Unexpected climate change as course joins two cultures

MA/MSc in environmental issues draws on both humanities and sciences, reports Matthew Reisz

March 29, 2012

The role humanities can play in dealing with the issues of climate change, nuclear power and the loss of biodiversity will take centre stage in a pioneering one-year master's in environmental sciences and humanities at the University of East Anglia.

Mike Hulme, professor of climate change at UEA, and one of the key academics behind the joint MA/MSc, said the course would fulfil a need to move the environmental debate beyond science.

"I have worked in the field for over 30 years," he said. "I started with a very numerical approach but became increasingly frustrated that science alone cannot motivate social change.

"How do we respond to the challenges of sustainability, with 7 billion people demanding ever-greater consumption? Science and technology alone are not enough, since people are motivated by stories and beliefs about their own lives and about the planet - the things that environmental scientists never get exposed to."

Professor Hulme - who also teaches an undergraduate class on scientific controversy - acknowledged that UEA had been at the centre of a political row over climate change.

"We have gone through a big controversy here with the 'Climate-gate' scandal, which raised questions about whether some scientists were trying to subvert the peer-review process and who counts as a legitimate expert."

He added that although his own emails were among the batch obtained by campaigners who cited them as evidence that scientists were manipulating climate data, he was "not in the spotlight".

For the new master's, Professor Hulme has joined forces with histor-ians, philosophers and literary scholars who are "all part of the mainstream consensus, who would broadly share a commitment to the reality and scale of human-influenced climate change but couldn't agree on a policy manifesto".

They include Angela Breitenbach, lecturer in philosophy at UEA, who has worked on environmental philosophy, the values people attribute to nature and the place of human beings within the natural world.

The three-part course is designed to "develop new ways of thinking about environmental change and social transitions", with a view to using "the insights of interdisciplinary work for policymaking".

The first module will compare and contrast the physical and historical evidence for environmental change.

A second semester will turn to issues of risk and uncertainty, where Dr Breitenbach and others will look at "how to decide amid inevitable uncertainty in areas where action is clearly required". This will be followed by a final module examining the competing values - ethical, aesthetic and economic - that people bring to debates on environmental issues, and how they can be reconciled.

Insights from nature writing and eco-poetry will be considered alongside those of philosophy and science.

The master's will be offered from September and is intended to attract 15 to 20 students annually.

Professor Hulme hopes it will lead students to "understand that both the sciences and humanities have much to say to us about environmental change. The challenge is finding ways for the two domains to speak to each other."

Although it includes "an intensive orientation week on method and data" and "a crash course in statistics and narrative", these will obviously not be enough to "create highly skilled statisticians or literary critics, but they should enable people to talk sensibly to each other about one reality, though from different perspectives".


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