Climate Change – The Humanities are Missing-In-Action

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by two United Nation’s agencies: the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). It assembles thousands of the best scientific minds from across the globe to produce peer reviewed reports on climate change. Governments, companies and communities rely upon these reports to guide all sorts of decision making, such as coastal development, solar investment and carbon trading regimes. The report writing and peer review process is notorious for, at times, lengthy debate and re-evaluation so as to achieve consensus on the exact wording of each statement.

Given the vast number of clever brains involved in producing these reports, I am both astounded and saddened that in the report, ‘Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation,’ I found the following statement on page 469:

“knowledge about how to create and enable leadership remains elusive.”

This ‘scientific’ conclusion unfortunately demonstrates great ignorance of disciplines such as history, politics, literature, and business management and even sciences such as psychology. People have been studying leadership for centuries! There are shelves of books on Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela and Alexander the Great. Businesses and militaries have comprehensive ‘whole of career’ leadership development programs. ‘Masters of Business Administration’ courses almost all typically include one subject on leadership.  Potentially, it is true, there may be limited ‘scientific’ papers on leadership, but does this mean the knowledge domain doesn’t exist?  If there is a huge body of knowledge on a subject within the humanities sector, does it automatically get excluded? If so, why? Is it not valued as legitimate knowledge? Are scientific methodologies appropriate for studying leadership anyhow? I am sure you could represent leadership traits on a bar graph, but is this the best way to understand leadership?

This strange story does not stop there. Market testing has recently found that a large percentage of the population do not understand the basics of climate science. Accordingly, scientists, (predominantly social scientists) have also started investigating the issue of science communication – becoming excited about discovering the ‘metaphor’ as a great way to explain difficult and new ideas. Yawn. How to break this to them nicely? This is hardly fresh un-trodden snow; in the days of Ancient Greece, Aesop was writing fables.  Again, the depositary for the best knowledge on how to write clear sentences and communicate effectively lies within the humanities: specifically disciplines such as literature and journalism.

In other humanities subjects, such as history and politics, students learn to understand areas of greyness, to express complex ideas clearly and to have well-structured and convincing arguments. This has been done for centuries; yet scientists will label any problem with a ‘human’ or societal’ dimension, where reconciling of different viewpoints is required, or the problem cannot be solved by mathematics, as a ‘wicked problem’. It is not diabolical or wicked – it is simply politics; and the art of politics has been studied infinitum, see Machiavelli for instance. Terrible ‘wicked problems’ which involve lots of perspectives, may be better informed by those with a deep background in law, concepts of ‘fairness’ and democracy and the basic underpinning philosophies and concepts of political study.

More recently, in the face of evidence of not just growing, but accelerating GHG emissions, (IPCC Assessment Report 5, Working Group 3), the ‘narrative’ some Climate Change marketing and communicating agencies have adopted is the: ‘it is logical to listen to experts, and we are the climate experts‘ argument. (i.e. “You see a dentist to fix your teeth; a car mechanic to fix your car; so listen to climatologists on climate.)  Whilst this is technically ‘correct’, it is not a sophisticated narrative; it could be summed up as ‘we’re the experts, so shut up and listen to us,’ which may have an alienating effect.

The other approach, which has merit, is the communication of IPCC report findings in simplified language, with cartoons  to ‘visually’ tell the story, such as this one from the Climate Commission. Whilst that is beneficial, the problem is that most people have already heard the basics of the story: rising GHG emissions will warm the planet; creating more frequent and severe droughts; floods; sea-level rise and associated impacts upon coastal regions; human health; agriculture; bushfires and so on. The problem is that the public are desensitised to it now, and probably overwhelmed. Also, the cartoon may suit school kids, but it risks coming across as patronising ‘baby-talk’ to adults, which again has an alienating affect.

A more powerful narrative is required and not ‘anybody’ can come up with one. A powerful narrative deeply connects with people’s core values and beliefs; it taps into the ‘collective subconscious’ and can creates massive shifts in world view, which lead to changed attitudes, behaviour, politics and laws.  Books such as ’12 Years as a Slave‘ and ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘ are credited with changing mind-sets that gave people the strong  motivation to end slavery. Tolstoy’s great novels still resonate 100 years since his death as they capture issues and insights that are deeply important to people.

One of the ways some critics judge great art, be it paintings, poetry, theatre, film or novels, is the ‘does it reflect truth?’ argument. A great piece of art authentically captures ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ with sharp insight. It can shift away the curtains of illusion. A modern painting may capture something as intangible as a ‘feeling’ – but one that is illusive and one that may be attuned to the times. (i.e it reflects how many others ‘feel’ at that time in history, in that society.)  There is an incredible level of creativity, genius, sensitivity to the ‘social moods’ and skill required to do this well; that is why so many novels flop, and only a handful become ‘iconic’. Great orators, like Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King and Barrack Obama are the same; they can ‘connect’ at a deep level with the masses. Hence to create a compelling narrative, the sorts of people who need to be approached are the great story-tellers and artists of our times.

You must commend the scientists for at least trying to solve the science communication and leadership deficit. However, as they are critical of others for not respecting their expertise, it is time for them to respect the expertise of others – artists, humanities scholars, those who already know about leadership etc – to help navigate the future. This ‘gap’ urgently needs to be addressed. In a world where science provides our collective ‘early warning’ and the community remain confused by well-funded and effective climate sceptic misinformation campaigns, one must ask: why not employ those with existing expertise in language, leadership and engagement? As the scientists say, why use a dentist to design a house; so why use a physical scientist to develop a narrative, or start researching ‘leadership’ completely from first principles?

To humanities scholars: I understand the joy of studying Walt Whitman’s poetry; there are moments of insight and understanding where you feel as though a diamond has exploded in your brain.  A solid grounding in the works of brilliant writers (and thinkers) such as Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters; George Elliot; Patrick White; Australian Indigenous writer Mudrooroo, or Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, helps one develop critical thinking skills, empathy for other viewpoints, plus a sharp understanding of how language is used. This is all wonderful and valuable, I know.

However, at this time in history, the planet is under siege from a range of dangerous climate and environmental changes. Perhaps we could divert your attention for a moment from the delights of 16th century French renaissance literature to the current global problem. Our scientific friends are trying, but really not succeeding to communicate the magnitude and complexity of the issue. We need expert story-tellers; creative film-makers; lawyers who can structure a convincing argument; someone who can create a cohesive narrative that resonates with the broader population. Humanities folks: we need you! And Scientists: we need you to be open to working with experts from the humanities.

Tackling climate and environmental change is a task so big that we need the best of the best involved. That means, the best scientists doing the science; the best communicators explaining it to the population and decision makers; the best leaders and ‘people’ people in leadership and public engagement positions. A solution could be easier than we all think – if we simply got the right people onto the right jobs.

We do not have time to start from scratch.


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