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Climate Advocacy in the Obama Years: Assessing Strategies for Societal Change


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On September 25 at Boston University, as part of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-sponsored series organized by BU climate researcher David Marchant, I will be giving the following lecture, drawing on insights from two forthcoming papers. Below are details on the talk followed by references and links to the papers.

Climate Advocacy in the Obama Years:
Assessing Strategies for Societal Change

Matthew C. Nisbet
Northeastern University

Sept 25 5pm-6pm
Boston University
Life Sciences Building, B-01
24 Cummington Mall

This lecture evaluates the contrasting political strategies, communication approaches, and policy options pursued by U.S. advocacy groups, philanthropists, and their allies as they urge societal action to address climate change. Though these often competing networks of groups accept the undeniable, human causes of climate change, they each tend to emphasize a unique discourse about the problem, reflecting diverging views of society, nature, technology, policy, and politics. By reflecting on these differences and their implications, we can usefully think through the many ways that our own biases shape how we perceive the political conflict over climate change, who we blame, and what we prefer to be done. The goal is not to choose among competing perspectives, but to constructively grapple with their tensions and uncertainties. Through this process, we can hold our own convictions and opinions more lightly, identifying what is of value among the ideas offered by those on the left, right, and in the center.

Nisbet, M.C. (in press). Disruptive Ideas: Public Intellectuals and their Arguments for Action on Climate Change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews Climate Change.

Nisbet, M.C. (in press). Environmental Advocacy in the Obama Years: Assessing New Strategies for Political Change. In N. Vig & M. Kraft (Eds), Environmental Policy: New Directions for the Twenty-First Century, 9th Edition. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press.

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Climate Advocacy in the Obama Years: Assessing Strategies for Societal Change

  1. 1. Climate Advocacy in the Obama Years: Assessing Strategies for Societal Change @MCNisbet Matthew C. Nisbet Associate Professor Northeastern University
  2. 2. The Design to Win Report (2007) 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.” o “The good news is that we already have the technology and know-how to achieve these carbon reductions— often at a cost savings.” 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 profile @MCNisbet
  3. 3. This Changes Everything? Capitalism vs. the Climate “Our economic model is at war with life on Earth. We can’t change the laws of nature, but we can change our growth economy. And that’s why climate change is not just a disaster, it’s also our best chance to demand and build a better world.” @MCNisbet
  4. 4. #PeoplesClimate vs. #PeoplesEnergy? Energy Access and Decarbonization Source: Clean Air Task Force @MCNisbet
  5. 5. #PeoplesClimate vs. #PeoplesEnergy? Energy Access and Decarbonization Shanghai 1990 v 2010 Dubai 1990 v 2007 @MCNisbet
  6. 6. #PeoplesClimate vs. #PeoplesEnergy? Energy Access and Decarbonization Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013 @MCNisbet
  7. 7. #PeoplesClimate vs. #PeoplesEnergy? Energy Access and Decarbonization Source: New York Times & IEA @MCNisbet
  8. 8. Telling Stories about Wicked Problems 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 Climate change is “a synecdoche – a figurative turn of phrase in which something stands in for something else—for something much more important than simply the way humans are changing the weather,” – Mike Hulme @MCNisbet
  9. 9. Models of science communication: How views of the science–society interface among social scientists and practitioners have evolved over time. Scheufele D A PNAS 2014;111:13585-13592 ©2014 by National Academy of Sciences
  10. 10. Ideological Polarization and Fragmentation @MCNisbet
  11. 11. Ideological Polarization and Fragmentation @MCNisbet
  12. 12. @MCNisbet
  13. 13. @MCNisbet Nisbet, M.C. & Markowitz, E. (in press). Expertise in an Age of Polarization: Evaluating Scientists’ Political Awareness and Communication Behaviors. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
  14. 14. Framing Judgments and Decisions: Market Failure & Carbon Pricing Problem? @MCNisbet
  15. 15. Framing Judgments and Decisions: Innovation and Societal Resilience Problem? @MCNisbet
  16. 16. Who Is a Public Intellectual? o 1) Write for and engage a broader public on matters of popular concern, rather than narrowly targeting an expert audience and emphasizing the more technical details of a debate. o 2) Specialize in the synthesis of complex, interdisciplinary areas of research, engaging in deductive analysis across cases and events, “working from the top down,” drawing connections, making inferences, and offering judgments. o 3) Argue on behalf of causes and policies, serving in the role of social critic, advocate, or activist. @MCNisbet Nisbet 2014
  17. 17. Personalities, Celebrities and Global Commodities 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. @MCNisbet
  18. 18. Public Intellectuals and Wicked Problems: Creating a Common Language and Outlook o Promote a common storyline about climate change, defining who or what is to blame, what should be done, and what action would mean for the future. o Discourses informally guide the decisions of advocates, funders, @MCNisbet journalists, and governmental officials. o Define which experts or views might be mainstream versus what might be contrarian or out of bounds. o Once assumptions and authorities established, “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.
  19. 19. Universities and Disruptive Ideas @MCNisbet Nisbet, M.C., Hixon, M., Moore, K.D., & Nelson, M. (2010). The Four Cultures: New Synergies for Engaging Society on Climate change. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 8, 329-331.
  20. 20. Further Reading @MCNisbet