Fall 2020

Less Talk, More Walk: Why Climate Change Demands Activism in the Academy

Jessica F. Green

As climate scholars, it is our professional responsibility to engage in climate politics. First, we need to engage in radical scientific analysis: we must ask questions that get at the root of climate change. Second, we need to plant a flag: we must be explicit about what our findings indicate we should do. This should go further than laying out the options; we must indicate which among them is preferable and why. Third, we must engage broadly, both across disciplines and beyond the academy.  Many will object to the notion of engaging publicly as advocates, but the climate crisis demands nothing less. Choosing not to have a view, in the name of preserving our expertise, is an abdication of our responsibility, as both scholars and teachers.

Jessica F. Green is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance (2014) and has published in such journals as Nature, International Organization, and Global Environmental Politics. She is also a regular contributor to The Washington Post.

As a graduate student in political science, I learned to be objective. I was taught to be analytical, methodical, and scientific. I learned to proceed incrementally: immersing myself in others’ research, meticulously assembling modest, falsifiable hypotheses, then dutifully reporting the sources of bias, potential problems, and, with trepidation, my findings. In short, I had politics trained out of me. Instead of engaging in climate politics–my area of expertise–I studied them. Instead of advocating, I analyzed. After all, expertise, not activism, is the path toward tenure. Yet I felt that I was shirking my political responsibility as a scholar to do something.

I struggled mightily with this problem, trying to walk a line between producing peer-reviewed articles and public-facing work, hoping that the latter would not undercut my credibility as an international relations (IR) scholar. Of course, I did other things on the side: protesting, organizing for pro-climate candidates, and the like. But I felt that as a scholar of climate politics, I was, along with my colleagues, in a unique position to participate in political debates.

Yet the discipline of political science neither expects nor rewards such engagement. We are rewarded, first and foremost, for engaging with each other, through peer-reviewed publications and conferences. Only the most senior among us receive accolades for public engagement. There is a small cohort (who skew younger) who are committed to engaged scholarship, but they are in the minority within the discipline.

Then I got tenure. With it, I can worry less about getting published, and am able to focus more of my energy instead on trying, in my own corner of the universe, to shape the discourse about the future of climate policy.

But most scholars–especially the growing number of us who are part of the “precariat” on temporary teaching contracts–do not have this luxury. As a result, we tend to ask narrow “impartial” questions that can be answered in an empirically rigorous way, and we shy away from bolder questions that we should be asking. The dominance of positivist inquiry in political science, which emphasizes hypothesis-testing and generalizable results, has solidified this practice. One critic, political scientist Jonathan Isacoff, suggests that this has driven many international relations scholars away from “human woe and issues that matter” to “the self-definitionally obsessed, paradigm-driven culture of academic IR.”

I publicly and emphatically reject this expectation. I echo Dennis Thompson’s argument in this volume of Dædalus that “the professional’s obligation to witness is different from and stronger than the obligation that they may have as a citizen.” As climate scholars, it is our professional responsibility to engage in climate politics and use our expertise to serve as advocates, to identify the political causes of climate inaction as well as solutions to overcome them.

Many will object to the notion of engaging publicly as advocates. By advocating, we undermine our credibility, and without credibility, no one will listen to us. But consider the counterarguments. As human beings, we are in a fight for our collective survival. This takes precedence over our precious credibility. And this is why respected conservation scientists have called for civil disobedience. By doggedly insisting that speaking truth to power will effect the necessary societal changes, we undercut our credibility as moral actors.

We are living in an age of rising populism and a corresponding distrust of experts. Our vaunted positions as experts are perhaps not as respected as we might think. Finally, and most important, if we don’t talk–loudly and forcefully, to be heard above the din and false information–no one will listen. If we don’t clearly voice our views in public-facing venues to counteract misinformation, which is often amplified through echo chambers, our knowledge will be irrelevant.

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