We need more humanists in climate campaigning

Climate advocacy is overly dominated by scientists and engineers and is weakened by the lack of historians, philosophers and artists

Humanists in climate campaigning

A climate protest in Chicago USA in September 2019 (Photo credit: John Konstantaras/Greenpeace)


As Cop28 draws near, I’m preparing with different climate justice organisations and coalitions. But, as a historian, I can’t help but feel slightly out of place.

When I attend climate policy events it’s rare to meet another humanist. Most of the experts are either scientists or at the very least studied the social sciences.

This divide between the sciences and humanities must be challenged in climate advocacy spaces. We need more humanists in climate spaces because we have so much to contribute to the pursuit of a just and sustainable world. 

The lack of humanists in climate activism is because of prevailing disciplinary silos between science and the humanities.

Climate change is woven into our educational systems around the world almost entirely via science, technology, engineering, and maths (Stem) subjects. 

This is a missed opportunity to integrate climate education through a multi-disciplinary approach that fully engages all students with various strengths.

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As a student of history and literature, my education is often seen as frivolous in climate advocacy spaces.

However, my humanities background informs my work on social issues and the climate crisis.

As I study modern human history, it’s obvious to me that we’re experiencing the climate crisis because our societies value profit over people and the planet.

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Systems like colonialism and capitalism, that exploit workers,  extract fossil fuel at the expense of ecosystems.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change only recently acknowledged the role of colonialism in the climate crisis, a relationship some historians and Indigenous scholars have known for years.

Without proper forethought, new green technology can easily reinforce the inequality that brought us here in the first place. And in some cases it already has.

For example, carbon credits justify the dispossession of indigenous peoples’ land and devastating mining practices destroy communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo for minerals used in green technology. 

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Humanists remind us that these recent developments are part of a greater legacy of inequity.

The amazing innovations that scientists and engineries are creating in fields like green technologies and renewable resources are just one part of the equation.

We must also transform how we collectively think, eat, value and live.

For scientists to create the technology of the future we must first decide what kind of future we want this technology to be in service of.

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Humanists can contribute to expanding our collective imagination to create that future.

Humanities can link science with the multidimensional nature of social challenges and culture.

This will inform green technology implementation, international policy, and campaign strategies geared towards sustainability and equity.

Some humanists have already begun this important path through the study of environmental humanities and related fields.

Scholars like Karl Jacoby, Leah Aronowsky, Elizabeth Mary DeLoughrey, and Amanda J. Baugh are doing critical work in this field.

They investigate how the environment is understood and constructed in relation to people, and how these understandings shape our actions and ideas.

Indigenous scholars, like  Emily JohnsonAnne Spice, and Robin Wall Kimmerer have a long history of linking environmental studies and cultural studies.

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They highlight pluriversal, instead of universal, approaches to just and sustainable communities.

Unfortunately, the larger field of environmental humanities is only recently emerging and is underfunded and overwhelmingly White.  

We desperately need diverse academics and centers dedicated to making these connections and sharing that scholarship with the public.

Well-resourced climate scientists and leaders must also invite environmental humanities scholars in as experts and leverage their power to create multi-disciplinary policy approaches.

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We all come from people who have lived on this Earth for millennia, so we all have unique ecological histories, cultures, and spirituality to rediscover.

Kwolanne Felix is a climate and gender equity advocate and works at the New York University State Energy and Environmental Impact Center. 

Read more on: Activism and campaigning | Climate justice