What Role Can the Humanities Play in Tackling Climate Change?

Solving the problem of climate change—reducing greenhouse gas emissions, making renewable energy more affordable and accessible, aiding communities affected by a destabilized climate—may seem like a job for scientists and engineers, not for humanists. Yet to look at climate change this way is to view it through a narrow lens, one which essentially removes the human component from a problem caused by humans.

Our approach to climate change needs to be comprehensive and multi-faceted in order to have the highest possible chance of success. Norberto Grzywacz, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Georgetown University, believes we must move past a science-only focus in order to tackle climate change and other societal challenges like aging and inequality. “I realized that these big problems cannot be tackled by a single discipline,” said Grzywacz. “My goal [as dean] became to find this combination. Humanities became part of my interests when I realized how important they were.”

As dean, Grzywacz tries to find ways in which humanists and scientists can work together to solve the major challenges of our time. To discuss the potential of such a comprehensive approach to global issues, Reinvent hosted a series of interviews with leading innovators both inside and outside of academia. To confront climate change, our experts said, we must reach back into our past for cultural and historical context, think critically and communicate effectively in the present, and prioritize the consequences our actions will have for future generations.

This is where the humanities come in.

Historical and cultural context

In the face of a global challenge of unprecedented nature and scope, it’s easy for climate change discussions to devolve into pessimism and hopelessness. In these moments, it’s helpful to have a longer historical lens—which humanists can provide—that takes into account how populations have dealt with climate shifts in the past.

One such historical example, according to serial entrepreneur and CEO of Omnity Brian Sager, is the American West around 700 to 800 years ago. “The water table dropped down many, many feet from where it was. There was a displacement of Native American Indians because of that change in climate, well before any European colonizers had arrived,” said Sager. “Understanding the history of cultural adaption to differences in soil quality, water table level, climate, population increase, disease, anything that would enable or disable growth of a population, is something we should be aware of. The idea of just studying temperature changes in the ocean over time and not having any historical context to understand how human beings have reacted to that in the past would be a tragic mistake.”

Humanists also bring to the table a deep understanding of human nature and culture. Anthropologists and psychologists can help scientists overcome both climate change denial in the general public and institutional opposition towards renewable energy.

“You are never going to solve global warming if you don’t understand the cultures in which global warming is happening, and the cultures of resistance to changing it,” said Helen Small, professor of English literature at the University of Oxford. “If you can’t persuade a population in, say, part of Africa, that it is good to be injected with an unknown product against diseases that are in danger of killing other people, you’re never going to make progress at all.”

Climate change is a cultural problem, Small said. Cultures of industry encourage the rampant, unceasing consumption of fossil fuels, while domestic cultures accustomed to this consumption slow the pace of clean energy progress. “You will never change or fix the global warming problem [without engaging cultures]. You’ll get as far as the scientific description, which might be pretty pessimism-inducing,” Small told Reinvent, “but we also know what science tells us we would require to change the picture, and changing it will come down to changing cultures. And that’s the ground in which you really do need humanistically-trained people, people who are equipped with the skills that humanities especially provide to go out there and make a case, and to argue it articulately with language as well as with figures.”

Communication skills and critical thinking

Given the highly partisan nature of today’s political atmosphere, it can be difficult to have a conversation in which opposing sides genuinely try to listen and learn from one another. People who disagree on how we should tackle climate change—on whether geoengineering is a good idea, or the extent to which the remaining fossil fuels should stay in the ground—could benefit from humanities-based communications skills.

The Yale Climate Connections website echoes the importance of debate and critical thinking in the context of climate change conversations. “And indeed Aristotle, and Plato before him, argued that knowing is the outcome not of the passive reception of a message but of the rigorous discussion of a question or problem,” writes contributor Michael Svoboda in a post about science communication and the humanities. “Without the experience of actively arguing the relevant points, one cannot genuinely engage or consistently hold a new view.”

Aristotle and Plato may not have had climate change to contend with, but they understood that in order to convince other people of your point of view, it’s important to actively engage with their perspectives and concerns.

While verbal communication is inevitably intertwined with the climate change discussion, the old adage “a picture is worth 1000 words” also applies. Carolyn Merchant, professor of Environmental History, Philosophy, and Ethics at UC Berkeley, highlights the often-undervalued rhetorical role that powerful images and art can play in climate discussions. Such visuals, Merchant argues in an article on the Townsend Center for the Humanities website, can challenge “… the standard human/environment narrative, in which humans are both privileged and separate from nature, and show how individuals and communities who are marginalized within the larger climate change debate seek to change the conversation.”

Conscientious debate and purpose-driven art are borne from critical thinking, a core humanities skill. Problem-solving is in fact the greatest predictor of life success—not only in the 21st century, but throughout history, said theoretical neuroscientist Vivienne Ming in an interview with Reinvent. Every job will ultimately become automatable, Ming argues, except for positions with problem-solving at their core. Rather than focusing exclusively on mastering a concrete set of STEM-based skills that may soon be obsolete, learning to think critically and solve problems will benefit not only individuals, but society at large. These problem-solvers are the individuals we need innovating new climate change solutions.

Philosophical and ethical reflection

Studying the humanities reaffirms the interconnectedness of human society. History, literature, anthropology, art: all chronicle, in some form or another, human interaction and relationships. Whether or not a desire for philosophical and ethical contemplation initially motivates an individual to pursue the humanities, this course of study inevitably bumps up against philosophy and ethics—as does climate change.

Climate change has “a whole set of moral and ethical challenges we need to pay attention to,” said Edward Maloney, Executive Director of The Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown. “Even if we can come up with scientific solutions, we always need to understand the impact on both the individual and the collective. We need to know what happens in countries and societies that make certain kinds of choices, and the moral effect that has on others.”

According to recent research, reading literature—especially difficult literary classics—may actually help increase empathy. “The idea of getting inside someone else’s head and seeing emotional connections and interactions between individuals, even as they’re fictionalized,” Maloney said, “allows you to imagine what it means for you to have those kinds of interactions with someone in the world. In some ways, it’s a way of practicing your sense of empathy…it’s alway a way of seeing emotional experiences you may not have had.” So if you’re having trouble seeing climate change from the perspective of someone whose life, home, or livelihood is threatened by it—particularly future generations and coastal communities with limited resources—you might want to try reading William Faulkner or James Joyce.

The centrality of ethics in the climate change discussion cannot be overstated. The obligation to take responsibility for the damage that’s been done, and to act quickly to mitigate future devastation and aid affected communities, lies at the heart of the challenge we face. “Too often in discussions of environmental policy we cede authority to the scientists, economists, and political scientists,” writes Michael E. Mann, director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center, in a blog post about environmental humanities. “But as a scientist, in my own public speaking engagements about climate change, I always emphasize this point: it is not just a matter of science, economics, policy, or politics. It is more than anything else, a matter of ethics.”

Back to the roots of the humanities

The reasons the humanities are important in the climate change discussion are the same reasons the humanities are valuable for our civilization. According to John O’Malley, University Professor of Theology at Georgetown, humanistic education originally had four goals: 1) “Getting the fly out of the bottle”, or in other words, breaking down the parochial perspectives of students 2) Providing a sense of heritage 3) Strengthening students’ ability to say what they mean, or communicate clearly and 4) Teaching students to mean what they say—essentially, instilling a sense of morality and ethics. These four components of a humanities education are as important today as they were in the 17th century, and each of these four humanistic aims is exceedingly important in the climate change struggle. The humanities enable a broader perspective of climate change, one which takes into account the past, present, and future.

“In the university you ask questions about your profession, or your trade, or your discipline,” said O’Malley. “In the humanities, you ask questions about life itself.”

  • James Hampton III

    All due respect to Carolyn Merchant, who cited that worthless old adage in the article above, but Michael Jackson did the Earth Song video well over a decade ago, and yet the very recently elected U.S. President went to work attacking via executive order pristine and sacred lands as if destroying what’s left of natural environments in the nation were the only way to create jobs. If only there were a really great writer doing his thing with a character called Mpongi… oh well, Earth had a good run.