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Liberating Climate Change Communication – An interview with Maxwell Boykoff

Dr. Maxwell Boykoff is the Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, which is part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. His work, focusing in cultural politics and environmental governance, provides insightful analysis as to how we can better frame the issue of climate change in the media or the arts.

At the seminar he holds at the London School of Economics, Boykoff advocates a radical turn in climate change communication. Other narrative forms and mediums, such as the arts, can play an important role in the representation of the issue – an interesting example, for instance, is using the power of humour and audience laughter through stand-up comedy, which can provide a constructive collective relief of climatic anxiety: teaching climate change to the public, all the while de-paralysing it from despair and fatality. Being mindful of what resonates with a particular audience is especially key in producing effective local engagement.

After the conference, he kindly agreed to have a chat with me to give us students some refreshing advice for renewing our communication of the issue.

How do you think we could liberate conversation on climate change between science and policy, experts and regular citizens?

We have to open up new pathways, so that learning and knowing about climate change will meet further engagement for this collective problem. We have done a lot of work in improving our scientific way of knowing about climate change, but we have a lot of work still to do to improve a different, aesthetic, visceral, experiential, emotional ways of knowing about this issue. That’s where the arts and interdisciplinary types of projects in the cultural sphere come into play, in engaging with politics.

Rather unrelated to your conference, how can journalists change their coverage of climate change to make it more efficient and communicative of the crisis at stake?

There is a lot of stories yet to be told on these issues. There are well-worn paths of story-telling about the science, but there aren’t very well-worn stories about communities and individuals fighting in the face of changing climate. So, there is a lot still to do. I think we are just getting started with that. I think that this type of human-focused story-telling can drive effective communication too.

How can artists, on their side, participate in raising climate awareness, engaging citizens?

The word that gets used a lot, and for good reasons in my view, is “co-production”. To come to artists at the beginning of their projects, to then work with them, help them think about how they want to portray certain issues, within climate change, science and the environment is leading to great successes. There is possibly a lot more of people in this world that are willing to engage in various types of art, as much as journal articles.

What do you think about the movement Extinction Rebellion, here in the UK, or even the youth strikes happening all over Europe? Is it a positive sign?

All the world is at stage and there is room for all kinds of engagement, to the extent that those engagements open new spaces of possibility for action in face of this twenty-first century challenge. I welcome those perspectives and engagements – it is one among many that help to give voice to a certain set of concerns that otherwise don’t find resonance in the public discussion.

Do you have any general advice to give to younger generations, as to how to communicate the issue more effectively – either in their usual conversations or through their work?

Play to your strengths. Think carefully about what you are passionate about, what it is you are good at, what it is about yourself that draws you to these issues, and then work from there. We all have a lot of strengths that we can draw upon, and that we sometime we overlook as we try to fit into previously traveled ways of communicating and representing those issues.

What would you say is the main lesson of your upcoming book?

Two things. One, is that there is no silver bullet – we need to work with the climate science in many different ways, for many different audiences, because it is a collective action problem. Secondly, I would say we just need to smarten up the way in which we are talking about this. There are some fossils among us that think they can just dumb this down, that they can just speak in plain language, with no one that is going to get it but then everyone still getting engaged – it doesn’t work like that. We need to be a lot more smarter, methodical, systematic about how people really are and how they react.

I anxiously ask him if we should stay optimistic. With a large smile and stars in his eyes, he confidently replies two simple, invigorating words – “yes, absolutely”.

Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor


Creative (Climate) Communication: Productive Pathways for Science, Policy and Society will be released in September 30, 2019, by Cambridge University Press (Hardcover £59.99, Paperback £22.99)

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