Guest essay by Eric Worrall
“We worry that overemphasis on science may hamper the design of effective climate solutions.”
Why science needs the humanities to solve climate change
August 1, 2019 10.33pm AEST
Many people view climate change as a scientific issue – a matter of physical, biological and technical systems. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent assessment report, for example, is a vast compendium of climate science, threats and potential solutions.
Yet modern climate change is also a human problem caused by the collective behaviors of people – mostly the wealthy – around the world. Japanese economist Yoichi Kayasummarizes this viewpoint in an elegant equation known as the Kaya Identity: Global greenhouse gas emissions are the product not just of energy use and technology, but also human population size and economic activity.
Of course, science is essential for understanding climate change, and technology is critical for solving the problem. But the IPCC report spends little more than 10 pages on climate ethics, social justice and human values. We worry that overemphasis on science may hamper the design of effective climate solutions.
In our view, solving the world’s climate problems will require tapping into brainpower beyond science. That’s why the two of us – an ecologist and a humanities dean – are teaming up to rethink climate solutions. Recently we developed a program to embed humanities graduate students in science teams, an idea that climate research centers are also exploring.
So far, scientific facts have not motivated Americans to support the huge societal transformations needed to stop climate change. Some reject the scientific consensus on global warming because it makes them feel bad or clashes with their personal experience of the weather.
By tapping into what moves people, the emerging field of environmental humanities can help spur climate action. Scholars of history, philosophy, religious studies, literature and media are exploring many aspects of humans’ relationship with the Earth. An entire literary genre of climate fiction, or “Cli-Fi,” depicts often-apocalyptic visions of climate impacts on humanity. Social scientists have worked out how civilizations like the ancient Maya and medieval Icelanders dealt with climate shocks.
Frankly I think they’re onto something. Imagine if IPCC conferences gave more attention to the humanities.
IPCC conferences could become a new global version of the Eurovision song contest, with continuous mainstream media coverage of performers. Artists from all around the world could compete to express their climate angst through song, dance and showers of green confetti.