Blog Post

climate change and values

I am currently co-organizing a graduate student panel on climate change across the discipline, sponsored by the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory ( at UIUC.   One of the goals of this panel is to draw attention to the work that graduate students, outside the hard sciences, are doing on climate change, and also to help to facilitate interdisciplinary conversations on climate change.  Urbana-Champaign is a good place to be working on climate change at the moment; aside from our well-respect atmospheric science department (, we have the edream institute (, housed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, which is working on high-tech visualizations of climate change for the general public.  This type of work will become increasingly important in the future, as scientists struggle to explain their findings to the general public and policymakers.  Al Gore’s film Earth in the Balance did more to raise awareness of global warming, in all likelihood, than the total sum of peer-reviewed publications on the topic, which highlights the importance of reaching a broad public. 


Last spring, the PlanetU conference ( at UIUC brought together academics form a variety of disciplines, as well as journalists, for a conversation about all aspects of the human relation to climate.  This year, the Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy Initiative (, a projeect of the Geography Department, the Beckman Institute, and the School of Earth, Society, and Environment is sponsoring both a conference in early February and a speaker series throughout the year.  And finally, the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities ( has been sponsoring a lecture series on climate change and the humanities.  With all these resources, I can’t imagine any campus I would rather be on right now to be working on any aspect of climate change from a humanistic perspective.


Still, the constant problem all humanists working on this topic have is the demand to explain why a humanistic perspective is needed on what appears to be a purely scientific, techno-managerial problem.  For some, the answer lies in the importance of history—humans have been living with (and helping to drive) the global climate system for thousands of years, and so previous encounters of that interaction are likely to be instructive.  Drawing on the work of thinkers such as Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, others argue that false binary thinking (nature/culture, subject/object) is at the root of the crisis itself, and that in order to overcome it is necessary to regard anthropogenic climate change as a cultural and linguistic phenomenon, not merely a scientific one.  Still others of us point to the fact that, underneath seemingly dry, scientific figures (a 1.5-degree increase in global temperature versus 2 degree; 350 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide versus 400) lie debates about values.  To what extent should wealthier nations, who created the lions’ share of the problem, be responsible for assisting less wealthy nations in adapting to climate change? Should poorer countries be expected to forego the process of carbon-intensive rapid industrialization that the United States and Europe have already taken, and if so, what concessions should wealthier nations make to facilitate that process?  What obligations do we have towards future generations, and how much sacrifice of our material standard of living are we willing to make to secure a better future for them? 


These questions really can’t be answered in purely technocratic terms, because they require us to make normative judgments about justice and values.  And while I would certainly not want to dismiss the importance of empirical inquiry and public policy research to tackling these problems, I think that scholars of philosophy, literature, rhetoric, and history have unique insights to offer to this problem.  


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