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Climate Advocacy in the Obama Years: 
Assessing Strategies for Societal Change 
@MCNisbet 
Matthew C. Nisbet 
Associate Professor 
Northeastern University
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
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
#PeoplesClimate vs. #PeoplesEnergy? 
Energy Access and Decarbonization 
Source: Clean Air Task Force @MCNisbet
#PeoplesClimate vs. #PeoplesEnergy? 
Energy Access and Decarbonization 
Shanghai 1990 v 2010 Dubai 1990 v 2007 
http://weburbanist.com/2011/02/21/then-now-the-stunning-speed-of-urban-development/ @MCNisbet
#PeoplesClimate vs. #PeoplesEnergy? 
Energy Access and Decarbonization 
Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013 @MCNisbet
#PeoplesClimate vs. #PeoplesEnergy? 
Energy Access and Decarbonization 
Source: New York Times & IEA @MCNisbet
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
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
Ideological Polarization and Fragmentation 
@MCNisbet
Ideological Polarization and Fragmentation 
@MCNisbet
@MCNisbet
@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.
Framing Judgments and Decisions: 
Market Failure & Carbon Pricing Problem? 
@MCNisbet
Framing Judgments and Decisions: 
Innovation and Societal Resilience Problem? 
@MCNisbet
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
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
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.
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.
Further Reading 
www.climateshiftproject.org/studies 
@MCNisbet

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

  • 1. Climate Advocacy in the Obama Years: Assessing Strategies for Societal Change @MCNisbet Matthew C. Nisbet Associate Professor Northeastern University
  • 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.
  • 4.
  • 5. 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
  • 6. #PeoplesClimate vs. #PeoplesEnergy? Energy Access and Decarbonization Source: Clean Air Task Force @MCNisbet
  • 7. #PeoplesClimate vs. #PeoplesEnergy? Energy Access and Decarbonization Shanghai 1990 v 2010 Dubai 1990 v 2007 http://weburbanist.com/2011/02/21/then-now-the-stunning-speed-of-urban-development/ @MCNisbet
  • 8. #PeoplesClimate vs. #PeoplesEnergy? Energy Access and Decarbonization Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013 @MCNisbet
  • 9. #PeoplesClimate vs. #PeoplesEnergy? Energy Access and Decarbonization Source: New York Times & IEA @MCNisbet
  • 10. 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
  • 11. 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
  • 12. Ideological Polarization and Fragmentation @MCNisbet
  • 13. Ideological Polarization and Fragmentation @MCNisbet
  • 15. @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.
  • 16. Framing Judgments and Decisions: Market Failure & Carbon Pricing Problem? @MCNisbet
  • 17. Framing Judgments and Decisions: Innovation and Societal Resilience Problem? @MCNisbet
  • 18. 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
  • 19. 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
  • 20. 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.
  • 21.
  • 22. 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.

Editor's Notes

  1. Models of science communication: How views of the science–society interface among social scientists and practitioners have evolved over time.