Higher Education and the Green Movement: Speaks With Dr. Max Boykoff

Dr. Max Boykoff

Understanding Climate Change

Dr. Max Boykoff is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a fellow at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science (CIRES). Just so we can get a little background on you as a professor as well as a scientist, can you tell us about your educational background and what led you to the field of climate change and the environment?

Dr. Max Boykoff: I have my bachelors in science from Ohio State University, where I studied psychology. But I was thinking about neuroscience for a little while, so I ended up going science heavy (physics, chemistry, biology), which led to a Bachelors of Science in psychology. From there, I took five years away from school, during which I became acquainted with urban community gardening. I also spent two in the US Peace Corps in Honduras, doing work in agriculture. After my time off, I earned a PhD in environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, then moved over to the UK for a research fellowship at the University of Oxford in the Environmental Change Institute, where I spent three years. I took my current position here at the University of Colorado last fall.

Since August 2009 I've worked here as an assistant professor in environmental studies and geography and a fellow in the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. What are your favorite courses that you've taught at Boulder?

MB: I've had a good experience with students at the undergraduate level my first two semesters here, teaching a course that I call 'Culture, Politics, and Climate Change.' This course is typically with students near the end of their undergraduate work in environmental studies, sometimes in geography or international affairs. It functions as a 'capstone,' or discussion-based course, where we talk about how formal climate, science and policy translates to people's everyday lives, as well as how people's everyday lives and their behaviors and their attitudes and intentions shape the ways that the more formal actors in science and policy then carry out their roles.

University of Colorado at Boulder Can you also tell our readers a little bit about your research in climate change and environmental governance?

MB: The way I typically describe my work is that I am on two main research tracks that are very much interrelated. The first of them is culture, politics and climate change. A good bit of my research so far has been looking at mass media coverage of climate change, media representation and practices and a range of environmental issues. I see mass media as a bridge between these formal spaces and everyday people. Mass media is a really powerful way for people to access those interactions, those processes, to learn about what's happening in climate science. People typically don't have access to the peer reviewed literature and aren't privy to discussions within these spaces of policy negotiation. So it's really mass media that they rely on to understand those things.

I've ended up carving out a good bit of research that's looked at various aspects of this issue. I started by looking at the United States and examining how mass media may have been playing a role in climate politics, helping folks understand the issues and learn to really assess this spectrum of possibilities for personal or collective action on climate change.

But I've also explored how mass media may have at times inadvertently acted as a barrier to communication, which may be a bit counterintuitive. An example of that is the early work that I've done in collaboration with my brother, Julius Boykoff, who's a professor of political science at Pacific University in Portland, Oregon. Around 2000 to 2002, we were looking at how there had been this consensus that had emerged in the climate science community that humans contributed to climate change. We explored how this convergence of agreement had been covered in the top newspapers in the United States. What we found was that there had been a real divergence in terms of how the issue was represented. There hadn't been this communication of real consensus, but instead an appearance of a split community on the issue of climate change. We attributed it to the journalistic norm of balanced reporting - journalists rely on both sides of the story and end up with a 'he said, she said' type of journalism, at the expense of covering the issue accurately.

That was some of the early work that I had done with my brother, and I've since expanded out into other questions on interactions between media and science policy in the public. I think I've written about 10 peer reviewed papers on different aspects of media, and climate change, and now I'm writing a book that tries to put together a more cohesive narrative.

I've also done some research looking at celebrity involvement in climate change. I covered the music industry in the UK, looking at how music has influenced citizen perceptions of action on climate change.

I mentioned earlier that there were two tracks. I've also looked at transformation in the carbon economy and climate change, meaning the transition from carbon based sources of energy to renewable sources of energy and all of the different elements that go along with that. One particular case is a project that I'm working on in Mumbai, India, looking at how the community in Mumbai is addressing the challenges of climate change in particular ways as a global mega city in what's considered the global south. I'm exploring interactions from citizens living in vulnerable spaces up to city level officials and how they're in turn interacting with national governments and international bodies. Clearly academia plays a crucial role in research related to the environment and climate change. Do you see any other role for higher education in affecting public opinion or influencing policy change? Do academic institutions have any special duty to communicate with the public, or is that beyond the scope of their responsibilities?

MB: Yes, I think that responsibility is massively important. Maybe I can demonstrate that by where I've placed my own investments. I've invested my time, energy and passions in higher education to try to positively influence these spaces, to raise awareness about climate change and to help provide the tools and resources to understand what patterns are emergent from these interactions over time.

However, there can be a danger of as a colleague of mine puts it stealth advocacy. Academic institutions need to be very mindful of the role they play in providing information, to really expand this section of possibility for decision making, rather than constricting this space of possibility through particular prescriptive recommendations. Part of the challenge within academia, as I see it, is to continue to provide the tools and the information that's needed to help decision makers arrive at what can be considered optimal, rather than constricting that space and providing the answers ourselves.

I've invested in it, and I do think that this is a space where I can make a good contribution to things. The areas where people outside of the state those who aren't within federal governments, people who aren't in federally funded, scientific organizations these spaces are filling up more and more, all the time, with climate issues. Business groups, NGOs, celebrities, sports organizations, the entertainment industry more broadly and academic institutions all have an opportunity to play a key role in understanding all of this, and then also in providing context so that the decision makers can make better choices. College students also have a long history of environmental activism. Do you do any work with CU Boulder students in this realm? What words of advice would you have for students elsewhere who'd like to get involved with efforts to curb climate change?

MB: I think it's a great opportunity while students are at a university to access the resources to explore these things. And then also, not just to understand how they work, but then to test out some of these ideas by getting involved in various projects and initiatives. In the year that I've been here, I've started to get involved with undergraduates and some of the initiatives that are taking place, including one that's led by Eban Goodstein at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy.

Goodstein's project is called 'Campus to Congress.' Staffers of, in our case, the team members of the Senate, got a conference call with students here at the university. This gave students the ability to ask questions about what the senators are doing at the federal level in dealing with cap and trade policy, as well as other issues and how they scale up to the international negotiations. Students were also able to ask how Senators are representing their constituents in the state of Colorado.

That's one initiative that I think is quite helpful in helping in allowing students to feel empowered - they can get this access. They can have an influence. And they can take some of these ideas and really put them to the test by asking questions of the senators and the senators' staffers.

In the past, and in other work that I've done at the University of Oxford and at the University of California in Santa Cruz, there have also been more local level community initiatives that partner campus energies with community energies. I think that's where there can be some really effective work.

There's oftentimes this disparagement of 'townie' interactions on college campuses. After having spent three years in Oxford, I think that's one of the places where this phrase comes from, that there can be this reticence to dig in, to get your hands dirty, with community challenges and community issues. But I think that's where some of the most fruitful interactions take place, getting students out of the classroom, off campus and working with people in the community. Many of our readers are interested in careers in environmental science and sustainability. Are there any specific majors or programs of study you'd recommend? To what resources would you direct them to learn more?

MB: Well, I would love for everybody to major in environmental studies, but that's not for everyone. Still, if people are committed to environmental issues and concerns, that's a great way to go. It's an interdisciplinary major that's gaining more traction, and a field that's increasingly being recognized as important.

Even when I went through the environmental studies PhD, which was not too long ago, it was difficult to find work after school. But I've invested in being on faculty here and in environmental studies, hoping to carve out that stage more so that students who get degrees in environmental studies will have greater successes finding work. I think that employers are recognizing that specialists are great, but those folks who understand the interaction between issues and understand context and process are very capable when they leave the university and they go out and look for jobs.

So I'd definitely recommend environmental studies as a major. Some can think of it in a way as job security, because environmental challenges aren't going away anytime soon. Those who do choose to take up these challenges won't suddenly find themselves out of a host of career options. For example, business organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of considering environmental issues. There's also work in NGOs and in a variety of community groups and government jobs. There are many, many possibilities there.

I would recommend that students look for opportunities to volunteer or to get involved in a variety of internship opportunities. That's where one can gain a better understanding of where your interests are. And that's also where employers will look later to see what sorts of skills a student can bring to the job. It's what can really separate a crop of excellent students from a few very outstanding students. That's why I recommend, even though students may be feeling bogged down with too much reading or too many exams, that they do invest in volunteering in their community. You've written and lectured on the issue of media representation of climate change and how that can distort the issue. If you could speak directly to college students across the U.S., what would you tell them about the science of climate change?

MB: The climate is changing. Humans contribute to climate change. The industrial revolution has brought with it many opportunities, but it also has this byproduct of climate change. And we stand at the precipice of a host of what I hope will be seen as great opportunities for young people, for students, for lifelong learners, to step in and address this massive challenge in a variety of ways of how to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We need to explore how to de carbonize society, and how to help people adapt to the emission that we are already committed to. People often times talk about this doom and gloom scenario and this alarmist approach. I don't really see it that way. I think it's certainly a huge challenge and it interacts with a number of other challenges we're facing now.

But if you're asking what's the message for students, well, there are many, many opportunities and now is the time for graduates and learners to go out and grab a hold and make change and improve the paths that we're heading down in terms of addressing this big 21st Century problem.

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