Meet the humanities

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Jun 19, 2011 - Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir David King, accused academics in the humanities of “shirking the climate change fight” and criticized “academics in ...

opinion & comment intervals are often absent from published studies. The community needs to develop formal protocols for reporting uncertainties in crop-model predictions, analogous to those used for climate10. We encourage the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project to coordinate such efforts and develop appropriate recommendations. The habitual use of multi-model ensembles would help to facilitate this development. There is an urgent need for more quality, transparency and consistency in the modelling methods used for assessing climate change impacts on crop

production. The approach argued for here would provide a firm basis for delivering more robust and usable information, for everyone from farmers to policymakers. ❐ Reimund P. Rötter 1*, Timothy R. Carter 2, Jørgen E. Olesen3 and John R. Porter 4 are at 1MTT Agrifood Research Finland, Lönnrotinkatu 5, FI‑50100 Mikkeli, Finland, 2Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE), Box 140, FI-00251 Helsinki, Finland, 3Aarhus University, Blichers Allé 20, Box 50, DK-8830 Tjele, Denmark, 4University of Copenhagen, Hoejbakkegaard Alle 9, DK-2630 Taastrup, Denmark. *e-mail: [email protected]

References Frankhauser, S. et al. WIREs Clim. Change 1, 23–30 (2010). Petherick, A. Nature Clim. Change 1, 20–21 (2011). Porter, J. R. & Gawith, M. Eur. J. Agron. 10, 23–36 (1999). Rötter, R. & van de Geijn, S. Climatic Change 43, 651–681(1999). 5. Ewert, F. et al. Agr. Ecosyst. Environ. 93, 249–266 (2002). 6. Jamieson P. D. et al. Field Crop. Res. 55, 23–44 (1998). 7. Tubiello, F. N. & Ewert, F. Eur. J. Agron. 18, 57–74 (2002). 8. Palosuo, T. et al. Eur. J. Agron. (in the press). 9. Rosenzweig, C. & Wilbanks, T. J. Climatic Change 100, 103–106 (2010). 10. Knutti, R. et al. in Meeting Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Expert Meeting on Assessing and Combining Multi Model Climate Projections (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) 1–13 (IPCC Working Group I Technical Support Unit, 2010). 1. 2. 3. 4.

Published online: 19 June 2011


Meet the humanities Mike Hulme An introduction needs to be made between the rich cultural knowledge of social studies and the natural sciences. This partiality matters profoundly, because such assessments determine the framing of what exactly is the climate change ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘solved’, and they set the tone for the human imaginative engagement with climate change. Over its 23-year history, the IPCC

has been presented as the authoritative voice of climate science and the global knowledge community. How the idea of climate change is framed by the IPCC therefore carries enormous significance for the subsequent direction, tone and outcome of policy and public debates. As



he Editorial in the first issue of Nature Climate Change remarked that “climate change is now as much a societal problem as a physical one”1. Although climate is inarguably changing society, social practices are also impacting on the climate. Nature and culture are deeply entangled, and researchers must examine how each is shaping the other. But they are largely failing to do so. A recent study 2 analysed the disciplinary source literatures of the three working groups for the third assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It showed that the cited literature was heavily dominated by natural science disciplines, especially the Earth sciences, while the minority social science content was heavily dominated by economics. Literature from the humanities was virtually absent. The view of climate change thus constructed by the IPCC — and the view that therefore has circulated through societies and influenced policy — is heavily one-sided. Although there may have been some modest broadening of disciplines sourced in the IPCC’s fourth assessment report and the forthcoming fifth assessment report, the analysis of anthropogenic climate change continues to be dominated by positivist disciplines at the expense of interpretative ones3,4.


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opinion & comment

Table 1 | Humanities journals with special issues on climate change. Discipline

Special issues on climate change


Anthropology News 48, 9–13 (2007)

Communication studies

Science Communication 30, 299–414 (2009) Environmental Communication 3, 131–162 (2009)


Environmental Justice 2, 161–214 (2009)

Historical geography

Journal of Historical Geography 35, 215–296 (2009)

History of science

Osiris (in the press)

Literary criticism

Oxford Literary Review 32, 51–150 (2010)

Museum studies

Museum and Society (in the press)


Journal of Social Philosophy 40, 131–295 (2009) The Monist (in the press)


American Psychologist 66, 241–328 (2011)

Religious studies

Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (in the press)

Social sciences

Contemporary Social Science (in the press)


Theory, Culture and Society 27, 1–305 (2010) The Sociological Quarterly 52, 155–219 (2011)

a result of the IPCC’s heavy lean on natural sciences and economics, the dominant tropes in climate policy discussions have become ‘improving climate predictions’ and ‘creating new economic policy instruments’; not ‘learning from the myths of indigenous cultures’ or ‘re-thinking the value of consumption’. Steps need to be taken to right this balance. The role of story-telling needs elevating alongside that of fact-finding. The ‘two cultures’ divide between the arts and sciences in education needs reconciling and collective assessments of climate change knowledge need re-designing. The humanities are producing journal papers, and indeed special issues, devoted to the topic of climate change (Table 1). These fields yield knowledge of how people perceive and act on risk based on their cultural and social backgrounds — whether they are risk takers or feel vulnerable to natural disasters, for example5. The humanities shed light on the implications of how climate science is represented in the media6,7. They create an appreciation of the many non-scientific ways in which people sense and interpret the weather 8: indigenous myths and stories can hold valuable information about the timing of seasonal changes; local populations hold a wealth of information about day-to-day, seasonable or decadal weather variability; our memories of longterm weather patterns, even if they don’t accurately reflect reality, can affect how we react to scientific accounts of change. Furthermore, the humanities can reveal how and why people engage or disengage with different representations of climate 178

change in art, fiction or performance9,10. The current debate on geoengineering, for example, has long been explored in science fiction, reanimates ancient Promethean myths about human mastery, and challenges new contemporary myths about ‘Mother Earth’. All of these types of knowledge need to be embraced. As communications professor Matthew Nisbet of the American University and colleagues recently argued, we need “to bridge the great wellsprings of human understanding — including the natural and social sciences, philosophy, religion and the creative arts — to ‘reimagine’ how we live on Earth”4. The opening-up of climate change to scrutiny from interpretative disciplinary traditions should not be achieved on the terms offered by natural scientists alone. In 2008, the former UK government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir David King, accused academics in the humanities of “shirking the climate change fight” and criticized “academics in the arts, humanities and social sciences for staying in their disciplinary ‘comfort zones’ and failing to engage with scientists on the problem of climate change”11. Yet this engagement must work both ways. It needs to be acknowledged that the role of arts and humanities is not simply to translate scientific knowledge into public meaning, as though science is the only source of primary knowledge. Neither will the humanities ‘solve’ the problem of climate change. Humanities research is accumulative rather than progressive. In the words of professor of philosophy Nicholas Davey from the University of Dundee, it “thickens

and extends an understanding of the issues involved.”12 So what is to change, and how? First, the importance of story-making and story-telling around climate change needs elevating alongside that of fact-finding. Stories are the way that humans make sense of change, and the humanities understand the practices of story-telling very well. At the Open University, for example, the Creative Climate project (http://go.nature. com/gXhDQw) is a new online venture for collecting global diary entries about how climate is affecting individuals, groups, and even streets or insects. Such anthropological efforts need to sit alongside satellite monitoring and precipitation databases, as providing equally essential data in the search for understanding. Second, we need to pursue a highereducation agenda in which the apparent distance between the arts and sciences is narrowed, if not eliminated. This will not suit all temperaments. The contemporary political orthodoxy is that investment in science, technology, engineering and maths (the STEM disciplines) provides the most assured basis for securing future economic vibrancy, social well-being and environmental protection. Yet the STEM disciplines by themselves carry a hubris that they seemingly cannot shake off. On their own they are inadequate for tackling ‘wicked’ problems such as climate change13. Reconciliation between the two demands an educational ethos sympathetic to the idea that humans live simultaneously in both material and imaginative worlds. The new MA/MSc in Environmental Sciences and Humanities being developed at the University of East Anglia is such an example. Finally, knowledge assessments, as exemplified by the IPCC, need a fundamental re-think. Crafting increasingly consensual reports of scientific knowledge, or levering more engineering and technology, will alone never open up pathways from research to the public imagination or the execution of policy. It is not too soon to start a conversation about whether the world in 2020 really needs a sixth assessment report from the IPCC that merely echoes the previous five, or whether it needs something fundamentally different. Although it is valuable to have a single, global-level, governmentowned assessment of how climate is changing, for designing adaptation and mitigation interventions it would be more valuable to have regional-level, nongovernmental assessments with locally developed protocols that are sensitive to cultural conditions.


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opinion & comment A better balance is achievable. This October, countries in the Convention on Biological Diversity plan to launch a proposed Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) — a body partly inspired by the IPCC, but designed from the outset to allow for the respect and hearing of insights from the humanities and nonscientific knowledge. The Busan Outcome for the IPBES says the organization should “recognize and respect contribution of indigenous and local knowledge”, “take an inter- and multidisciplinary approach that incorporates all relevant disciplines including social and natural sciences” and generate “new knowledge by dialogues with stakeholders.”14 The positivist disciplines are ill-suited to engaging with and articulating the deeper

human search for values, purpose and meaning — and yet this search is exactly where humanity’s new entanglement with global climate is taking us. To shed new light on the multiple meanings of climate change in diverse cultures, and to create new entry points for policy innovation, the interpretative social sciences, arts and humanities need new spaces for meeting as equals with the positivist sciences. ❐ Mike Hulme is Professor of Climate Change at the Science, Society and Sustainability Group, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK. e-mail: [email protected] References 1. Nature Clim. Change 1, 1 (2011). 2. Bjurström, A. & Polk, M. Climatic Change doi:10.1007/s10584011-0018–8 (2011).


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3. O’Neill, S. J., Hulme, M., Turnpenny, J. & Screen, J. A. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 91, 997–1002 (2010). 4. Nisbet, M. C., Hixon, M. A., Moore, K. D. & Nelson, M. Ecol. Environ. 8, 329–331 (2010). 5. Slovic, P. The Feeling of Risk: New Perspectives on Risk Perception (Earthscan, 2010). 6. Boykoff, M. T. Who Speaks for the Climate? Making Sense of Media Reporting on Climate Change (Cambridge Univ. Press, in the press). 7. Doyle, J. Mediating Climate Change (Ashgate Press, in the press). 8. Crate, S. A. & Nuttall, M. (eds) Anthropology and Climate: From Encounters to Actions (Left Coast Press, 2009). 9. Trexler, A. & Johns-Putra, A. WIREs Clim. Change 2, 185–200 (2011). 10. Yusoff, K. & Gabrys, J. WIREs Clim. Change doi:0.1002/ wcc.117 (2011). 11. Corbyn, Z. King urges arts to join crusade. Times Higher Education (24 January 2008); available via 12. Davey, N. in The Public Value of the Humanities (ed. Bate, J.) 303–312 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2011). 13. Brown, V. A., Harris, J. A. & Russell, J. Y. (eds) Tackling Wicked Problems Through the Transdisciplinary Imagination (Earthscan, 2010). 14. United Nations Environment Programme Busan Outcome (UNEP, 2010); available via

Published online: 26 June 2011