like ExxonMobil and electric utilities like Southern Company—have intentionally masked their actions, funneling money to organizations like the “Global Climate Coalition”—a front group that pushed climate denial throughout the 1990s. Second, the relationship between these denial campaigns and public knowledge on climate change is very difficult to estimate. Yet Farrell succeeds at identifying both here, tracing how language gets lifted from denial reports and used in the media and political speeches.

    Some further readings: