Climate Change Meets The Humanities

by Emil Morhardt

In 2011, Mike Hulme (pictured above), then Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia, and a keen student of the relations between society and climate change, wrote a short commentary in the scientific journal, Nature, pointing out to his scientific audience that there was a rich ongoing technical literature about non-scientific aspects of climate change about which they might not have been aware. He cited example papers from anthropology, communications studies, ethics, historical geography, history of science, literary criticism, museum studies, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, social sciences, and sociology. He pointed out that a recent study by the Swedish researches Andreas Bjurström and Merritt Polk, which I’ll address in my next post, showed that the technical literature cited in the IPCC Third Assessment report was heavily dominated by papers from the natural sciences, while social science content was mostly economics, and humanities comment was hardly visible; as Hulme put it, the IPCC view was “…dominated by positivist disciplines at the expense of interpretive ones.” That last phrase got my attention—I had no idea what it meant, evidently a lack of sufficient training in the humanities. Hulme wrote that story-telling and art are important to the overall enterprise of increasing human understanding of climate change—not just fact-finding which occupies the bulk of scientific activities, and not just to translate the scientific results into something more accessible, but as forms of primary information in their own rights. But these are way outside the comfort zone of most scientists, who think of them as rather separate kinds of activities, and certainly unlikely to be contributing to a scientific understanding of the problem.

In my case, he was correct; I had no idea such a literature existed, nor that it might have some direct utility. To get to know it better, I proposed a course, Human Responses to Climate Change, and taught it to freshman last spring as a seminar, looking at a broad array of technical papers across all these disciplines. What we found was fascinating. Not only were every conceivable take on climate change and the climate change debates being looked by academics from across the spectrum, the research approaches and writing styles across disciplines were far more wildly divergent than I could have imagined. It turns out to be quite an education for a scientist to take a close look at the technical writings of a broad swath of the humanities.

So this blog will be exploring them more in the coming month as I launch a second class on the subject in the 2015 spring semester.

Hulme, M., 2011. Meet the humanities. Nature Climate Change 1, 177-179.

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