When you imagine academics convening on the topic of global climate change you likely picture a symposium of nerds discussing climate models and quantitative statistics rather than artists and philosophers talking about compassion and justice.
A recent conference—Climate Change in Culture—was hosted (May 28-31st) on PEI to draw attention to the importance of culture for thinking through and dealing with climate change. The main takeaway message: the arts, the social sciences, the humanities, all of those things which exceed the rational gaze of science, are absolutely crucial in dealing with this pressing environmental crisis. This is a hard message to sell, for it works against the mainstream one which suggests that science and technology will get us out of the problem that they got us into in the first place.
I am a professor at St. Thomas University and I attended the conference. Here are some snapshots from my experience.
Attendees heard from social scientists and government employees who are finding, through on-the-ground experience, that “vulnerability” and “resilience” are not static, universal concepts despite how they’re commonly portrayed. Instead, researchers like Gabriela Christmann (Leibniz Institute for Regional Development) find that people understand their climate vulnerability in very local ways; residents of Lubek (Germany), for example, experience perceptions of possible vulnerability as fear of flooding of the “old city”—a narrative about cultural heritage that Christmann thinks is very much connected to Lubek’s history.
Erin Taylor (Government of PEI) has found through talking with islanders that many live in denial of their vulnerability; Taylor showed one picture of an island house whose owner is steeling himself against the rising tide with a flimsy fence and whose efforts read as heroic as they are blind. Work like this, which reveals how vulnerability is actually experienced in practice, is of crucial importance because people’s conceptions of vulnerability—how threatened people feel they really are—determines exposure to and response to climate change and its associated risks.
Unfortunately, Dr. Joanna Wolf of Royal Roads University said that adaptation is increasingly framed by climate change policy-makers as a technological challenge, a “risk management” issue, rather than as a social process as Christmann and Taylor suggest.
One of these climate change policy-makers, one of the leading decision-makers in the U.S., spoke to conference goers. Andrew Light, Senior Climate Adviser for the U.S. Department of State, discussed the bumpy rode to the upcoming Paris climate summit, and he suggested that the arts have a big role to play in achieving international cooperation. Why the arts? Because the friction at every meeting, from Kyoto until now, has been a product of distributive justice issues rather than a lack of statistics or data that confirms the reality of climate change. Light said that “the mother of all climate problems” is figuring out “who will reduce, by how much and on what timeline?” The portrait that Light painted of international decision-makers was not a flattering one; these key players—those who appear to hold all of our futures in their hands—seem like so many squabbling children. But Light was hopeful about Paris and about the role of “philosophers and artists” (he himself is a trained philosopher) in addressing this “moral terrain” of climate change and steering us back toward Kyoto level commitments.
We attendees also heard from practitioners: artists making beautiful and provocative paintings and weavings, and architects whose practice sits at the intersection of meaning and daily life. BGHJ Architects in PEI is a firm “committed to combatting climate change through sustainable architectural practice.” Members of the firm spoke to us about how architects “cannot work toward sustainability in a vacuum,” by which they meant that clients’ expectations, demands and uses of the built environment are a big part of sustainability. In fact, the current unsustainability of the built environment comes 40% from how buildings are used (rather than how and from what they’re built). When I heard this I thought about my recent conversation with an employee at a hardware store about dual flush toilets—they apparently only function sustainably if they’re used properly.
And so we’re reminded that each of us has a vital role to play in addressing climate change (likely Media Co-op readers need no reminding here). What’s so empowering about a conference like Climate and Culture is that it widens the sphere of influence beyond the small group of people who produce data or make large-scale decisions into the sphere of art and the everyday.
Kelly Bronson is a professor in the Science and Technology programme at St. Thomas University.