The art of changing the climate debate

Scientific knowledge is vital but on its own will never change our environmental behaviour. The key to that is to incorporate skills from the other side of the traditional science-humanities divide, say Trinity College academics

It is nearly 60 years since the British scientist (and novelist) CP Snow scathingly complained, in a lecture in Cambridge, that our civilisation was dangerously split into two cultures, the sciences and the humanities.

“The great edifice of modern physics goes up,” he declared, “and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.”

Despite his warning, the academic apartheid between the sciences and humanistic studies such as literature, philosophy and history mostly remains as rigid as ever.

Poul Holm and Charles Travis, of the environmental humanities centre at Trinity College Dublin’s Long Room Hub, argue that this compartmentalisation of knowledge urgently needs to be breached, locally and globally, if our societies are to respond adequately to huge challenges such as climate change. They claim that the skill sets provided by the humanities are essential to translating scientific findings into evidence-based policy options accessible to politicians, businesses and citizens.


Some scientists have recently argued the opposite, accusing social scientists of having simplified and hijacked the findings of meteorologists in the climate-change debate in the interests of radical environmental activism.

But Holm says that this is blatantly untrue. He points to the composition of the working group for the section of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014 report, which focused on identifying social strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and mitigate their effects. “More than half of them were engineers,” he says, “and while many of the rest were social scientists, most of these were economists, talking to our wallets. There was just one psychologist, one sociologist and one historian. There were no anthropologists, not one literary scholar. No media-communications experts, either.”

Why should this matter? According to Travis, it matters a great deal. Scientific knowledge is vital but on its own will never change our behaviour.

Many people continue to smoke, for example, despite the overwhelming evidence that smoking causes painful and often fatal illnesses. But many other people have given up smoking precisely because the dominant story about tobacco has changed, with major contributions from psychologists, sociologists and advertising copywriters in health campaigns.

The smoking story used to be about ultramasculine (and ultrafit) men riding horses and about glamorous women, often also in pristine outdoor settings. Smoking was the epitome of wellbeing. Now the story is all about coughing your lungs up in a terminal ward.

“Climate change is a human problem,” Travis says, “and the key to tackling it is dealing with the human condition. The natural scientists have been magnificent in ringing the alarm bells, but they are not equipped to deal with human agency and human perception.”

He quotes the American sociologist Kari Norgaard, who has pointed out that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, or some other apocalyptic vision, is much more real to many Americans than the mounting evidence for climate change all around them. That’s because the compelling narrative they hear from their churches, radio stations and friends and colleagues is moulded in religious dogma, while science is portrayed as a misleading deviation.

That may seem like an extreme case to most Irish people, but Holm points out that our own perceptions may be skewed in other ways. He gives the example of our agricultural policy, which is based on the view that we should enormously expand our dairy and beef industries, with consequent rapid rises in greenhouse-gas emissions. Its advocates know that this will accelerate climate change but insist that there is no alternative.

“The Irish beef industry says, ‘People want to eat beef, they love high-protein foods, and their habits won’t change. So we have to supply this market.’ But our habits do change, and quite quickly too. Thirty years ago no one would have believed there was a market for eating raw fish in Ireland. But now sushi is commonplace.”

He adds that the Danish wind-energy movement began with hippies and was first seen as marginal, if not simply daft. But then engineers embraced and developed turbine manufacture, and wind power now has all-party support in Denmark as a major alternative-energy industry.

“When you propose change initially, you may be ridiculed, but you may be the guy who is ahead of the market. Any future vision for Ireland must involve less oil and less beef. The Irish beef industry should learn from the Danish wind industry.”

Holm, Travis and the environmental humanities team at TCD have become international leaders in efforts to contribute insights from their disciplines to debates about our global and local futures.

In 2013 they became one of three centres grant-aided by the Mellon Foundation to establish a Humanities for the Environment Observatory (see panel), which aims to explore why we often fail to act decisively in the face of dangers such as climate change, and how we might learn to respond more effectively.

They are currently involved in discussions with corporate executives, environmental NGOs, the Arts Council, Dublin City Council and other agencies.

Holm says that corporate executives, despite their obvious self-interest, are often more willing to consider long-term strategies for change than government ministers are, simply because they operate on a much longer cycle than our governments do. They can see how climate change is already affecting their supply chains and customers around the world, and they know that they need to respond to it for their businesses to survive.

Is there not, however, a danger that academics may lose their independence if they get too closely involved either with corporate interests or with environmental activism?

Holm says that independence must be maintained if academics are do their work properly: “I am a staunch believer in the university as a space to stand aside, to dig deeper: we actually do need ivory towers to do this. But I’m also committed to being a passenger on the same bus as every other citizen. If I learn that that bus is driving us towards an abyss, I need to do something about it.”

Human sciences: A manifesto for research and action

“The Humanities for the Environment Observatories . . . aim . . . to identify, explore, and demonstrate the contributions that humanistic and artistic disciplines could make to stir wider awareness and understanding and more efficacious engagement with global environmental challenges . . .”

“We recognise that science is able to monitor, measure and to some extent predict the biogeophysics of global change. However, its analytical power stops short of investigating the main driver of planetary change – the human factor . . .”

“Human choices, we know, are hardly ever fully conscious: we often prefer to tread well-known paths rather than explore new possibilities . . .”

“Science has discovered, to its despair, that new accretions of information may have no impact and that laying out a set of rational choices may not lead to action. Indeed, scientific understandings of the physical world may be of limited use for understanding the complexity and volatility of human values and motivations.”

“The human sciences –the mixed bag of academic disciplines in the humanities – are, on the other hand, a fertile and largely untapped resource of insight into human motivation, creativity and agency.”

The full text of this manifesto, by Poul Holm, Charles Travis and others, is at