Disruptive Ideas: Public Intellectuals and their Arguments for Action on Climate Change

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March 27, 2014 presentation sponsored by the Science and Technology Studies Program, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, and the School of Journalism at the University of British …

March 27, 2014 presentation sponsored by the Science and Technology Studies Program, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, and the School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia.

In this presentation, I review three distinct groups of prominent public intellectuals arguing for action on climate change. I discuss how these individuals establish and maintain their authority, how their ideas and arguments spread and diffuse by way of the media, and how they shape the assumptions of global networks of activists, philanthropists, journalists, and academics. Then, for each group, drawing on their main works, I describe how they define the social implications of climate change and the barriers to addressing the problem, their vision of a future society and their favored policy actions, their outlook on nature and technology, and their views on politics and social change. In the conclusion, I discuss the need for investment in media and public forums that strengthen our civic capacity to learn, debate, and collaborate in ways that take advantage of different discourses, ideas and voices.

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  • 1. DISRUPTIVE IDEAS Public Intellectuals and their Arguments for Action on Climate Change @MCNisbet Science and Technology Studies Program University of British Columbia 3.27.14 Matthew C. Nisbet Associate Professor School of Communication American University Washington D.C.
  • 2. Analyzing the Nature and Impact of Public Intellectuals @MCNisbet o Describe how public intellectuals: 1) Contribute uniquely to public discourse. 2) Gain and maintain their authority. 3) Spread ideas and arguments through traditional and online media. 4) Reflect/reinforce specific ―communities of assumptions‖ relative to complex problems. o Analyze three distinct groups of public intellectuals: 1) Frame the social implications of climate change. 2) Define barriers to societal action. 3) Vision of ―good‖ society and favored policy actions. 4) Outlook on nature and technology. 5) Model of politics and social change.
  • 3. Distinctive Traits of a Public Intellectual? @MCNisbet o Mix of academics, journalists, writers and essayists, entrepreneurs and political leaders, often best known for their books and writing. o View world deductively, specific events or trends can be explained by theory or grand narrative. o Rather than straight description or punditry, they translate complex subjects, specialize in immersion and synthesis, often championing specific policy positions or causes. o More than a translator of expert knowledge, but a ―social critic rather than merely a social observer….they are at once engaged and detached.” – Richard Posner
  • 4. Personalities, Celebrities and Global Commodities @MCNisbet o Merge public and private selves by relating complex ideas or problems to personal anecdotes, “journeys,” “realizations.” o Appearance, headshot, image, and dress are likely to be consistent with the subject matter they write about. o Establish authenticity, commitment to a topic, ―walks the walk,” “practices what they preach” or has acquired unique knowledge through exceptional experiences. o Most are commodities, in that their books, writing, and speeches are bound up with a dense web of promotion, selling, marketing, and millions of dollars in transactions.
  • 5. Public Intellectuals Online & Spirals of Attention @MCNisbet o Motivated “issue publics” deep dive into subject content across outlets, creating a global following, and making the writing of public intellectuals online participatory and social. o Articles become most popular, read, or emailed at news sites…flagged, highlighted, contextualized, and spread by way of comments, Facebook ―like‖ buttons, and indicators of how often a story has been re-tweeted. o Meta-commentary and reactions from bloggers and journalists at other news sites turns article or book into “pseudo-event.”
  • 6. Discourses and Communities of Assumptions @MCNisbet o Public intellectuals help create discourses and ―communities of assumptions‖ that define problems and policy options. o By calling attention to specific disciplines and networks of experts, they define which experts or views might be mainstream versus what might be contrarian or out of bounds. o Once assumptions and legitimate authorities are established, it becomes ―costly in terms of human mental labor to re-examine what has finally come to be taken for granted.‖ o Other public intellectuals are needed to “disturb the canonical peace” and “defamiliarize the obvious” by identifying the flaws in conventional wisdom and by offering alternative renderings of a problem.
  • 7. Telling Stories about Wicked Problems @MCNisbet o The more complex a problem like climate change, the more equally plausible discourses and narratives exist about what should be done. o Climate change serves as an opportunity for different groups to mobilize on behalf of their values, goals and vision for society. o By analyzing discourses “we can at least recognize that the sources of our enduring disagreements…lie within us, in our values and in our sense of identity and purpose.‖– Mike Hulme
  • 8. Deep Ecologists: Defining the Problem @MCNisbet o Apply metaphor of “overshoot and collapse,‖ in which computer models predict that human population growth, rising consumerism, technological development, and resource depletion exceed the carrying capacity of the planet. o Question target of 450 ppm CO2 and a 2-degree Celsius temperature rise, believe “safe” level to avoid catastrophic climate change is 350 ppm. o The goal therefore is to return the planet to an earlier in “balance” state, even as they implicitly accept that this goal may be impossible
  • 9. Deep Ecologists: View of Nature @MCNisbet o Nature has transcendental, spiritual essence frequently ―likened to Eden itself.‖– William Cronon o What we call ―human progress‖ has corrupted pristine nature, thereby putting the very idea of progress at risk. o Nature viewed as sacred place, a place to turn to for redemption, cleansing, and salvation, the one place we can turn for escape from our “own too-muchness.‖ o Climate change means ―the end of Nature…‖ At risk of disappearing, is a ―certain way of thinking about God…We can no longer imagine that we are part of something larger than ourselves…‖—Bill McKibben
  • 10. Deep Ecologists: Alternative Vision for Society @MCNisbet o Deprioritize economic growth, and instead focus on quality of life indicators. Less work, more time for family, community, nature. o Idealize a Jeffersonian society comprised of self-reliant communities; localized economies and currencies, food systems and egalitarian decision-making. o ―Real climate solutions…devolve power and control to the community level, whether through community- controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users.‖– Naomi Klein o In the future, people would not travel and instead use the Internet; grow much of their own food; share jobs and resources, give wealth to developing countries.
  • 11. Deep Ecologists: View of Technology @MCNisbet o Prioritize technologies they view as having been created through natural processes, that are in harmony with nature, and that are local, smaller in scale. o Prefer “locally appropriate” soft technologies like solar, wind, and geothermal sources of energy and organic farming practices. o Deeply suspicious of genetic-engineering, nuclear power, natural gas, carbon capture and storage, and geo-engineering which they view as too risky, too costly, and/or too off in the future. o Genetic engineering and ―hard‖ technologies allow our moral failing and “addiction” to fossil fuels, economic growth and consumerism to continue.
  • 12. Deep Ecologists: View of Social Change @MCNisbet o Societal transformation will require widespread activism that challenges status quo assumptions and practices, leads to fundamental political reforms. o Climate change supercharges the ―case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative…”– Naomi Klein o ―The scientific reality of climate change must, for progressives, occupy a central place in a coherent narrative about the perils of unrestrained greed and the need for real alternatives‖ – Naomi Klein
  • 13. Smart Growth Reformers Defining the Problem @MCNisbet Tom Friedman: The world is a “growth machine” that “no one can turn off‖. The world is ―getting hot (global warming,) flat (the rise of high-consuming middle classes), and crowded (roughly a billion people every thirteen years.)‖ Al Gore: “Carbon dioxide….is largely invisible to market calculation. And when something’s not recognized in the marketplace, it’s much easier for government, business, and all the rest of us to pretend that it doesn’t exist.‖ Jeffrey Sachs: Climate change tied to slowing world population growth, reducing income inequality, and alleviating extreme poverty. In balancing these goals, the ―main problem…is not the absence of reasonable and low-cost solutions, but the difficulty of implementing global cooperation to put those solutions in place.‖
  • 14. Alternative Vision for Society Creating the Next Industrial Revolution? @MCNisbet o Limits to growth can be stretched if the right market-based policies & reforms are adopted. Combines a focus on a “soft path” approach with a pricing mechanism on carbon. o Climate change can be solved “not at a cost but at a profit.” The ―menu of climate-protecting opportunities‖ is ―so large that over time, they can overtake and even surpass the pace of economic growth‖ – Hawkins, Lovins & Lovins o U.S. needs a “Code Green” plan that would create “abundant, cheap, clean, reliable electrons…America will have its identity back…because it will again be leading the world…‖ – Tom Friedman o Once the power of the market is set in motion, ―We have at our fingertips all of the tools we need to solve three or four climate crises—and we only need to solve one‖ – Al Gore
  • 15. Smarth Growth Reformers: View of Technology @MCNisbet o Strong emphasis on “soft” renewables and skepticism of nuclear energy, natural gas, and carbon capture. o Gore, for example, argues that in solar, wind, and efficiency we have all the technologies we need to solve the climate crisis. o But Sachs emphasizes needed for carbon capture: ―If we are forced to scale back sharply on our use of fossil fuels, the economic consequences could be very high...we have no choice but to try to live effectively with advanced technologies…and try to ensure that they serve broad human purposes‖
  • 16. The Design to Win Strategy A Technocratic Approach to Social Change @MCNisbet o ―A cap on carbon output—and an accompanying market for emissions permits—will prompt a sea change that washes over the entire global economy.‖ – Design to Win report o ―The good news is that we already have the technology and know-how to achieve these carbon reductions— often at a cost savings.‖ – Design to Win report o ―Climate change, unlike a lot of large-scale problems, is actually one that is solvable. It is also one where we know what we need to do. We have the best data in the world on how to prevent climate change. Everything was ranked by magnitude, location and sector. It’s a systematic approach to problem solving.‖ – Hal Harvey, NY Times interview
  • 17. A Technocratic View of Social Change Design to Win Foundations, 2008 to 2010 @MCNisbetNisbet, 2011
  • 18. Shifting View of Social Change: More Similar to Deep Ecologists @MCNisbet o ―Grassroots activism is essential to building a base of support strong enough to overcome well-funded opposition...‖ – Al Gore o Need a ―radical center‖ third party that would replace ―begrudging compromise between the two hostile ideologies with a creative synthesis‖ – Tom Friedman o ―We will need…to achieve a new mindfulness regarding our needs as individuals and as a society, to find a more solid path to well-being…‖ – Jeffrey Sachs o Political change will require a third party movement to remove money from politics and to break up a right-of- center two party system.
  • 19. The Climate Pragmatists Defining the problem @MCNisbet o Climate change misdiagnosed as pollution problem akin to acid rain that requires regulation & price on emissions to solve. o Environmentalists have isolated themselves politically by focusing on “politics of limits,” rather than emphasizing “politics of possibility.‖ o Environmentalists discount problem of global development and energy poverty. Criticize ―abundant, cheap energy‖ and emphasize low consumption, ―appropriate technologies.‖ o But this strategy runs up against Pielke’s “Iron Law of Climate Policy,” political leaders and publics say they favor change, but unwilling to bear actual costs.
  • 20. The Climate Pragmatists Alternative Vision for the Anthropocene @MCNisbet o "Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens here.‖ – Mark Lynas o Focus is on human possibility in a world of cheap, abundant, cleaner energy. o “9 Billion People + 1 Planet = ?” Climate change subset of larger sustainability challenge. ――If I had to choose one of two bumper stickers for our car — CLIMATE CRISIS or ENERGY QUEST — I’d choose the latter.‖– Andrew Revkin o Conservation is not about walling off a fragile nature from man; but integrating a resilient nature into man-made landscapes and cities.
  • 21. The Climate Pragmatists Technology, Disagreement and Social Change @MCNisbet o Need portfolio of clumsy solutions across sectors including focus on adaptation and resilience and stronger emphasis on role of government in technological innovation. o Diversifying policy and technology options increases opportunity for political action. o Asserting scientific or expert consensus in the service of a specific policy approach risks trust in scientific advice; leads to ―groupthink,‖ and to attacks on legitimate alternative perspectives. o Instead need forums and opportunities to critically reflect, debate, assess assumptions, arguments and options.
  • 22. The Dot Earth Blog Revkin as Explainer, Informed Critic and Convenor @MCNisbet
  • 23. The Dot Earth Blog Revkin as Explainer, Informed Critic and Convenor @MCNisbet
  • 24. www.ClimateShiftProject.org @MCNisbet