An interview with CIRES researcher and CU professor Max Boykoff
How much do you really know about climate change? And where does your information come from? For most of us, media is our primary source of what we know about the topic. And most of the information contained in media reporting comes more from specific events, personalities, and pro and con discussions than from research papers or specific analyses by the scientists intimately involved in climate study. The impact of media on the climate-change debate impacts policy and the progress of change, and even our everyday experiences with the topic.
The University of Colorado’s Max Boykoff is an expert in the study of how media impacts the climate-science debate. An assistant professor in the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, his perceptive insights help unravel the interaction between media and the public discussions surrounding climate change.
Tom Brock interviewed Dr. Boykoff in his office on the CU campus on Oct. 20, 2016.
Boulder Magazine: Climate change can be an overwhelming topic to many people. Your study of the interface between climate change and public perceptions is fascinating. Please help our readers understand what you do. You describe your field of research as “the cultural politics of climate change.” What does that mean?
Max Boykoff: Cultural politics refers to the movement from formal climate science and policy into people’s everyday lives. How decision-making priorities and discussions within science and policy translate into everyday people’s attitudes, intentions, perspectives, beliefs and behaviors about climate change. And how those public attitudes then feed back into the formal processes.
So, to what I do. Over time I’ve looked at how media influences public discussion that takes place. I’ve analyzed major network coverage of climate change, and print coverage of climate change in different countries to get a sense of what kinds of issues find traction in the public sphere and which others may be overlooked, and what the effects of that might be.
You’ve talked about forces that impact public understanding of climate change. What are those?
The production of media content is a huge process in and of itself. The decisions that are made, for example, from the very beginning determine the introduction of these topics into the public sphere.
In the public sphere, there are other issues fighting for attention. Look at the [recent presidential] debates. A lot of people I work with who look at public attitudes and interactions were really hoping that the climate change question would be posed, and that there would be a way to address one of the most important issues of the 21st century. It didn’t get on the air. And that can be attributed in part to this demand for things that seem to be of acute public concern—jobs, economy, health care. You know, that holy trinity of concern. So, longer-term issues like climate change fight for attention in the public sphere.
Your research discusses different “actors”, like celebrities and dramatic climate events, that steer the climate conversation. Can you elaborate?
Different practices and pressures within journalism help to shape what becomes the story. If there is a charismatic personality that can drive the story forward, that can help as a news hook into telling stories more readily over others. Like Hurricane Matthew, to the extent that that can be attributed to climate change, was a hook that could sensitize certain audiences to these issues.
“It’s a lot easier to pollute productive public discourse on these issues than it is to keep them moving–keep them clean.”
And there are other hooks. Certain authority figures, celebrities, what they say and pay attention to has much greater influence than the everyday citizen. Even though the academic is working on these issues, when celebrities have something to say, it can resonate with certain audiences much more than others.
So, you see the conversation about climate change being driven by instances, rather than intellectual curiosity or public concern about climate change?
Good question. I don’t think it’s possible, really, to pick them apart. However I do think you are onto something. There are events that trigger, and fight for attention, or they can be overwhelmed by other issues and not get attention. Those trigger events certainly play a big part in what gets into the public arena of scientific information. It could be new reports or studies coming out; it could be political events and information—the Paris climate talks garnered more coverage; cultural events, a variety of films and other cultural and social movements that feed into coverage; and finally meteorological and ecological events themselves. But it is clear events garner a great deal more coverage than those slow, impressive bits of scientific enterprise such as ice melt research.
One of your projects has been to track global newspaper coverage of climate change and climate events. The number of global articles has really sort of dropped off since 2010. Why is that?
It dropped off dramatically in 2009, and it’s been making a steady but slow comeback again over the last couple of years. Our team takes a set of indicators, 50 different publications across 25 countries, to give us a sense of the ebb and flow of coverage. There can be a lot of reasons for decline—the newsroom itself shrinking, funding for specialists or journalists that cover the complexities, the nuance of certain issues like climate change. There can be other things, like climate fatigue in the public arena. The high watermark was 2009 with the Copenhagen talks, but there was a big drop-off that can be attributed to the economic meltdown, the global meltdown. It’s been up overall over the last year or year and a half.
Your research also has addressed contrarians and climate-change deniers. Have you reached any conclusions why some deny what appears to be solid science?
I did interview some of the more prominent contrarians in the United States to get a handle on that with research at the Heartland Institute. Some of it is to gain notoriety. Some is to gainvisibility for taking up these kinds of positions. I think others sincerely take a stand that something must not be right here. That can come from a psychology behind the fact that none of us wants this to be an issue, we’d rather focus on other things. But some folks don’t accept that reality. Some folks are willing to take that to an extended perspective where they question whether humans play a role in climate change, so they can ascribe that to their own religion or their own backgrounds.
So it isn’t just an issue where someone is buying another person’s comments or vote?
Yes, and I mean that certainly plays a part. Money talks and it can have that influence, but I don’t think it tells the full story.
Who do you see setting public policy? Contrarians? Or the 98 percent of global scientists that subscribe to climate change?
One of the things my research sought to point out was that the middle 98 percent of scientists who sort of agree that humans cause global warming are often swarmed by outlier perspectives, like the contrarian communities that really fall outside of the overwhelming majority. But, because some are in positions of power, that muddles the conversations. They have outsized influence and power on the process. Probably the most powerful contrarian on the planet now is Senator James Inhofe from Oklahoma, who chairs the Senate Environmental and Public Works committee. His position, his level of influence matched with his contrarianism, has really slowed down congressional activity on this issue. And that’s bolstered by his constituency. It’s oftentimes difficult to pick apart what drives what: If leaders are following their perceived constituencies, or if they’re leading those constituencies’ views. At the end of the day, the old adage is, it’s a lot easier to muddy the waters than it is to clean them up. It’s a lot easier to pollute productive public discourse on these issues than it is to keep them moving—keep them clean.
You alluded to the current election cycle and the fact that climate science has played almost no role in the policy discussions. Why isn’t there more public demand to address this issue?
There are a lot of reasons. To start, there is a fair amount of public demand. Compared to 10 years ago, I find myself feeling a lot more encouraged. There is a lot of movement happening on many different fronts.
Its absence in top-level discourse is a worrying signal. It shows that leadership doesn’t recognize that this is an important issue. The part that troubles a lot of folks, including me, is that it isn’t getting any airing. Three big things account for this. One is, that outside of political election cycles and the every day, this is something that requires sustained engagement—not just over the next 10 years, but over generations. That’s difficult to overcome. Second, the resources that are required cut right to the heart of the way we live, work, play and relax in society; you can’t get around that. To take up these kinds of issues is to confront how we meet needs in our lives and livelihood. And third, cultural distance between all the different parties involved makes it a difficult one to crack. To talk at the scale needed for this kind of global challenge is very difficult.
So it’s inherently those three issues. Then layer on additional problems, such as funding from carbon-based industry to reduce the perception of this being a big issue in the 21st century. All of those are working against this issue getting its necessary and proper airing.
One of your books is titled Who Speaks For the Climate?—a wonderful name. Is it the Gaia principle or climate scientists? Who does speak for the climate?
It’s hard to sum that up into a short statement because I wrote a whole book about it. But the name is to draw us into the consideration that many people do (speak for the climate), and not just people, but the environment also speaks. It has this biophysical agency, as well. So there are all these different perspectives. There’s this swirl of influences that we have to make sense of when we’re deciding what to do in a given day, how to live our lives—there are many different inputs.
The carbon-based-industry influence has a big role in the conversation, and media traditions, pressures within the norms of journalism itself, and larger organizations, ways of communicating, these all shape who and what are speaking for the climate.
I’m curious what attracted you to the field of climate science, and to your particular niche in that field.
For me, the trigger, perhaps, was in the late ’90s. I was in the U.S. Peace Corps in Honduras. I was working in agriculture, which showed my early general interest in human and environmental issues. Hurricane Mitch came through, a Category 5 hurricane. It may have been the largest and most destructive hurricane in the Western Hemisphere for who knows how long. It tore through the area where I was living—a very impoverished area.
It must have been terrifying.
There was that. It just brought viscerally to my attention the importance of working on these issues. It drew me into questions of how hurricane activity, intensity and frequency are influenced by climate changes. Also, I was working in agriculture and I was fascinated to see how land-use practices, whether soil conservation or lack thereof, were affected by the hurricane. At the end of my time there in 1998, I kept working on agriculture a bit on a farm near Santa Cruz, but I was drawn to environmental questions and conversation with some folks at the University of California, Santa Cruz. They accepted me into the Ph.D. program. What led me to pivot into questions about culture and media coverage was trying to better understand what are the main obstacles to productive movement on these issues. Starting with discourse, but then really action. And, investigating the main triggers, the main challenges to moving forward with a productive and open discussion.
You collaborate with scientists all over the globe. Is it fun, challenging? Is there a common purpose?
I think it’s all of them, but it’s more fun than challenging.
And it’s a privilege. I was in my twenties and had never left the United States. This issue has opened up my thinking about the global scale of this challenge, and the global scale of the response that’s needed.
Working and collaborating with folks all over the globe has been a wonderful opportunity, and now is a wonderful time to be working on these issues. For instance, I have been working with partners in Spain on different projects. I was living there on sabbatical last fall. We’ve started to involve partnerships in New Zealand to try to understand the cultural component of experimental work. And also in Kuwait, to understand how the introduction of humor can open up people. We have these different videos. One is a sober take on describing the science of climate change tethered to recent intergovernmental climate change reports, and the other is a more humorous take in studying how that plays out in all these different cultural contexts. That just wouldn’t have been possible when I was starting out as recently as 15 years ago, just doing this research, and it’s possible now.
For me the fact that there are a lot of us collaborating and doing this work is an indication of what is needed. These issues are much bigger than any one of us.
One of the darker sides of climate research is the harassment that periodically comes from some of the contrarians, like subpoenas for all emails, research, contacts, books, et cetera. Have you been subjected to any of that?
Yes, I have a bit. But I think you have to develop a thick enough skin to cope with that kind of thing. Nothing has risen to a level of particular concern. The kind of work that I do, a lot of it is operating behind those folks out in front all the time. But yeah, I’ve experienced some of that. It’s uncomfortable. It obviously forces you to reflect on the work that you’re doing.
In closing, are you positive or negative about what’s going on in the climate change discourse?
Well, I consider myself involuntarily optimistic. I think there is only one way through this—and that’s forward. I am positive. There are always disruptions, such as the landscape politically from Nov. 8 onward. There’s a great deal of uncertainty, and that can play a big part in how we address these issues as a country and as a global community, and how we fulfill the obligations in the Paris agreement. But I’m very optimistic that leadership is moving on these issues.
The level of sophistication has increased so much. Students that I’m working with have been born into a world now where this was always on the public agenda. That’s fascinating to me. A lot of these students today were born in the ’90s and soon into the 2000s, so they have grown up in a world where this has been a topic of discussion. I think there is an enhanced sense of understanding these issues, which then equips future leaders to step in and start to really get some work done.
Being in the college environment, do you see any sense of urgency in young people to take action on climate change?
Well, understanding that I teach in an environmental studies program—these students are self-selected—I do think there is both awareness and urgency, and that encourages me a lot. I have a 14-year-old and an 11-year-old, two boys who are growing up in this world, and they’re subjected to me talking about this all the time. But they seem to have an enhanced awareness and readiness for engagement that I find to be a positive reason for hope at this stage. I say I’m involuntarily optimistic, but I guess I should say more decidedly optimistic at times.
I get depressed about these issues just like everybody else. But if that were to help me, then maybe I would dwell on these spaces longer, but it doesn’t. Being positive and finding ways to engage and work on these collective challenges is the way to go. So I decide to stay in that optimist space so I can do that work.
Do you think the U.S. and global communities will have the wherewithal to address climate change?
That’s still an open question. The Paris climate agreement is far from perfect, it’s a pretty cautious and conservative approach to the scale of the challenge, but it puts things in place that you can track. So that’s where it feeds into our lives and that’s where it structures our set of choices. In that way, there are folks that are stepping up, and the city of Boulder is absolutely stepping up to this challenge. I think this is a wonderful time to be working on these kinds of issues.
“I consider myself involuntarily optimistic. I think there is only one way through this—and that’s forward.”
Especially the young people I’m working with at the university. We recognize that it’s not just going to come from us, from our views, but it’s got to come from their views and their peers. It’s got to come from these different groups. So what we’re seeing, and engaging in, I find really encouraging.
So your sense is we’ll still be around as a species 200 years from now?
Yes, but we face critical challenges to determine how that will look. It’s far from a trivial question. So, as to survival yes, but the ways we will be living in 200 years might look very different.