Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Re. Disruptive ideas: public intellectuals and their arguments for action on climate change (with excerpts)

 O.E. My comment:

This study was very interesting because although it only refers to climate engineering when talking about carbon sequestration, most of, if not all, the intellectuals discussed here are involved in one way or another in the wider climate engineering debate. For example Steve Rayner is Co-Director of the Oxford Geoengineering Programme in England. Mike Hulme and Clive Hamilton in addition to having written books on the subject they also have appeared regularly in geoengineering debates.

Another interesting aspect that is 'only glimpsed; here, is the population / over-population subject. In my view it is important to have clearer the perspectives of each group on this subject. Since I think that the case of over-population is over-estimated. If we examine carbon emissions per capita in the third world we see that they are much lower than those of the most polluting countries. I think this (population) is a major underlying factor in relation to climate geoengineering and climate change in general.

Hopefully the author's own hopes of more analysis of recognized intellectuals with varied perspectives are realized, of particular interest for me are of the Iberoamericans.



Disruptive ideas: public intellectuals and their arguments for action on climate change

Author: Matthew C. Nisbet


In this paper, I analyze three distinct groups of prominent public intellectuals arguing for action on climate change. I detail how public intellectuals establish their authority, spread their ideas, and shape political discourse, analyzing the contrasting stories that they tell about the causes and solutions to climate change. ‘Ecological Activists’ like U.S. writer/activist Bill McKibben or Charles Sturt University (AU) philosopher Clive Hamilton argue that climate change is a symptom of a capitalist society that has dangerously exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. They are skeptical of technological or market-based solutions to the problem, urging the need for a global movement that dramatically re-organizes society. ‘Smart Growth Reformers’ like UK economist Nicholas Stern or former U.S. vice president Al Gore agree that climate change poses catastrophic risks but argue that those risks can be avoided if political leaders adopt the right market-based mechanisms, enabling sustainable economic growth to continue. ‘Ecomodernists’ like The New York Times (U.S.) writer Andrew Revkin and Oxford University (UK) anthropologist Steve Rayner argue for recognizing the biases in how we have conventionally defined climate change as a social problem. Progress will be achieved not by relying on social protest or market-based mechanisms, but by government investment in a diverse menu of policies that catalyze technological innovation, protect against climate impacts, and provide developing countries abundant, cleaner sources of energy. To conclude, I propose methods for building on my analysis and urge the need for forums that feature a diversity of voices, discourses, and ideas.
For further resources related to this article, please visit the WIREs website.
Conflict of interest: My analysis in this paper is informed by my collaboration and/or interactions with groups and individuals representing each of the three identified discourse traditions, though my own outlook is closest to that of the Ecomodernists.


In a July 2012 article at Rolling Stone magazine, Bill McKibben warned that fossil-fuel companies were committed to extracting as much of their oil, gas, and coal holdings as possible, a goal that would far exceed what scientists had determined was the world's safe carbon budget. This ‘terrifying new math’ meant that the fossil-fuel industry was ‘Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization’, wrote McKibben. Drawing comparisons to the anti-apartheid movement, he called on universities and other institutions to divest their holdings from the fossil-fuel industry.[1]
McKibben's article generated millions of social media recommendations and visits to Rolling Stone's web site. Among the readers was billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who sought out McKibben to meet for a mountain hike. By the end of their hike, Steyer had pledged to support the fossil-fuel divestment campaign.[2, 3] In the years since, Steyer has divested his personal wealth from fossil-fuel companies, played a key role in Stanford University's decision to divest from coal companies, bankrolled a TV campaign opposing the Keystone XL oil pipeline, spent millions in election races to defeat Republican ‘climate deniers’,[2, 4] and helped generate hundreds of news stories calling attention to these causes.1
Despite the many studies that scholars have produced, analyzing the institutional, political, and economic factors that shape environmental debates, as historian Paul Sabin notes, we seldom have considered the influence of highly visible public intellectuals like McKibben.[5] Through their best-selling books, articles, and commentaries, these public intellectuals influence how we think and talk about climate change, infusing the abstract with meaning, and turning the complex into a commonly shared vocabulary. Yet, they are also criticized for their characterization of uncertainty, for imposing their point of view, for lacking specialized credentials, for reducing explanations to a single idea, theory, or field, and for blurring the lines between objective analysis and ideological argument.[6, 7]
In this paper, I analyze three distinct groups of public intellectuals arguing for action on climate change. Although all three groups accept the undeniable, human causes of climate change, each group emphasizes a contrasting discourse, problem framing, and set of solutions.
The first group, Ecological Activists,2 argue that climate change is a symptom of a capitalist society that in prioritizing economic growth and consumerism has dangerously exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. Skeptical of technological and market-based solutions, they argue the need for a new consciousness spread through grassroots organizing and social protest that would dramatically transform society. Examples of public intellectuals writing in this tradition include U.S. writer and activist Bill McKibben, Charles Sturt University (AU) philosopher Clive Hamilton, The Guardian (UK) columnist George Monbiot, Canadian author and broadcaster David Suzuki, UK writer and activist Paul Kingsnorth, and Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein.
The second group, Smart Growth Reformers, agree that limits to growth should be respected, but assume that environmental limits can be stretched if the right market-based mechanisms are implemented, enabling ‘sustainable’ economic growth to continue indefinitely. In this case, not only would action on climate change generate profits and create new industries, but international cooperation would also open the door to combating poverty and other global problems. Examples of public intellectuals writing in this tradition include former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, The New York Times' (U.S.) columnist Tom Friedman, the London School of Economics (UK) economist Nicholas Stern, Columbia University (U.S.) economist Jeffrey Sachs, and U.S. energy analyst Amory Lovins.
The third group, Ecomodernists, argue for embracing the power of human ingenuity and creativity to manage the risks of climate change, and for recognizing the biases in how we have conventionally approached the problem. Social change will be catalyzed not by protests or market mechanisms, but by government investment in a diverse menu of policies and technologies that lower the cost of action and that protect against climate impacts. Examples of contemporary public intellectuals writing in this tradition include U.S. entrepreneur and author Stewart Brand, Kings College London (UK) scientist Mike Hulme, University of Colorado-Boulder (U.S.) political scientist Roger Pielke Jr, Oxford University (UK) anthropologist Steve Rayner, Breakthrough Institute (U.S.) cofounders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, and The New York Times' (U.S.) environmental writer Andrew Revkin.
I begin the paper by evaluating how public intellectuals in the climate change debate establish and maintain their authority, how their ideas and arguments spread and diffuse, and how they shape debates and decision-making. Then, based on their main works, I analyze the different stories that each group of public intellectuals tell about the causes, risks, and solutions to climate change, the intellectual traditions they reflect, and their outlook on society, nature, technology, policy, and social change. In this regard, my analysis is informed by my collaborations and interactions with groups and individuals representing each of the three discourse traditions, though my own outlook is closest to that of the Ecomodernists. In the conclusion, I propose several methods for building on my framework and analysis. I also argue the need for investment in media and public forums that challenge how each of us think and talk about climate change, constructively engaging with the ideas and arguments of others. On this goal, ‘the idea here is not just to highlight points of communality and sites for compromise’, note political scientists Hayley Stevenson and John Dryzek, ‘but also to provide possibilities for contestation and the reflection it can induce’.[8]


Who Is a Public Intellectual?

Personality, Celebrity, and Branding



In this section, I analyze the arguments of Ecological Activists, Smart Growth Reformers, and Ecomodernists. Many of the public intellectuals reviewed are best known for their books and related works that appeared between 2006 and 2010, but where relevant, I note where the arguments of these writers may have shifted in the years since. Drawing on their major works, I assess how they define the problem of climate change, the intellectual traditions that they draw on, their outlook on nature and technology, and their views on politics and social change (see summary Table 1).
Table 1. Public Intellectuals and their Arguments for Action on Climate Change
GroupProblem FramingOutlook on NatureOutlook on TechnologyPolicy ProposalsModel of Social Change
  • 1Monbiot supports nuclear, carbon capture.
  • 2Gore skeptical of nuclear, carbon capture, puts stronger faith in market than Sachs or Stern to drive innovation.
  • 3Artistic expression specific focus of Kingsnorth.
Ecological Activists
  • B. McKibben
  • D. Suzuki
  • C. Hamilton
  • G. Monbiot
  • N. Klein
  • P. Kingsnorth
Capitalism, consumerism has exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet, risking catastrophe, or certain collapse.Sacred, fragile nature provides human salvation. Must be kept separate, protected against human influence.Advocate small-scale, locally owned renewables. Warn that nuclear energy, genetic engineering too risky, promote consumption.1Call for strong regulation of industry, rationing of energy use, localization of economies, food systems, governance.New consciousness spread through grassroots organizing, social protest. Artistic attention to ‘ecocide’, myth of progress.3
Smart Growth Reformers
  • T. Friedman
  • Gore
  • N. Stern
  • J. Sachs
  • A. Lovins
Climate change is ultimate market failure, corrected by putting price on carbon. Progress blocked by ‘deniers’.Nature has limits, but ‘dangerous interference’ can be avoided by smart policy, ‘stabilizing emissions’, enabling ‘sustainable growth’.Market pricing will drive adoption of renewables, energy efficiency. Need government to catalyze nuclear, carbon capture.2Call for binding international agreement, national carbon pricing, and government investment in innovation.Market mechanisms drive change. More recent calls for grassroots pressure, third-party movements, new ‘mindfulness’.
  • S. Brand
  • M. Hulme
  • R. Pielke Jr
  • S. Rayner
  • T. Nordhaus/ M. Shellenberger
  • A. Revkin
Misdiagnosed as environmental problem and market failure. Should be re-framed as energy innovation and societal resilience challenge.Nature is more resilient than fragile. Innovative, high-energy planet can promote human progress, while conserving, managing nature.Renewables not capable of meeting energy demand. Need government to develop natural gas, nuclear, carbon capture, other innovations.Argue for portfolio of ‘clumsy’ policy approaches across levels of society, government investment in energy technologies and resilience strategies.Technologies that lower cost of action, public forums that challenge assumptions create conditions for cooperation, innovation.

Ecological Activists

Smart Growth Reformers





Creative Commons License
A #Geoengineering #Climate Issues blog - Geoingeniería by Oscar and Jocelyn Escobar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.Licencia Creative Commons
A #Geoengineering #Climate Issues blog por Oscar y Jocelyn Escobar se distribuye bajo una Licencia Creative Commons Atribución-NoComercial 4.0 Internacional.