COP21 and the need for transdisciplinary efforts

by Nichole Weber’15

As the Conference of Parties meeting (COP21) comes to a close, many are lauding the widely accepted agreement of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius while also adding the ambitious target of 1.5 degrees. Many leaders are looking to this a good starting point, but with an ambitious target. Reaching the ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees will require a few key issues, namely: reducing fossil fuels–rapidly, moving towards near zero emissions, the necessity of carbon capture, policy changes, and moving to assist developed countries move past dirty energy sources. Limiting global warming will require interdisciplinary leaders and coalitions of business, policy, government, nongovernmental agencies, and local communities to simultaneously mitigate and adapt to climate change. Interdisciplinary work will be key to mitigation and adaptation.

Addressing mitigation and adaptation in less developed countries brings challenges for both developed and developing countries. Developed countries have currently pledged 100 billion dollars to assist less developed countries, among the most vulnerable to climate change, the most with adaptation. However, there are many challenges to implementing climate adaptation efforts including incorporation of local and indigenous knowledge and building infrastructural capacity to absorb climate adaptation funds in a long-term and manageable way. This will require the concerted effort of interdisciplinary practitioners.

Interdisciplinary practitioners can understand a breadth of knowledge within a given field, while they also have knowledge and exposure to other disciplines. This allows a space to think across disciplines and coupled environmental and social problems. The challenge to interdisciplinary researchers is to not privilege one discipline or understanding over another. For instance, climate adaptation efforts in developed countries will require a wide understanding of the effects of climate both current and projected on local communities. This information will also be necessary for implementing adaptation strategies that address infrastructure, policies, and economic and social needs. We need to address the urgent issues of moving towards near zero emissions, the necessity of carbon capture, policy changes, and moving to assist developed countries move past dirty energy sources. These challenges are not mutually exclusive, but part of coupled human and natural dimensions. Thus, addressing climate change will require balanced transdisciplinary efforts and practitioners to reach the ambitious target of keeping the warming of our planet under 1.5 degrees.

Morality aside

by Greg Davies’15

During the most recent Democratic presidential debate, Senator Bernie Sanders described anthropogenic climate change as a moral issue. A variety of religious leaders and groups, notably Pope Francis with his environmental encyclical, have described both protection of the earth itself and the consequent protection of people as moral obligations. Whenever a leader, whether religious or secular, references the moral implications of climate change, some voices immediately protest casting environmental protection in terms of moral obligations. They articulate their reasons differently: some say that speaking in moral terms becomes an attack on those who feel otherwise; some say morals are relative or even imaginary; some say we need to stick to practical arguments and justifications. All of the arguments ultimately come back to the idea that morality should be kept intangible, either in church or in the classroom, but problems like global climate change require “real” solutions.

Too often, especially in scientific circles, we earnestly go looking for what is “real” and discard anything that does not fit our definition. The range of ideas labeled as unreal varies from person to person. For some, nothing but the purest hard science is real; the moment any hint of values or bias becomes inevitable, it is not real. The so-called hard sciences fit neatly into such a definition of the real, as do mathematics. The softer sciences, like psychology, are not empirically absolute, and so are not real. Others hold that psychology is an extension of the hard sciences, and at least has the potential to be an unbiased true science.

Even the most accommodating individuals, however, have a tendency to balk at the transition from science to the broadly defined humanities. The humanities, especially for people of scientific minds, often cannot have a place in the discussion of “real” issues. Because the humanities deal with opinion and belief, they are not scientific. Thus, a scientific problem like anthropogenic climate change requires a scientific solution, drawing on empirical facts instead of vague opinions or unverifiable beliefs.

Avoiding opinions has legitimate rationale. Especially with an issue like climate change, opinions can significantly hinder efforts to educate the public and work towards solutions. Opinions mistaken for facts lead to embarrassing misunderstandings. We cannot ever hope to have a universal consensus of beliefs and opinions; therefore, we tend to forgo considering morality in favor of whatever we can agree is purely empirical. In order to justify a complete disregard for the relative, we jump to the argument that beliefs, though sometimes interesting, have no place in discussions of real issues. However, misuse of opinions and beliefs does not justify rejecting them outright.

Even people who do not object to discussions of morality, at least as an intellectual exercise, often resist allowing relative beliefs into scientific issues like climate change. Beyond the damage caused by opinions treated as facts, they point out that morality is not a universal appeal: some people consider environmental protection a moral imperative, while others do not. Working in a realm of consensus building and policy compromises, introducing arguments that reach only certain people wastes valuable time and resources. Unprovable morality becomes a distraction when mixed into the provable scientific arguments behind anthropogenic climate change. One must use real arguments to address real issues, and leave morality for free time.

We lose a critical opportunity for engagement when we insist that only certain ways of thinking are real enough to address climate change. Scientific inquiry teaches us how human activities change the climate, as well as how we might slow or reverse those changes. Science alone, however, cannot tell us why we should address climate change. Ultimately, we do not worry about increasing terrestrial heat because we dislike heat; we worry instead about the consequences of a warming planet. Climate change means many things, from unstable food supplies to rising sea levels to loss of biodiversity, all of which negatively affect our fellow creatures, human and otherwise. Morality tells us to act, science tells us how.