Climate Change and the Humanities: A Historical Perspective

In the latest contribution to the Democracy Papers, Deborah Coen explores how human beings make sense of large-scale natural phenomena like climate change. What does it mean to “understand” climate change? Does it mean the same thing to concerned citizens as it does to natural scientists, or humanities scholars, or policymakers? Coen uses a brief history of climate science since the nineteenth century to explore these questions and to challenge the traditional dichotomy between scientific explanation and humanistic understanding.

by Deborah R. Coen
January 9, 2018

“When the fate of the planet hangs in the balance, can the public be trusted to interpret data and models appropriately?”
Anthropogenic climate change has brought into sharp relief the underlying tensions between science and democracy. One of the fundamental questions the climate crisis raises is whether democratic processes can produce informed decisions on highly technical matters. When the fate of the planet hangs in the balance, can the public be trusted to interpret data and models appropriately? These anxieties about democratic responses to climate change have raised important questions for policy analysts and social scientists, as other recent SSRC reports attest. But they have also inspired a new mission within the arts and humanities. Artists and humanists are increasingly assuming responsibility for translating the results of scientific inquiry into forms intended to move citizens to action. In particular, they are striving to make the space-time scales of climate change intuitive to a wide audience. According to one curator engaged with climate change, art can take a topic that “can feel too large and sweeping for one person to approach head-on” and “make it more relatable.”1

This mission is reshaping the landscape of academic disciplines in the United States today. Over the past few years, several universities have created programs in the environmental humanities, with an agenda of creative, interdisciplinary research and public outreach. As undergraduate enrollment in the humanities has been plummeting, the environmental humanities are making a powerful case for the value of humanistic learning in the twenty-first century. In doing so, however, proponents of the environmental humanities unwittingly echo the intellectual battle over the definition of the human sciences first fought over a century ago, a precedent I examine in my essay “Climate Change and the Quest for Understanding.”

Explanation and understanding

Environmental humanities programs tend to identify themselves as capaciously interdisciplinary, embracing partnership with the natural sciences. However, even as they absorb traditionally “scientific” topics like the atmosphere, soil, and energy, these programs also propose that the humanities represent a unique way of knowing, distinct from and independent of the sciences. They define their mission as understanding and communicating to the public what scientists have merely explained. In this respect, they stand in a long tradition of defining the autonomy of what were once called the “human sciences” on methodological grounds.

At the turn of the twentieth century, philosophers such as Wilhelm Windelband and Wilhelm Dilthey famously set out to define the ways of knowing unique to what we now call the humanities. Yet climatology did not fit this schema. It was held up as a counterexample, a case that straddled the presumed divide between the natural and human sciences. Climate—at once ethereal and tangible, abstract and practical—demanded a fusion of naturalistic and humanistic methods. Climate was not something to be explained naturalistically and subsequently understood humanistically. Rather, the humanistic work of understanding was built into the science itself.

For more insights into the environmental humanities, read Prasenjit Duara’s essay here.

Climate science in the making

The nineteenth century was an era of widespread concern over the climatic consequences of human activities like deforestation, swamp drainage, and urbanization. Many ordinary people worried that these forms of economic development were taking an environmental toll, robbing the atmosphere, in particular, of the moisture necessary for agriculture and human health to flourish. The modern science of climate grew up, in part, around these practical concerns.

“Bringing climate change back down to the human scale in this sense was not a post hoc intervention; it was constitutive of the science itself.”
To study these impacts, scientists proceeded by calibrating the dimensions of human existence against geological time scales and planetary distances. They peered into the climate of the past by weighing the records of human memory against the evidence of fossils and strandlines. Botanists, for instance, used maps of the distribution of vegetation as evidence of a changing climate. An island of Alpine plants surrounded by Mediterranean flora, for example, could be a sign that the climate of the region had once been colder and moister. Could it be that the clear-cutting of forests had led to desiccation? Scientists even created experimental forests to test this hypothesis. They measured evaporation leaf by leaf and studied the wind patterns that might distribute this moisture to surrounding fields. As puny as humans might appear in comparison to the vastness of the atmosphere, their actions could have an appreciable impact over time and in the aggregate. Bringing climate change back down to the human scale in this sense was not a post hoc intervention; it was constitutive of the science itself.

The study of these manmade problems taught the lesson that natural processes could not be measured according to the spatial and temporal framework of a human life. The Austrian climatologist Julius Hann argued that natural scientists became accustomed to “taking the effects of small causes into account; the uneducated mind disregards them, concerning itself only with forces that have compelled it to astonishment or fear.”2 But the “uneducated” could and did acquire this habit of mind. Indeed, non-scientists eagerly engaged with climatological research, and they too began to rethink the very meaning of “big” or “small.”

The American historian and diplomat George Perkins Marsh encountered climatology through his exchanges with European foresters in the 1850s and 1860s. His survey of the evidence for the environmental impact of deforestation convinced him that human units of measurement were hopelessly naïve. “Man takes his standards of dimension from himself…. He borrows his inch from the breadth of his thumb…his foot from the length of the organ so named…. To a being who instinctively finds all standard of all magnitudes in his own material frame, all objects exceeding his own dimensions are absolutely great, all falling short of them absolutely small.”3 By relying on such ready-to-hand norms, humans had blinded themselves to natural phenomena unfolding over vast expanses of space and time. “Nature has no unit of magnitude by which she measures her works,” Marsh wrote. There was no all-purpose yardstick for gauging the significance of a phenomenon in nature. What counted as trivial, as a mere detail, was always a matter of perspective—in natural history as much as in human history.

Climate and the scalar imagination

Likewise, democracies today are confronting a process of climate change that is not only exceedingly complex, but also characterized by scales of space and time that far exceed those of ordinary human experience. That is, climate change presents a problem of scale for democratic politics. This means, for instance, that when policymakers initiate efforts to mitigate the build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the beneficial effects will not be felt before the next election cycle. The dimensions of the climate system are utterly incongruent with those of the electoral system.

“Climate change demands that citizens think about their place in history in a new way.”
More generally, climate change demands that citizens think about their place in history in a new way. Modern democracies typically instruct their citizens in national histories. For example, many such stories have a clear beginning at a celebrated moment of independence. They unfold in an era comfortably defined as modern. And they are peopled by the relatively homogeneous “imagined community” that constitutes the nation. Monuments, festivals, and anthems all train citizens to think of themselves as actors in this story.

Climate change, in contrast, proposes a planetary history, stretching back to the formation of the earth four and a half billion years ago, and encompassing the accumulated geophysical impact of humanity as a species in its 200,000 years of existence. To paraphrase the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, how might people learn to recognize themselves as agents of such a planetary history?4 How should the humanities address this imaginative challenge?

To contemplate this question, it is illuminating to turn back to an era before Dilthey and Windelband, before the divorce of the human from the natural sciences. In 1864, Marsh eloquently articulated the problem of scale. “If man is destined to inhabit the earth much longer,” he wrote, “…he will learn to put a wiser estimate on the works of creation.” Though educated as a philologist, Marsh was not invested in defending humanistic scholarship against the rising tide of the natural sciences. He did not distinguish between humanistic and naturalistic ways of knowing. He wrote in a “practical” vein for a general audience of “thinking men.”5 And thinking men (and women) read him avidly, buying up over 1,000 copies within a few months.

His example may hold a lesson for the challenge of reconciling science and democracy. The practical contexts in which climate science took root in the nineteenth century remind us that this has always been a science that has mediated between abstract, planetary physics and everyday human needs. Rather than assuming that planetary science must be “translated” for public consumption, we can look back to the early days of this science. There we find scientists and non-scientists alike developing an intuition for the dimensions of climatic change—learning, for instance, to recognize a historical shift in climate in a landscape’s spatial patterns of vegetation. This was an enterprise in which the tasks of explanation and understanding were inseparable. If we can resist the age-old impulse to define binary oppositions between ways of knowing—scientific versus humanistic, expert versus popular—we will be in a better position to join forces across those divides towards understanding and action.

Deborah R. Coen

Deborah R. Coen is professor of history at Yale University and chair of the Program in History of Science and Medicine. Her research and teaching bring together the history of science and the intellectual and cultural history of modern Europe. She has published widely on the history of the physical and earth sciences, including Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (University of Chicago Press, 2013) and Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life (University of Chicago Press, 2007). Her recent research considers how climate came to be studied in terms of the interaction of phenomena at multiple scales, from the planetary to the scales of agriculture and human health. Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale will be published by the University of Chicago Press in July 2018.

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