Addressing the Crisis of Climate Change

April 29, 2019
Addressing the Crisis of Climate Change
Dipesh Chakrabarty will deliver the William James Lecture May 1.

The 2019 William James Lecture will be presented on May 1, 5:15 pm, by Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty, Distinguished Service Professor of History, South Asian Languages, and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. His talk, “The Planet: An Emergent Matter of Spiritual Concern?”, will also be live streamed via the HDS website.

Chakrabarty’s most recent book is The Crises of Civilization: Exploring Global and Planetary Histories. He is also working on a book project on the implications of the science of climate change for historical and political thought. Below, he discusses the importance of the humanities in studying climate change and how the classroom serves as a space for activism.


Harvard Divinity School: This spring semester you’ve been teaching the graduate colloquium, “Historical Time and the Anthropocene.” Over the recent years, have you noticed that students are becoming more interested in scholarship and classroom dialogue around climate change, and how have classroom discussions evolved? Do students today feel more of a moral or ethical duty to engage on issues of climate change rather than simply understand it from a scientific or historical perspective?

Dipesh Chakrabarty: Not only students, my colleagues in the more humanistic disciplines are getting interested as well, and from a variety of disciplinary concerns. Anthropologists, for example, are trying to figure out how their discipline might deal with climate change. I see the same thing happening in history, political science, law, and in the University of Chicago's Divinity School.

While scientists have in many ways defined the problem for us and economists have contributed significantly on policy-related matters, climate change also raises many questions of human values, ethics, justice, and theologies.

Students are interested in all of these questions. And, being young, they also feel that nothing less their own future is at stake in all these discussions.

HDS: In your famous essay, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” you write that: “The crisis of climate change calls on academics to rise above their disciplinary prejudices, for it is a crisis of many dimensions.” Could you explain a bit about what you mean by “rise about their disciplinary prejudices”? Are you saying that climate change is intertwined within any number of academic fields, and therefore scholars from the humanities should be just as involved as scientists in examining climate change?

DC: Yes, of course. Climate change is a multi-dimensional, multi-disciplinary problem. Even the sciences involved are multiple, including physics, chemistry, biology, and geology. But there is also another problem I encounter as a scholar in the humanities. This is what C. P. Snow once called the problem of “two cultures.”

The divide between the natural sciences and the humanities is still strong. It is very difficult to understand what climate change is without at least reading some of the scientists who have written for non-specialists.

Similarly, scientists are often by training unaware of the complex, ambiguous, and “unsolvable” problems that humanists bring to the table. This conversation across disciplines and across the “two cultures” needs to happen, but I would not underestimate its difficulty.

HDS: You speak publicly and write extensively about climate change and global ecology. Do you consider that to be a form of climate activism? Simply put: Do you consider yourself an activist?

DC: I do not think of myself as an “activist” in the usual sense of the word, though I often admire activists for what they contribute to debates and actions in the public sphere.

I think of the classroom as my space of activism. I think that this is where teachers and students as co-learners seed thoughts that may germinate one day and inform what we do in the “real world,” as they say. The wonderful thing about the classroom is that no questions—so long as they are put in a manner that is civil and respectful of others—are barred. This is where one can practice the Socratic activity of examining the ends for which we live.

HDS: A 2015 report from Pew Research stated that: “When it comes to people’s beliefs about climate change, it is the religiously unaffiliated, not those who identify with a religious tradition, who are particularly likely to say the Earth is warming due to human activity.” Given the title of your HDS talk, “The Planet: An Emergent Matter of Spiritual Concern?”, if climate change is a spiritual concern, do you have a sense of why the issue does not resonate with a troubling number of religious folk?

DC: The “religious folk” have to be distinguished from the many “religious people” who have already responded to the crisis of climate change, the biggest example being, of course, Pope Francis and his famous encyclical of 2015. There are also some theologians who have written about the problem.

But narratives of climate change are scary. To be told that the planet could become uninhabitable for humans if they did not change their ways is not a pleasant experience. So many people in the world—and not just the “religious folk”—find comfort in denying or ignoring the issue.

Some versions of religion may even offer explanations that help bolster these attitudes. But “denial” and/or “indifference” are understandable responses to a situation of crisis. As a humanist, I am not dismissive of them. They are part of the condition in which humans find themselves today.