For the past two years I have taught a second year module about climate change. In many respects this is a departure onto unfamiliar ground for me. I am not a scholar of historical climate change, nor do I have an extensive background in the history of science. So the module that I teach (Past Actions, Present Woes, which is based on an HEA model syllabus that I collaborated in producing a couple of years ago) is very much at the limits of my experience and knowledge.
Yet, something draws me to teaching climate change as history that I think is both important in itself, and troubling about the ways in which historical knowledge is generally thought of. Anthropogenic climate change is after all, very much a subject for the future, and an uncertain future at that. As a problem its parameters are set by scientific knowledge and the heroic effort to push forth our understanding of uncertainty through that knowledge. What possible use can history have in such circumstances?
This is the founding question that has underpinned the way in which I have approached this question with my students. What if we cease to assume historical understanding is legitimate, and instead ask why we should bother ourselves with knowledge of the past when there may not be a future. This is a question that Mark Levene has provocatively outlined in his essay on the ethics of history in the present age.
In reality, there are many possible answers to this question. but one of the most fruitful to explore is the way that historical knowledge can query the very ways in which we perceive anthropogenic climate change as a ‘problem’ or ‘crisis’ in the first place. This is not, as many people take it at first, a ‘denialist’ statement. I am very much convinced that anthropogenic climate change is both real and an urgent social question. Yet, one of the first victims of urgent social problems, is often the historical context from which they have been produced.
Take for example the desire sometime expressed to find ‘lessons’ from history about how to respond to climate change, and other environmental questions, in the here and now. This is, of course, a legitimate way of ‘using’ historical knowledge, but we rarely do we stop to think about what such an approach excludes. It leaves a very flat utilitarian picture of historical knowledge that often fails to do more than reinforce the obvious point that we are in a very bad way.
Another real risk of this ‘lessons from history’ approach comes from the attraction for historical of sailing too close to the sun of policy making, in the course of which the critical spirit of history can be lost. The risk of surrendering a critical historical discourse to the language of policy making and techno-solutions is very great given institutional pressures to show ‘impact’ as measure from the perspective of those who exercise authority.
It is against these temptations that I think teaching history in an age of anthropogenic climate change becomes so important and compelling. Even after the radical transformation of Higher Education in the past couple of years, in the wake of which elites have sought to encourage students to see themselves as passive consumers of an education that is a product embodying skills and employability and little else, what remains astonishing is the way that undergraduates continue to resist this narrowed vision in everyday life. Students know very well that the world they will inherit demands responses to more than where their next job comes from. They desire and demand thought. They have a critical voice that is worthy of being heard. It demands answers to the question of human existence itself. How shall we live together on a planet at risk?
To even ask this question then is our staring point. To demand the right to do more than give instrumental answer to questions determined elsewhere. Rather to rethink the very terms through which anthropogenic climate change it interpreted, and what is possible is delimited, this is what is both possible and utterly necessary now.