Tackling belief is the key to overcoming climate change scepticism

Adam Corner’s great piece today on Guardian.co.uk (via @alicebell) highlights the importance of belief in determining people’s position on climate change.  For me, this opens up debate on a vital role for the humanities:

…we should not be looking to science to provide us with the answer to a problem that is social in nature. The challenge is to find a way of explaining why climate change matters using language and ideas that don’t alienate people. Simply repeating the scientific case for climate change is – unfortunately – not going to cut it.

In fact, the more we know, the less it seems that climate change scepticism has to do with climate science at all. Climate change provokes such visceral arguments because it allows ancient battles – about personal responsibility, state intervention, the regulation of industry, the distribution of resources and wealth, or the role of technologies in society – to be fought all over again.

The last sentence is particularly resonant :

It follows that the answer to overcoming climate change scepticism is to stop reiterating the science, and start engaging with what climate change scepticism is really about – competing visions of how people see the world, and what they want the future to be like.

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Humanities and sciences: making common cause

In September, the first cohort of Master’s students in environmental sciences and humanities will be starting at the University of East Anglia.  According to Mike Hulme, Professor of climate change at UEA, the programme aims to ‘fulfil a need to move the environmental debate beyond science’, based on the recognition that ‘science alone cannot motivate social change’.

In emphasising interdisciplinarity and orienting itself around a central theme, such an innovation in programme design is a natural development from research strategies that have come to be configured around ‘grand challenges’.  UCL have four such challenge areas: global health, sustainable cities, intercultural interaction and human wellbeing.  Coventry identify 6 ‘challenges to change the world’: integrated transport and logistics, digital media, ageing community, low impact buildings, sustainable agriculture and food, and low carbon vehicles.  A quick Google search will reveal many other examples in the UK higher education sector and beyond.

It’s an intellectually exciting way of thinking about research and innovation.  It speaks well to audiences outside academe, including policymakers and politicians, and aligns with funding strategies that look for collaboration, cross-over and impact.

Responding to the grand challenges means bringing different discipline areas together.   Science, technology, engineering, design, psychology often have readily identifiable roles, but how far has the potential of the humanities been considered?  The recognition of the importance of people’s ‘stories and beliefs about their own lives and about the planet’ at the heart of the UEA programme is a welcome one, and suggests there is much as yet unrealised potential for integrating the humanities into how we approach the major issues of the modern world.

Low carbon pasts, low carbon futures is a project at the University of Hertfordshire that is looking to explore that potential.  This is what it’s about:

Climate change is a global issue by nature, but it is also a local one.  We may expect to be internationally connected – at least through the Internet and social media if not also through travel – but the quality of our lives is largely about the places in which we live and work.  We know that we need to find low carbon futures for those places, futures that combine economic health and social wellbeing.  But to do that, we need to start asking some different questions.  We need to ask about how communities actually work, bringing in the important insights of urbanism and place shaping.  And because credible responses to climate change adaptation and mitigation must involve changing human behaviour, we need to ask about how human beings interact with their places.  This means drawing on the rich evidence that history offers us of how we have shaped and re-shaped our material worlds, and our understandings of those worlds.  If we want to imagine low-carbon futures, we must first understand low-carbon pasts.

I set it up with Sarah Lloyd, Senior Lecturer in History, and Susan Parham, Head of Urbanism, with whom I’m also presenting a paper, Living heritage: Universities as anchor institutions in sustainable communities, at the Heritage 2012 conference in Porto.  This work is at an early stage so we’d welcome ideas and discussion on the ways in which history can contribute to debates around sustainability but also more broadly on the potential for humanities to inform and help shape inter- and multi-disciplinary approaches to research, development, innovation – and teaching.

Parallel tracks? (Higher) education for employability and intellectual development

Updated: I enjoyed speaking today about the Wilson Review alongside Trudy Norris-Grey at the Westminster Briefing event on graduate employability.  One interesting question from the floor followed up on Trudy’s comments about the mismatch between the skills developed by students at university and those needed by employers.  What did she think higher education was for?  By way of explanation, the questioner suggested that universities were trying to do many different things at the same time, and that maybe the development of employability skills and intellectual capacity were two such parallel tracks.  (I don’t quote her exactly but hope I have captured the essence of her contribution.)

I thought this was an interesting perspective and one that is often raised in discussions about the role and purpose of higher education as preparation for the world of work.  But can we see employability and intellectual capacities as overlapping domains rather than parallel tracks?  I’m interested both from a research and from a teaching and learning perspective in the skills and cognitive capabilities history students learn through their academic training.  Is it the case that those skills and capabilities are separate from, and therefore need to be supplemented by, employability training?  Or is it that it’s difficult to recognise and articulate the ways in which they have value and applicability in both academic and work-related contexts?

It may be that a mix of both is required, but I wonder if we do enough to help students really engage with the processes of academic training and the implications for their future careers.  Can we ourselves explain well what that training is equipping them to do, whether it’s history, philosophy, life sciences or economics?  I put down these initial reflections in one of the ‘thinkpieces‘ we wrote as a way of getting going on the Wilson Review.  I hope that the spirit of trying to see past potential dividing lines (such as between employability and academic training) came through in the final report.

Policy advice in higher education: a historical pathway?

At university, I remember being faintly jealous of fellow students who had a clear sense of the path ahead (a medic and a lawyer being among my housemates).  Even if they weren’t sure of where they’d specialise, they knew there was a thing called medicine or law, and that they’d find their places in time.

It’s far less easy as a student to identify a ‘thing’ called history outside the confines of study, much less imagine all other other things that touch on, connect with or are enlivened by history.  (I hope to help my students do such imagining but that’s for another post).  So like a lot of graduates, it took me some time to find a path I wanted to follow, which mainly involved taking opportunities as they arose.

Policy advisers have been around for a long time in different guises but are relatively new in universities.  As a result, I wonder if they attract those, like me, who didn’t have a ‘thing’ but rather fell into the role with a commitment to higher education and a bundle of skills, experience and interests we hoped would be of use.  Many universities now have someone in a policy-related role and it’s great that a network has now been formed under the auspices of Universities UK to allow the members of a new profession to connect.  (I try to resist the term ‘wonks’ as embraced by Mark Leach of Wonk-HE in the Times Higher but have unfortunately failed to come up with a neat and catchy substitute as yet).

Maybe as roles develop and become established in university structures and advisers gain some profile in their own right, students will be able to identify them as part of a new career path, a new ‘thing’ to work towards.  Placements and internships can play an important role here but there’s also some advocacy to be done here.  Occupying as I do a strange world between the professional and the academic domains, I hope to be a double agent: exposing students to policy work as something that’ll make good use of their historian’s skills and then bringing them into my team for some practical experience.

In a 1984 Public Historian article, Avner Offer calls on historians to ‘stimulate demand; supply will then take care of itself’.  Policy advisers (wonks, historians or otherwise) could usefully adopt the same mantra.  Stimulate demand, from students, from universities, from government and stakeholder organisations, and we too will have a clear path ahead, and a ‘thing’.