Blog Post

climate change and the humanities

Over the next few months, I’m going to use this space to discuss my work on literature and climate change.  I’m currently in the very early stages of a dissertation on British literature from 1750 to 1850, which looks at the intersection of literature, the emerging science of meteorology, and the cultural and economic impacts of climate change and extreme weather events.  My hope is that this project can have some relevance to our own moment, that we can learn from what has gone before.  I’ve also undertaken this project out of a conviction that the current anthropogenic climate change needs to be understood and addressed as a cultural phenomenon, as well as a scientific-managerial challenge. 

In some respects the situation dealing with climate change is significantly better than it was even a year ago.  In the U.S., the president and majorities in both the House and Senate are no longer ambivalent about whether global warming is happening.  A climate bill (Waxman-Markey) was passed in the House. Granted, it was a bill so massively weighed down with loopholes and giveaways that many environmental groups and progressive legislators, as well as NASA climatologist James Hansen, wound up opposing the final version.  But merely the fact that climate change is on the radar seemed like a vast improvement.

 Now, of course, the bill seems stalled as Washington turns its attention to health care reform.  It’s unclear what role the US will wind up playing at the next global climate change conference in Copenhagen. It’s clear that any comprehensive global solution will require drastic policy changes on the part of the world’s richest and most carbon-intensive economies, as well as the newly industrialized countries (like China and India) that will produce the largest increases in population, resource consumption, and carbon output over the next half-century.

Given the urgency of the problem and the virtual scientific consensus about its severity, it seems strange that climate change has slipped to the back burner. We are missing a sense of urgency. 

 And what can people working in language, literature, communications, philosophy, and history contribute to these debates? Is climate and the humanities just a trendy academic subspecialty, or are there contributions humanists can make to the crisis we find ourselves in? What would (could) these contributions look like?  Obviously I have my own thoughts, but I’d be curious to hear what others think. 


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