Evaluating the perils and promises of academic climate advocacy


What are the causes and consequences of academic climate advocacy in contemporary times? Should it be celebrated and pursued, or derided and eschewed? Does advocacy in various forms tarnish or enhance the reputation of science? This research examined conditions whereby some in academic communities facilitate various forms of engagement relating to their research while others shy away from applications of their work and avoid the “advocate” label. Through an exploratory survey of US-based natural and social science climate researchers/scholars and through analysis of interviews of US-based climate change academic researchers/scholars as part of an “Inside the Greenhouse” and “More than Scientists” collaboration, we explored academic advocacy in a twenty-first century climate communications environment. Among our findings, there was broad agreement that climate change is a pressing issue, yet among social scientists, women are more likely to agree that advocacy should not be criticized than their male social scientist counterparts. Younger respondents were more likely than older respondents to be compelled to change by advocacy from someone with a smaller carbon footprint. Meanwhile, social scientists were more likely than natural scientists to be compelled to change by someone with a smaller carbon footprint. The associated effect of age differences was stronger than the associated differences with profession. Together, we examined these dynamic conditions that animate advocacy opportunities and tensions in the context of contemporary climate change research and engagement. Through conflation between advocacy for evidence-based climate science and advocacy for particular policy outcomes (with coincident dangers of individualism and apolitical intellectualism), we found that academic climate advocacy remains an unresolved subject.

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  1. 1.

    Elsewhere, Boykoff has discussed how climate change narratives have emerged, been maintained, contested, amplified, and muffled in the public arena over time through various media portrayals and media representational practices (2011).

  2. 2.

    Robert Wyss has observed, “Many scientists have not liked show-offs” (2008, 73).

  3. 3.

    The survey was conducted through Qualtrics with Human Research and Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval (IRB #18–0111) from the University of Colorado.

  4. 4.

    This distinction was made in each portion of the Likert scale questions on the survey.

  5. 5.

    Inside the Greenhouse was co-founded and is co-directed by three professors at the University of Colorado Boulder (one of whom is also a co-author of this paper): Professor Rebecca Safran (in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology), Professor Beth Osnes (in the Department of Theater and Dance), and Maxwell Boykoff (in the Environmental Studies program).

  6. 6.

    See Appendix for the full 22 survey questions asked of participants, hypotheses, linear regression models, and tests of significance.

  7. 7.

    CDA considers artifacts (e.g. texts, representations) as they are situated in context (van Dijk 1988), pays attention to how the constitution of certain discursive frames privileges (and marginalizes) particular ways of knowing, as well as how they structure spaces of interaction (Fairclough 1995). Anabela Carvalho has pointed out that CDA “allows for a richer examination of the resource used in any type of text for producing meaning. It shares with framing analysis an interest in the variable social construction of the world but puts a stronger emphasis on language and on the relation between discourse and particular social, political, and cultural contexts” (2007, 227). Thus, CDA accounts for how meanings are partially fixed as well as negotiated as they are constructed over time (Laclau and Mouffe 2001). The approach captures how representations contribute to discursive narratives that—while anchored to social, economic, and cultural norms—dynamically shape ongoing considerations and actions (Phillips and Hardy 2002).

  8. 8.

    See Kennedy et al. (2017) for an exploration of inclusive discursive bridge-building engagement through science festivals.


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Both authors thanks the anonymous peer reviewers. They also thank Special Issue Editors Mike Goodman, Julie Doyle and Nathan Farrell. Max Boykoff also thanks the University of Colorado and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) for supporting this work. Max Boykoff also thanks colleague Amanda Carrico for her help in the early stages of development of the research. David Oonk thanks the University of Colorado ATLAS institute and the CIRES Graduate Student Research Award Program for funding his time to conduct this research.

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This article is part of the Special Issue on “Everyday Climate Cultures: Understanding the cultural politics of climate change” edited by Goodman, Doyle and Farrell

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Boykoff, M., Oonk, D. Evaluating the perils and promises of academic climate advocacy. Climatic Change (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-018-2339-3

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