Paper on environmental discourse explores the language environmental organizations use to discuss climate change.

The 2018 Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey found that students get the most out of college when they form a strong mentoring connection with a faculty member and undertake a significant academic project. In 2017, now-alum Ellie Ritter (BA,’20) and SPIA Assistant Professor Gregory Thaler charted a path to check both of those boxes.

Ritter, a lover of language who entered UGA as a journalism major, discovered a passion for politics and the environment in Thaler’s classes, first Introduction to Global Issues (INTL 1100) and then Environmental Politics (INTL 4610). She quickly added an international affairs major, and asked Thaler if he would be willing to supervise her on an independent research project, made possible by UGA’s Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO).

They settled on an exploration of environmental discourse. In today’s hyper-partisan world, the language used to discuss important issues, such as climate change, matters as much, if not more than, the subjects themselves. In “Technical reform or radical justice? Environmental discourse in non-governmental organizations,” published this August in Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, Thaler and Ritter examine how the communication approaches used by environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) vary across four major discourses of environmental management, environmental justice, climate politics, and ecological modernization.

“Discourse refers to knowledge, structures, or systems that bring together sets of facts, metaphors, narratives, and storylines to explain the world in different ways,” said Thaler. “A fact about the environment doesn’t mean much to people on its own. People need to be able to understand that fact in relation to ideas that help explain it and ultimately suggest some course of action.”

For example, if climate change is presented as a problem of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, then resulting policies will likely focus on narrow interventions aimed at technological innovation or carbon emissions reductions. In contrast, understanding climate change as the product of broader structures of power and inequality in society will produce actions concerned with reversing inequities.

“Environmental discourse blends the fields of language and politics, by focusing on how the broad structures of language shape how we perceive the world, and, in turn, how that perception shapes political systems and systems of power,” said Ritter. “Obviously, climate change and environmental politics are very pressing issues. The discourse part of that is huge, since these organizations influence policy makers.”

Thaler was part of a previous study, published in 2020, that assembled a database of over 600 environmental NGOs involved in international environmental conventions. He and coauthors used that dataset to describe the global NGO sector, and they also collected and analyzed organizational mission statements using quantitative methods, identifying environmental management, climate politics, ecological modernization, and environmental justice as four major discourses in global environmental politics.

“Our findings raised new questions,” said Thaler. “So this new work uses qualitative methods to analyze a broader range of documents from a smaller number of organizations, to better understand what these four big discourses actually look like in practice, the different concepts and values behind them, and what might be missing from these conversations.”

Ritter designed the study, served as lead author, selected the eight NGOs to review, gathered documents for qualitative analysis, and analyzed them to discover emergent themes. While characterizing the organizations as representatives of one of the four overlapping major discourses, the authors also noticed interesting relationships between structure and language. For instance, while ecological modernization and environmental management organizations were more likely to opt for hierarchical structures, environmental justice organizations preferred fewer layers of authority.

“The organizations that seem to resist typical power structures are the same ones that choose not to have hierarchy in their structure,” said Ritter. “They frame their discourse on environmental issues as more grassroots-oriented, or focus on the relationship between environmental issues and capitalism, while environmental management and ecological modernization NGOs are very much focused on technological systems or other solutions to climate change or other environmental issues.”

Ritter credits Thaler’s guidance with demystifying the world of research methodology, particularly qualitative methods.

“Methodology seems like a thing that students don’t want to touch,” she shared. “It seems to fall somewhere in between boring and hard. I remember, as a student, feeling very overwhelmed by methodology before I even began this paper.”

Qualitative methodology, she continued, can be hard to apply: it examines language and themes garnered from an interview or an artifact rather than relying on statistical analysis. This line of inquiry, however, may better help scholars and practitioners working in environmental policy making or policy advocacy understand the values, narratives, and power structures behind environmental problems.

“Taken together with the earlier quantitative article, this piece is a really nice illustration of how different methodological approaches can work together to give us a fuller picture of environmental politics or other political phenomena,” said Thaler. “Hopefully, it will allow [practitioners] to recognize some of the discursive structures and engage more critically or strategically with the concepts and storylines behind their work.”

Both Ritter and Thaler emphasized the value of experiencing the full publication process as an undergraduate.

“Publishing is very central to what academics do, but also quite mysterious until, I think, you go through the full process,” said Thaler. “This collaboration, enabled by CURO and the undergraduate research structures that we have at UGA, has allowed us to take this project as far as we have.”

Ritter, who also worked with SPIA Associate Professor Chad Clay on the subnational analysis of repression projects (SNARP) as part of his Human Rights course (INTL 4620), was particularly pleased to learn that, at UGA, research opportunities can come with academic credit.

“CURO is a program that makes UGA unique,” she explained. “I know students at other universities who got to do undergraduate research, but not to the extent that I was able to through CURO. It allowed me and other students to get academic credit for research. . . CURO allowed us to present our research and receive awards for it. . . I hope that every student interested in research is able to get that kind of mentorship.”
Ritter, now a second-year student at Yale Law School, sees herself returning to academia after completing her J.D.

“My undergrad experience taught me that, more than anything, I like thinking about abstract, complex concepts,” she said. “The abstractions that I was able to tackle through my research, and through my coursework, led me to a love of jurisprudence and the philosophy of law, which is very much related to political philosophy, political science, and international affairs. I love having the opportunity to read, and write, and compile thoughts into a cohesive narrative, argument, or literature review. I think that has translated well, from my undergrad research experience, to law school, and, hopefully one day, back to academia.”

While Ritter misses much about UGA and Athens, she values the mentorship with Thaler and her other warm SPIA memories above all.

“Though UGA sometimes felt like such a huge school, SPIA itself is very tight knit,” she said. “Everybody knows each other, and the faculty really care about the students. I’ll always cherish the relationships I was able to build at UGA, especially through SPIA, which, in my experience, is the best-connected UGA department. Their network speaks so highly of the quality of the school and the quality of the professors and students.”

Full research article can be found here.