When the Humanities Are Useful in Teaching Climate Engineering


Friday, Jun. 01, 2018

Climate engineering is largely the province of experts, discussed predominantly by scientific and policy specialists. And yet those who advocate climate engineering as a solution emphasize that it is good for the world —that all of humanity, and especially those people living in the places most vulnerable to anthropogenic global warming, will benefit from an engineered climate. To adjudicate this claim, the lay public, for whose good the climate would be engineered, need to be more aware of and informed about climate engineering.  

At present, the information gap between specialists and the lay public is a multifaceted, challenging issue for climate engineering researchers. Our suggestion in this post is that the undergraduate humanities classroom is an important site for more and more in-depth education about climate engineering. Undergraduate students should be informed about these emerging technologies and should be helped to develop moral and intellectual responses using the tools of humanities. Furthermore, developing a humanistic approach to the issue will produce resources that can translate the scientific, political, and philosophical issues raised by climate engineering to the broader public.

But can the humanities teach climate engineering?  Some might think not, insofar as much of the public debate surrounding climate change in general seems to center around scientific issues. Most discussions of teaching climate issues therefore focus on building scientific literacy or expertise, and this is all the more true for discussions of intentionally engineering the atmosphere. Clarifying such issues for an undergraduate audience requires careful, technical expertise that few humanists possess. Furthermore, there is sometimes truth to the stereotype of the humanities professor who pays little attention to actual scientific information in favor of dwelling on the latest theorist or cultural studies debate. If a humanities classroom is closed off to interdisciplinary dialogue with science, or is more interested in advancing a philosophical position rather than deepening students’ knowledge about climate engineering, then it might not be the place to teach about climate engineering.  

These concerns are important, but not conclusive. To the contrary, by taking the gap between scientific and humanistic expertise seriously, we open the door for humanists to play an important role in teaching climate engineering.  

If a humanities teacher is open to genuine questions about and exchanges with science, technology, and engineering, their classrooms will be vital sites for discussion and introduction of climate engineering. The humanities create imaginative and critical spaces to teach students about the dilemmas, challenges, and promise of climate engineering, offering the chance to identify and examine the values, assumptions, and narratives that underlie discussions about these technologies. The humanistic study of religion is essential to understand the debate about whether climate engineering is “playing God”, and whether that would be a bad or a good thing.  The humanistic study of ethics is vital to evaluate the issues of power, privilege, and history raised when engineers aspire to assist the poor and marginalized who are most threatened by anthropogenic climate change.

Scientists and engineers should collaborate with humanists who want to teach about climate engineering, because scientific and technical disciplines do not specialize in the normative and contextual questions emphasized by humanists. By the same logic, humanists should recognize our disciplinary limitations in this teaching. For example, no humanistic discipline by itself can teach students to assess the technical feasibility of CDR over SRM, or decide on a realistic carbon budget, or predict the specific impacts of a given technology.

The value of the humanities is that it does not simply replicate scientific perspectives; it raises different kinds of questions and highlights new perspectives. In a humanities classroom, students will gain skills to engage questions like: What social values are implied in BECCS as compared to SAI? How does the attempt to control certain Earth systems relate to broader cultural themes of “mastery of nature,” human dominion, and technological optimism? What is the relationship between ethics and aesthetics to governance and economics?

Of course, “the humanities” is not a monolithic category, and its varied disciplines will offer different contributions to a conversation on climate engineering. Historians help students wrestle with the precedents —or lack of precedents— to our current conversations about engineering the planet. Literature classrooms identify, examine, and critique narratives used to make sense of new ideas. Linguistic and cultural studies help undergraduates reflect on how conversations of climate engineering can become more global and inclusive, as well as pointing out the limits of any monolingual or monocultural conversation. Philosophy teaches students the cognitive tools to apply norms of logic, questioning assumptions and more systematically structurings decision-making processes.

As scholars of Religious Studies, we see our particular discipline as helping students critically engage the stories, rituals, and practices that human communities have used for centuries to develop and protect a sense of what is valuable. We teach about climate engineering by first summarizing basic information about climate change, pointing out the importance of identifying whether students’ understanding is in agreement with scientific expertise in some of the relevant fields (and also emphasizing that our expertise is not in the natural sciences).  When possible, this involves collaborative teaching, with guest speakers from different disciplines.

The next step is how the religious studies classroom can assist in public deliberation: we guide students to reflect systematically on questions at the intersection of scientific information and normative, existential concerns. “What, in the changing world described by climate science, is the story we would like to tell about how our community responded?” “What, in a changing climate, should be protected and valued as most important or sacred?”

These same questions then help us to develop a humanistic conversation about climate engineering. By considering different normative frameworks —different answers to the questions in the previous paragraph— we demonstrate the range of attitudes about climate engineering. Those who hope for humanity pulling back from overconsumption to protect the naturalness of the nonhuman world will tend to be suspicious or negative about climate engineering. Those who hope for a story of global unification that values human wellbeing and technological expansion will tend to be more positive. Different narratives and different ideas of sacredness lead to different responses to these technologies. Religious studies thus provides tools to show how proposals for climate engineering fits into some narratives of human action and not others, protects some “sacred” values and not others.  This prepares students to further investigate the complexities of the issue while also helping them to think critically about religious and ethical perspectives.

We have tried to make three points here: First, teaching the subject of climate engineering is important for wider public understanding, and this requires introducing students to it in many disciplines.  Second, more humanistic educators should teach about climate engineering, because the humanities can provide unique tools to think about how these technologies. The humanities can’t replace the sciences or policy discussions, but these areas can add something new to the discussion. Finally, scholars of climate engineering should encourage and support this humanistic endeavor not only because it will make colleagues and students more educated about the issue, but also because the kinds of questions wrestled with in humanities classrooms are also vital for the more general public. If the experts currently discussing climate engineering hope to create a more global and inclusive conversation, they will need the humanities.

Forrest Clingerman is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Ohio Northern University

Kevin O’Brien is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Pacific Lutheran University