Category Archives: Climate Change

Huhne versus History

The great social question of our time, how to respond to climate change, poses us crucial historical questions. Indeed, it might be said that the cisis engendered by anthropogenic climate change is nothing but an historical question. Take Chris Huhne’s recent intervention in the UK’s Guardian newspaper (25 August 2014), for example. His second sentence invokes history (with an absent capital ‘H’). “For the first-time in history”, he claims, “we are growing richer while using less energy”. Let’s leave aside the fact that this claim is probably incorrect, and in any case unlikely to be verifiable, Huhne’s instant resort to historical argument and (lack of) historical evidence tells us something important about the terms of the climate change argument; something that should be taken on board by both historians and public alike.

The second paragraph of Huhne’s article really gets to grips with the historical. From the middle-ages, he argues, “living standards just edged up at a snail’s pace, and we did little damage because forest absorbed carbon from wood burning. The population was small”. Again, leave aside the arguable historical claims here, though it is interesting that Huhne touches on an old socialist-inspired historical debate, now partly forgotten, on the fate of living standards in pre-industrial and industrial Europe. It is intriguing that Huhne commits perhaps one of the more disreputable sins (in the eyes of mainstream historical scholarship at least) of anachronism. Was your average feudal overlord concerned with ‘living standards’? To apply the term to the middle ages sounds bizarre, and its uncanny effect is a warning.

The key lesson of history, is one of constant surprise. Surprise at encountering the strange. Huhne take it as read that the middle ages were concerned with ‘living standards’, but the lesson of the unfamiliar is crucial here. For Huhne’s overall argument, that endless growth of energy usage is now technologically feasible, and with it ever expanding capitalist development and ‘prosperity’, is founded upon precisely leaving out the historical contingency of this mode of thinking about what constitutes wealth. For Huhne, a world in which living standards were of secondary concern, can barely enter into history proper .

After a brief bit of Hobbes on the social condition of England, we enter into history proper with industrialisation and the rise of real GDP, another age-old scene of historical argument among economic historians. We are assured that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw ‘real progress’ with the rise of male life expectancy. The ‘male’ here stands in for the seething undifferentiated mass of humanity as a whole. Reaching back into the dark depths of my undergraduate years, I recall enormous dispute among historians of medicine regarding the relative importance of nutrition versus public medical provision on the fall in mortality in this period.

All this leads finally to Huhne’s conclusion that prosperity and welfare are directly connected to the scale of energy consumption, and, in the recent past, to fossil fuel consumption.

In order to establish his key foundational claim, that energy use is the base of modern wealth and welfare, Huhne has had stumble through at least three major fields of historical debate. Yet at no time in his argument is history as a scholarly discipline even acknowledged.

As practitioners of a particular form of social critique, historians should be deeply worried by this. That historical claims can be made to found a political claim, in this case the necessity of intensive and extensive energy usage to modern well-being, is hardly a surprise. The fact that historical disciplines, arguments and, most importantly, uncertainties can be more or less excised from such an account is troubling. It points to a key component of modern ideology, the absence of a genuine sense of historical time and of historical ‘otherness’, the idea that things could have been, or will be different.

Yet, of course, Huhne’s article is written not to propose a particular response to climate change, or to debate the science. His argument, that the increasing rate of adoption of new ‘clean’ energy generating technologies is proceeding apace, is precisely intended to propose no change. That we can continue indefinitely with the structure of energy production and use that we have, and, more broadly, with the form of social reproduction with which we (in the global North) are familiar. It is history, of a kind, which allows him to pose and to structure this thought.

Immediate response to his argument from the left predictably, and quite correctly, pointed to the range of empirical mistakes and omissions Huhne made in his understanding of the potential impact of technological change. Andrew Dobson (Guardian, 28 August) provided a succinct demolition of Huhne’s failure to grasp that climate change demands the reduction of global carbon dioxide emissions in absolute, not relative, terms. Yet, Dobson does not acknowledge Huhne’s reliance on a very particular, and very uncertain, understanding of both concrete historical arguments about wealth and welfare, and a particular sense of historical time.

This latter is particularly concerning, and easily missed in focusing on empirical questions. For while Huhne relies on the past as a legitimation of the present, he fails to use it to think any alternative future. Huhne effectively deals in a non-past, he has no sense of the processes of historical change, just a binary opposition between some past, dimly remembered dark age, and our present age of light, wealth and universal well-being. But the difference between past and present is not of this nature, and in this case the nuances of historical thinking, even what we might call the ethics of the historical mindset, matter politically.

We are both more like, and more unlike, our ancestors than we care to admit. Huhne’s article effectively abandons any real sense of the historical as such. He has no conception of the causes of change, no notion of historical conflict or antagonism. He inhabits a mode of thought that truly believes in the progressive character of technology (historians of science take note!). Huhne ultimately inhabits a present without a past in any meaningful sense, without a history that could have been different. Huhne’s article stands as an exemplar of the fundamentally anti-historical mode of thinking that defines genuinely neo-liberal thought, the inability to tolerate any other way of being, in this case any historical ‘other’.

Here, I believe that we encounter the real political meaning of anthropogenic climate change. The discourse of climate change messes with our sense of historical time. It poses, in its most apocalyptic form, an ‘End of History’ scenario. Such an end, constitutes a traumatic encounter for neo-liberals, not simply because it poses the end of capitalism, but because it points to the inadequacy of the non-historical mode of thinking that founds their ideological claims.

History is riven with contingency, unintended consequence, bitter rivalries, the constant barrage of moments in which everything threatens to be radically different. Huhne’s ideas are not dangerous because they suggest to us that all will be well, that technology will rescue neo-liberal capitalism. They are dangerous because they falsely foreclose the contingency of historicity proper, the idea that we can make history beyond the impersonal forces of ‘progress’ and economics.

Anthropogenic climate change has reopened our sense of historical time as a key political battleground in the present.

Why we Still Need a Human History in the Anthropocene

Dipesh Chakrabarty’s engagement with the idea of the concept of the anthropocene has become a key starting point for rethinking the humanities in the era of anthropogenic climate change. His work raises some fundamental questions for the way in which we go about historical research in the present, and, even more profoundly, for the mode in which we think historically at all.

At the heart of Chakrabarty’s 2009 article in Critical Inquiry ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, which has been translated into various languages and circulated widely, is the idea that the emergence of humanity as a geological agent (i.e. as a species with the capacity to transform, and even to destroy, its own conditions of existence) fundamentally undermines the constitutive distinction between human and natural histories. These two forms of historical consciousness (deep time understood through geological research and natural science, and historical time, comprehended through the interpretive textual work of the historian) are, Chakrabarty suggests, now collapsing into one another, with important intellectual and political consequences.

The anthropocene, then, marks the end of the binary distinction between humanist and scientific knowledge that underpinned the Enlightenment rationalist project. Chakrabarty also argues that this collapse queries the distinctive political project of Enlightenment, the pursuit of human freedom (exemplified in the form of historical consciousness that enabled both liberalism and Marxism to function as political projects). In the anthropocene, the natural parameters within which that project was pursued begin to collapse. Human freedom thus threatens to undermine its own conditions of possibility, perhaps suggesting the need to found a radically different kind of politics.

However, Chakrabarty’s anthropocene is not without its own problems, which arise in the course of the article the presumptions and omissions constitutive of his four theses. Let us look at each of these in turn.

Chakrabarty’s first thesis is that anthropogenic climate change spells the end of the “age old humanist distinction between natural history and human history”. It is interesting that he explicitly connects this thesis to anthropogenic climate change rather than the anthropocene in general, which might be argued to include other factors such as the transformation of landscape, growth of population, formation of urban centres and the extinction of species. This move immediately narrows the problem of the anthropocene from a wider historical/geological perspective to the immediate contemporary question of climate change.

This may seem trivial, but, arguably, by making this move Chakrabarty is not at this point addressing the anthropocene all. Each of the factors outlined above might be included in a strictly geological account of the anthropocene, but each also invokes a different temporality. Human intervention in the fate of other species through hunting, farming, genetic modification and/or deliberate extirpation obviously has a long and discontinuous history. By focussing on the immediacy of climate change as crisis, Chakrabarty structures his argument from the perspective of the anthropocene as a transformation occurring now. Obviously, if we have been living in the anthropocene for longer (three of four hundred years perhaps) his conclusions regarding the fate of Enlightenment reason would have to be somewhat different. Chakrabarty’s argument thus rests on a set of constitutive exclusions of certain elements of the totality of the anthropocene idea.

This presentism of Chakrabarty’s anthropocene in the first thesis does further work in his critique of the environment and geography in traditional history. By suggesting that the time of the anthropocene is the time of our present, it is possible for Chakrabarty to argue that environmental and geographical phenomena have generally been viewed as changing only slowly, and therefore operating in a different temporality to that of much human political and social history. Of course, if we were to give the anthropocene itself a deeper history, this would perhaps revise the extent of the challenge it presents to the humanities.

What are we to make of Chakrabarty’s second thesis, that the emergence of humans as a geological force “severely qualifies humanist histories of modernity/globalization”?  Here Chakrabarty investigates the role of freedom in the Enlightenment historical imaginary, and the modern project more generally.  He claims that “most of our freedoms so far have been energy intensive”. Here we enter into a welter of ideas, including the debate over the dating of the anthropocene, none of which really end with any firm conclusions. It does seem however, that at this point in the argument a different temporality is at work that in the first thesis. The beginnings of the industrial epoch now emerge as the deeper history to the anthropocene. The anthropocene, at least in its genesis, no longer acts to disrupt normal historical temporality, but actually becomes commensurable with the history of industrialization and the history of ‘freedom’.

Obviously there is something suggestive about the temporal slippage between the first and second theses. From a radically present-oriented crisis of historicity, we have returned to a radically historicized account of origins, appended to a naturalized account of industrialization as development. It is not clear that the thesis that human freedom and energy intensive industrial development are at all linked by necessity, as opposed to pure contingency. The history of emancipatory struggles before 1750 disappears from this account, as does the history of the MANY defeats of human emancipatory desires in the modern era. Ultimately, it is unclear what kind of history of freedom, if any, Chakrabarty is offering us in this thesis. Did energy intensive industrial organisation really enable the realization of freedom? Or did the achievements of emancipatory struggles (for instance the defeats suffered by the western European feudal order in the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries) lay the basis of a social system that would then emerge as energy intensive?

The third thesis that the anthropocene hypothesis “requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans” offers somewhat more clarity, but it is perhaps the least convincing of the four. For the first time we encounter the subject ‘capital’ as an agent in the process of social and ecological transformation. We might wonder why its appearance is so late. But its appearance is of passing kind, the critique of capital appears only to be dismissed as insufficient once the “crisis of climate change has been acknowledged and the Anthropocene has begun to loom on the horizon of the present.” Now Chakrabarty deploys an anthropocene that is neither present, nor past, but future-present, i.e. a ‘known unknown’. That is to say, it is known in its imminent proximity, but unknown in its precise effects.

In fact this thesis is really not a critique of the critique of capital at all. The category of capital is quickly displaced by the non-historical term ‘industrialisation’. Really this thesis is an engagement with the problematic of naturalisation versus historicisation. The proposal to treat humans as an undifferentiated species, or agent, in the Anthropocene is, of course, an assault upon everything that history and historicity stand for, Chakrabarty renders much of this assault as a problem for ‘left historians’, who have always argued that such naturalizing efforts are ideological and suppress the truth of class exploitation beneath an undifferentiated “we”. Yet, this problem also harks back to Herder’s critique of universalising historical logics. It is far from simply a challenge to left historians, it is a challenge to all histories that seek to decentre narratives by displacing the undifferentiated “we” of the human through the practice of historicism. Here there is no need to retreat to a ‘left’ historicism at all; a purely deconstructive reading shows that at stake here are the naturalizing and denaturalizing effects of the discourse of nature itself. Chakrabarty is aware of the treacherous waters being sailed here, but the ultimate conclusion, that we must think simultaneously in two registers, the chronologies of capital and of species history, smacks of an impossible compromise in which there is potentially a great deal to be lost and very little to be gained.

The fourth thesis explores these potential gains, through “probing of the limits of historical understanding” by “cross-hatching of species history and the history of capital.” Here we encounter the most explicitly political of Chakrabarty’s conclusions, and the idea that such a mode of rethinking history might help us to deal with the crisis of global warming. It is notable that at this point the idea that the Anthropocene is again reduced to the question of climate change. This enables Chakrabarty to conclude with his call for a “negative universal history” a history that, by subjecting everyone equally to the risk of global climate apocalypse, constitutes a universal human political subject.

This is certainly a most utopian conclusion, and it is far from supported by the rest of Chakrabarty’s theses. What is curious about this conclusion is the manner in which is posits the emergent human species of the anthropocene as an undifferentiated universal. Throughout his essay Chakrabarty has sailed close to these waters of that antithesis of the historical project, the undifferentiated human “we”, only to row back again furiously. At the end, however, Chakrabarty demonstrates the fullness of his rejection of the Enlightenment project by embracing the idea that between human and natural history one might find, a universal form of human subjectivity, a humanity that would finally reside outside of history.

This is, of course, utterly anthema to Hegelian or Marxian conceptions of totality, where the process of history is precisely driven by the excessive conditions of universality. For Marxists the working-class, the excluded and exploited, are constitutive of capital, but are also the point of potential emancipatory universality, the class that can stand for all others in the historical objective of transcending capitalism and achieving freedom. For Chakrabarty there is no “part of no-part”, no excess. This negative universal is not clearly emancipatory in any sense. Ironically, the anthropocene is seen to generate an organic totality out of rich and poor alike. At the end we perceive our universality in a “shared sense of catastrophe”. We are all paupers now.

So, in the end, Chakrabarty is giving us a fundamentally anti-historical account with distinctly conservative overtones? For all the tacking between the poles of human history and natural history in the end we are left with an organic universal humanity slouched around the catastrophic end of history. Isn’t this exactly the danger of accepting the idea of the anthropocene? What can an undifferentiated universal humanity achieve in this moment of crisis? Who is to do the productive work of defending and reproducing the social world through the crisis of climatic transformation and, we must hope, out the other side? Will the rich be queuing up to divest themselves of their wealth and start shovelling like the rest of us? What kind of political subject could emerge from this universal capable of making the political decisions needed to ensure us a (better) future? If such a subject were to emerge, where should the transformation take place? Must it be global or local in form? How would we negotiate between the rights and needs of the two? A negative universal history offers no answer to these questions, and Chakrabarty does not enlighten us further. In effect he offers us a common without Communism, a universality in which none of the things that really divide us would change at all. Perhaps they would not even be visible to us. In the final analysis, living with this kind of universality might be an even bleaker prospect than living with climatic crisis. It certainly suggests that we should think hard before we conclude that good old-fashioned humanist history has had its day.

News from Somewhere?

I recently attended an event with History and Policy and Friends of the Earth in which a number of historians were invited to offer their comments on the FoE policy review process Big Ideas Change the World. After the event the participants were invited to contribute their own ideas and responses in the form of blog posts. The following is the text of my own reflection. The views expressed are, of course, mine alone.

Tim Cooper


For the historian and critic, the Friends of the Earth paper, Big Ideas Change the World: Mapping a Route from a Planet in Peril to a World of Well-Being, makes fascinating reading. The title sets up an opposition between historical failure and future possibility. As Mark Levene has written, in the anthropocene, it is exactly this gap between history and the future which is a potentially productive point of ethical intervention for the historian.

‘Smart optimism’ is the watchword of this document. But a more compelling vision might be that of pragmatic utopianism. In the face of astonishing environmental crises, the authors dare to think in extraordinarily hopeful terms about the future. In so doing they draw upon the resources of hope to be found in history, not least the knowledge that sudden and radical change is not only possible but is, if anything, likely. It is a powerful practical account of why history remains crucial in thinking about the future.

Consider the quiet, but remarkable, radicalism of the claim that global ‘well-being’ should offer the founding principle of social life in the future. This is not simply a claim about fulfilling needs. This is a potentially open-ended, promise. Well-being is, rightly, not delimited to a set of objective economic criteria; it is opened up to being a subjectively open set of social and cultural desires. This is a call for a politics of care that flies in the face of the politics of what Molly Scott Cato has called Austeria.

One is reminded throughout this document of News from Nowhere, William Morris’s compelling vision of a communist England. Framing this document is a vision of how the world will be in 2050. This world of well-being has no material poverty, environmental destruction has been reversed, population stabilised, the fruits of modern production are distributed more equably, and there is good health and health-care for all. Society is still globalised, interconnected and cosmopolitan, but this is no longer the imposed cosmopolitanism of the capitalist market, but a voluntary collaborative cosmopolitanism.

But why is this the world of 2050? How are we to get there? The wonder of News from Nowhere is that Morris brings his utopia into present reality through the dream of his narrator. But in FoE’s route map this utopia remains distant. Perhaps this is one of the profounder weaknesses of time, our timidity in dreaming. Whereas nineteenth-century utopians would unashamedly dare to dream of their tomorrow as already present in their today, we see this as too risky. Our fear of disappointment is palpable.

For most of us 2050 is so far away as to be unimaginable. Ironically, to really radicalise this vision one has to cut out the complex historical process of actually getting there. One must demand this world not for 2050, but for 2014, for tomorrow, for today. One can imagine here a fantastic arts project based around envisioning this world of well-being as the world of today. Not something absent, but something present. That is what political hope is.

And to whom would such a project speak? Who can enact this world of tomorrow today? To whom should this route map be addressed? One must doubt whether it should be ‘policy-makers’. Twenty years of all the policy-making in the world in the field of climate change has enacted one of the most complete failures of politics in the history of modern democracy, perhaps only surpassed by appeasement. The Mauna Loa index of atmospheric carbon dioxide it the historical record of this failure. To ask policy-makers to carry out a revolutionary transformation of our common social life is to suggest they are about to utterly reverse this story of failure.

No! This routemap needs to speak to everyday life. As Alex Loftus argues, it is everyday life which must ultimately be transformed. It is everyday well-being that is at stake. It is to the opponents of incinerators and fracking, the recycling and anti-bin tax campaigners, the wind-farmers and opponents of wind-farms that a political strategy focussed on well-being must address itself. It is in this realm of everyday experience that modern democracy might yet be revolutionised and modern life transformed into a world of well-being.

We are all aware of living with the consequences of the past two-hundred years of capitalist history. We already live in a world living with the effects of climate change. We have a permanent oil crisis that confronts every opponent of fracking or parent on the daily school run. The limits of parliamentary democracy in tacking such existential issues is abundantly clear as politicians dump green levies to subsidise energy monopolists.

If history tells us anything, it is that the change to come is not an issue for 2050, it is here already. The historical moment of transformation is already upon is. It is what we do today, and how people in their real lives are mobilised for change now that is building the future world of well-being. FoE’s future strategy must be a strategy for the transformation of everyday life, or it will be nothing.

The Real Politics of Climate Change

In a recent Guardian blog posting, John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli have correctly identified that the global warming ‘debate’ isn’t about science, but about politics. On that point we can agree, but thereafter, almost everything they say precisely fails to expose the status of this political which is at stake in anthropogenic climate change.

Of course the power of climate scepticism cannot be denied. It has been a vigorous force working to prevent action on the restriction of greenhouse gas emissions. Also correct is the observation by Abraham and Nuccitelli, widely supported by research on climate and the media, that ‘denialism’ has mainly been underpinned by ‘free-market’ ideology and its supporting institutions. However, their suggestion that the route towards ‘sustainability’ is through the co-optation of that ideology, with the implementation of a cap-and-trade solution to the control of greenhouse gas emissions is, at best, flawed, and at worst, utopian.

For instance, is the conclusion that, ‘The debate should be about how to best achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions with maximum economic benefit’ really convincing? Even the free-trading ideologue can clearly see that this is an ill-disguised attempt to capture the dominant language of orthodox economics for the political project of controlling greenhouse gas emissions. What this project neglects, however, is the obvious fact that the committed free-trader precisely rejects any notion of a higher, or universal, project in the guidance human actions. What they fear in the climate change ‘debate’ is precisely the emergence of a ground in nature itself, which delimits the possibilities of free human self-realisation. Adam Smith, for instance, imagined markets as enabled by a particular kind of ecology that, once established, could be assumed as a stable, self-regulating basis of exchange. Frederik Albritton Jonnsson has recently wonderfully outlined some of the contraditions stemming from such ideas and their application in his Enlightenment’s Frontier.

The point is that the ‘denialist’ dogma is not simply a contingent ideological obsession. It is a consequence of a traumatic encounter with the real. Line no other threat from ‘nature’, anthropogenic climate change raises the prospect of the collapse of the unspoken environmental assumptions that have sustained the idea that well-being and justice can be guided by the invisible hand. We need to accept the intense reality of this trauma for those who are in denial. Indeed, it may even explain the counter-intuitive observation that denialism has become more popular as the evidence for human induced atmospheric change has hardened.

Rather than responding to this traumatic encounter by fetishitically clinging to it, that is to say by claiming that the market can indeed become the instrument of future atmospheric control, we should work to aid the process of ideological transference. We should embrace ‘denialism’ as a positive symptom of capitalist contradiction, and work to render its meaning more apparent, more self-conscious to its subjects. We must work to show the connections between the crisis in ‘nature’ and the ideological contradictions that this produces. In this, a little knowledge of history may be of enormous importance.

Is it not remarkable, for example, that Abraham and Nuccitelli ignore almost the entire historical context of capitalist development that has led to the current situation? The present of ever rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is seen as an almost accidental circumstance. This has crucial consequences for their willingness to pursue a market solution, and for its limits. There is no analysis, for example, of how the global economy came into being. Nor is there any reflection on why capitalism is so dependent on fossil fuels of the kind offered by Timothy Mitchell’s excellent recent book Carbon Democracy. This is a grave fault given that cap-and-trade is clearly reliant on an institution setting a cap that can act as the foundation to a market. Nor is there any analysis of that most fundamental process of historical capitalism, accumulation: “Accumulate, accumulate, that is Moses and the Prophets”.

It is not that cap-and-trade cannot work for some abstract reason, it may. Rather, it is that the real, political question ironically, but far from accidentally, remains unacknowledged by Abraham and Nuccitell. That is whether such a cap could ever be sustained against the profound social and political power of capitalist finance and industry. How is any carbon cap to be maintained against the logic of the accumulation of capital? We have seen in the past decade the profound crisis, political, social and economic, that accompanies any slowdown in capitalist growth. Such a crisis is met with all the resources of the capitalist political structure precisely to maintain accumulation. What political structure could work to maintain a cap if it contradicted the requirements of accumulation?

More than this, if one is willing to set a cap on greenhouse emissions, and fight the battles necessary in terms of the struggle against vested interests, then why not simply go ahead and do so? Why not just make the arbitrary judgment that humanity chooses to survive! Why not just impose the cap politically. Why establish a trade in anything? Why establish a market in carbon credits, a market in precisely the matter of our own destruction? It is precisely to avoid the necessity of making a truly political decision, that is, the choice to survive, that Abraham and Nuccitelli retreat to an alliance with the free-marketeers. Ultimately this the real of the politics of climate change. Not whether, but how, we shall frame a properly communist control over the climatic fate of us all.

History and Climate Change: The Learning Experience

Increasingly important within the discourse of the University is the need, with rising fees, to provide value for money. Yet how does such an institution go about providing ‘value’ in the first place? In an environment where the consumers (students) come from a variety of different backgrounds (culturally, personally and intellectually) ‘value’ becomes extremely difficult to define. This has however, not prevented the University in an age of increasing competition for graduate jobs articulating value along the lines of employability. As a student, I am wary of university discourse being framed in this way. The pre-emptive move to seek value in employability has the potential to reduce the amount of critical engagement with degree programmes. For subjects such as history this is potentially catastrophic. I want to argue that the Wiki project I worked on, along with two classmates, for the module ‘Past Actions Present Woes: The History of Anthropogenic Climate Change’ offers the opportunity to develop key transferable skills whilst not sacrificing engagement on a critical historical level. The Wiki project therefore offers the opportunity for the contemporary undergraduate programme to sit within universities definition of ‘value’ without losing the core of what an undergraduate degree is, in my view, all about.

Before expanding on the usefulness of the Wiki, there are some problems that need to be raised. Firstly, is the need for at least one member of the group to have a sound knowledge of IT. This might not be so problematic these days with most able undergraduates more than capable of mastering all the latest technology, I however, do not count myself amongst such company. Yet even when the basic techniques have been mastered, to really exploit the full potential of the Wiki requires an exceptionally creative mind and a lot of time, without which the finished product can appear conservative. With restrictions due to other commitments, there is simply not the time to fully explore the capabilities of the Wiki programme, especially since most of the marks come from the content rather than how it is presented.

Leaving these problems aside, our specific task placed a lot of emphasis on critical thought and the ability to bring a new perspective to a contemporary climate issue. My group decided to investigate the conception of a ‘sustainability’ discourse and the potential ideological and political imperatives that its use concealed, which we referred to as the ‘absent referent,’ a concept that we developed from our Lecturer Dr Tim Cooper. Evidence regarding the perceived lack of coal within the British Empire around the turn of the twentieth Century allowed us to investigate explicit references to sustainability. We argued that the use of ‘sustainability’ is a political move to sustain a particular way of organising society and the power relations that are embedded within. By playing on fear of societal collapse, those who control the sustainability discourse are able to reproduce their power through the legitimation of certain practices, colonial expansion being one among many. It should be plain to see how in this process how critical historical thought is developed. While given guidance, the onus is on the group to find relevant historical material and to utilise it in a critical and original way. I cannot think of a better way to develop a history undergraduate’s scholarship.

Gradually however, module programmes have begun to centre themselves around ‘transferable’ skills, often at the expense of other skills. The Wiki project in my experience does not; instead its unique nature, catered for the development of both critical and transferable skills, particularly when we were required to identify a specific audience that our project would ‘speak to’. This took learning out of the traditional lecturer-student complex because we were communicating with an independent group. We therefore had to think carefully about the language we used and how we organised our material to best fit the context we were operating within. The audience for my group’s project was the sustainability committee at Exeter University. To figure out how best to communicate to the audience, we interviewed the chair of the committee to understand their view on sustainability. It was then possible to engineer our argument towards these specific assumptions. By learning to communicate to a specific audience outside the traditional university environment of lectures and seminars, the Wiki allowed us as a group to develop a valuable transferable skill.

‘Past Actions, Present Woes’ used historically relevant material to shed light on contemporary debates and the Wiki project was the perfect way to explore this. A group task, that involved using a critical historical perspective to inform a particular audience about contemporary climate issues allowed students to develop critical scholarship as well as key transferable skills. In the ‘Wiki experience’ there are, I think, two critical components that could provide value for the current and future undergraduate. The first is the development of critical thought. Second, is the conception of a new way of learning, one that moves beyond the current lecturer-student relationship, opening up the production of knowledge and encouraging the development of new skills.

Dan Webb (2nd Year, History)

The Media and Climate Change in the 1990s

This is a summary of an undergraduate dissertation on climate change and the media in the 1990s, kindly contributed by Laura Williams, one of my students. Her work address some of the limitations of newspaper coverage in constructing the way climate change was viewed in the nineties, and concludes with some of the lessons to be considered as a result of this research. It is an excellent example of how historical knowledge can contribute to the questions of how we got where we are, and “what is to be done?”.



“I was first drawn to selecting a dissertation focusing upon climate change due to a module I took in my second year concerning Anthropogenic Climate Change. In this module we studied various ideas surrounding the development, acceptance and approaches towards Anthropogenic Climate Change and how this was reflected within society. The issue of climate change is an important topic that has relevance to many disciplines and is one that I find can be directly related to the skills and approaches utilized by historians. Climate change is a global issue with potentially global consequences; therefore it must surely be understood and appreciated in both academia and wider society. The study of climate change and the way it interacts within society is perhaps where history becomes most significant. In taking specific questions through tasks like dissertations, there presents an opportunity to explore broader issues and concerns.

The title of my dissertation is “What power relations were at stake within media representations of climate change in the period surrounding the first and second IPPC Reports, 1990-1999?”. There has been much work done on the discussion of climate change throughout the media and within newspapers in particular. Significant examples of such works that I used to initiate my research were studies by Anabella Carvalho and Maxwell T. Boykoff. However in these cases and indeed many other studies the primary focus is upon broadsheet newspapers, with the influence of the tabloid press disregarded as excessively simplified. It is upon the perceived notion of tabloid insignificance that I decided to base my research. The quality press is often focused upon due to its perceived influence upon public and climate policy, however this argument with regards to climate change is perhaps questionable. I would argue that surely public policy is dependent upon and indeed reflects public policy; a policy may encourage action, but the public must first be prepared to act. The tabloid press and especially the newspapers I chose to focus upon, The Daily Express and The Daily Mail, have a far greater readership than many of the broadsheet newspapers combined. As such I decided to explore the power relations permeating coverage specifically within the tabloid press and challenge the notion that climate coverage in such publications is too simplistic, serving no influence in politics.

Throughout the two samples I considered I found that a number of similar themes emerged. The establishment of both national and knowledge hierarchies within the text, variations in meanings and language plus a persistent trend of technological optimism all display the operation of power relations within the newspapers. These power relations are significant throughout the samples due to their ability to alter and control public understandings and actions regarding climate change. The use of hierarchies is particularly problematic for they narrow the public’s perception of climate issues, blinding readers to the global nature of a problem that we are not only significantly contributing to, but also suffering from. Nevertheless, there is a difference in each newspapers use of this. The Daily Express often used the notion of national hierarchy to displace individual blame, whereas The Daily Mail often appeared to displace blame from capitalist industries, instead using hierarchy to appeal to provincial readerships. The use of a knowledge hierarchy is equally problematic for in focusing upon the scientific and expert professions, the need for individual responsibility is often diverted. The same issue can be extended to issues of technological optimism and it is here that seems most pertinent to pause and consider the power relations at play. If climate coverage is consistently interspersed with technological ideas then this must surely create a template for publicly acceptable solutions to the problem. By creating a binary based upon climate change and technology, newspapers are protecting the primary position of technology and its associated industries in our society. By using this thematic approach in examining climate issues within the tabloid press I believe I have come some way in questioning whether it is appropriate to disregard the influence of the tabloid press in climate discussion.

Perhaps the most interesting section I found of my dissertation was the consideration of how we should attempt to address climate change issues in the public sphere. The manipulation of language throughout the newspapers has often served to maintain the particular vested interests of industry. A situation has been encouraged whereby the readers have accepted a manipulated form of debate and as such no meaningful action is pursued. Although overcoming such ingrained practices may seem daunting, the situation is far from hopeless. In many cases newspapers themselves are overcoming such issues. By using particular examples, such as a traditional love of animals or peoples pastimes, where the newspaper recognizes values that are important to ordinary people, the papers power is divested. The newspapers must rearticulate their coverage from abstract theorizing to addressing the contradictions that emerge in the face of concrete emotions. Therefore in this way we not only see the power relations at play, but also the power established through the relationship between a newspaper and its audience. Regardless of a newspaper’s rhetoric it is ultimately governed by the desires and concerns of its audience. As such, as anthropogenic climate change becomes increasingly accepted and its effects increasingly threaten our society, the demand for information and hopefully subsequent action will surely begin to permeate not only the tabloid and quality press, but all forms of media.”

Laura Williams (3rd Year, History)

History Against Education for Sustainable Development

I have been writing a paper on the politics and pedagogy of history and Education for Sustainable Development. The paper can be accessed at the new History Working Papers Project website, an experimental site that provides open access to working papers and tools for comment and open peer review. It it an excellent initiative, worthy of support.

400ppm as Historical Event

When the Guardian reported last week that the famous ‘Keeling Curve‘ measure of atmospheric carbon dioxide, made at the Mauna Loa observatory, has hit an average 400ppm, it did so in terms which emphasized the moment as an historical event. A kind of step-change, or barrier passed. Of course, in scientific terms, 400ppm does not necessarily tell us very much. Climate modelling and prediction are heroically complex tasks, not reducible to crudely picking  a number from a series as a ‘turning point’. In part the choice to highlight this measurement now is part of the the continuing scientific struggle with the apologists of inaction, who have recently been seeking to selectively exploit recent temperature data to suggest global warming has stalled.

Yet, what is interesting to me as an historian is the representation of the ‘curve’ as historical, and in particular as evidence for a future historian looking back. This representation of the historicity of an attempt to measure and model our atmosphere and climate is both intriguing and important. It demonstrates the way in which the so-called ‘debate’ on climate change (something that would better be understood as a struggle) is deeply structured by our sense of time and history. In part it is perhaps an attempt to fill in for the fundamentally ahistorical, or perhaps, impossibly-historical, character of this field of science. One of the great problems for climate scientists, is that while they have developed powerful tools for understanding past and future climatic change, it is often difficult for these to talk to the human historical dimension. When told we are heading for disaster, we tend to ask “When will the disaster strike?”, or, “When is the point of no return?”. Such questions, which in some ways obfuscate the nature of the political issues at stake, stem from the historical turn of mind.

With this in mind, it is useful to look again at the curve, to consider the nature of the historicity it seeks to communicate. One is struck by the way in which the curve emerges from nowhere, the arbitrary starting date of 1958 is when Charles Keeling began recording the data. From that point, its repetitious peaks and troughs rise almost relentlessly. We can imagine it gently rising in the same manner well beyond 400ppm. As such this is a record of a natural catastrophe, a sign of some mechanism of transformation functioning beyond human control, the ever increasing energy demands and atmospheric pollution of industrial ‘progress’. It is the history of the ‘non-history’ of capitalism itself, ever on the rise, acting independently of human good or human will.

For this historian, however, what is evident is the absolute absence of historicity from the chart. There are no dramatic interventions into its data anywhere, no ‘events’ in the traditional historical sense, merely a continuous intractable rise. This lack of historicity, the absence of an ‘event’, is, however, what is most compelling and provocative about this graph. In the end, 400ppm is just another point on a line. It too will be surpassed in time and concentration like all the others. No human intervention has yet made any difference to the upward trajectory of the curve. Ultimately, the Keeling Curve tells us a story about the absence of a turning point, the absence of a political choice, and this is perhaps the source of our fascination with it. We study it in the hope of the appearance of an historical rupture; a point at which we choose to survive; the point at which capitalism is rendered no longer a natural force acting against our will, but subject to rational control.

We study this chart, then, for signs of revolution, and we are troubled by its absence. For we already know that only with the intervention of a political event will the Keeling Curve finally have been rendered truly historical.

Teaching Climate Change as History

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.