Communicating Climate Change in the Anthropocene

Student post by Mary Galli. Posted on October 3rd, 2017.

Nathan Hensley, an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., opened the Mellon Sawyer Seminar’s first event of the academic year: “Writing Climate Now.” In his introduction, he said our collective work is to develop new terms to talk about the changed world we live in and the new epoch in geological time, the Anthropocene.

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Professor Dana Luciano, an Associate Professor at Georgetown, followed Prof. Hensley’s opening remarks by introducing the panel and discussing its inspiration: David Wallace-Wells’ New York Magazine article, “The Uninhabitable Earth.” Published over the summer to significant controversy, the first sentence of the article distilled its main argument: “[Climate change] is, I promise, worse than you think”; it goes on to suggest that earth may be uninhabitable by the year 2100. His apocalyptic tone raised the panel’s main question: How do we communicate and write effectively about climate change in the Anthropocene?

Mabel Gergan, the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Humanities and Geography at Georgetown, researches anthropogenic effects in the Himalayan region–a hot spot for global warming, where temperature rises faster at higher elevations. Specifically, she noted, the building of hydropower dams has caused environmental disasters, such as landslides and potentially an increase in earthquakes. The uncertainty of these events has led indigenous groups to question human actions: the spiritual moral failures of community leaders. Dr. Gergan proposed that we reposition ourselves as interdisciplinary learners.

The next panelist, Dagomar Degroot, Assistant Professor of History at Georgetown, presented a pragmatic approach to the Anthropocene. For example, he is involved with a podcast and other digital media (HistoricalClimatology.comthat addresses climate change. He argued that the humanities have other angles with which to broach the subject of climate change and that everyone should be empowered to write and speak online since that medium is effective at reaching a large audience, more so than an article or a book.

Evan Berry, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at American University, started his presentation by explaining that people thought he was crazy when he decided to research how rhetoric about climate change reflects the historical imagination of human history and religion. He suggested that humans see climate change as a societal transgression, man’s fall in the tradition of Eden. Similarly, he discussed the idea of apocalypse as ‘revelation’ and its fundamental religious revealing within the Anthropocene, using the term “Anthro-pocalypse” to describe the decidedly Biblical cadence of discourse.

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Last, Shiloh Krupar, Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor in the Culture and Politics Department at Georgetown, talked about her interests in pedagogy as it related to the Anthropocene. She argued that “alternative facts” aren’t new, and climate change skeptics exploit the public’s inherent uncertainty in a post-truth environment to establish themselves as seemingly legitimate peers of climate scientists and academics. Krupar noted that the study of environmental humanities allows academics to ask the question, “What do we trust?” The humanities reconnect the human body to the environment, and like Dr. Gergan, she advocated for interdisciplinary strategies to approach climate change.

While the panel didn’t formulate a comprehensive answer for its organizing question, “How do we write about climate change?” they did present other ways to think about communicating climate change. For example, Krupar participates in a group that rehearses governing in a speculative mode to think about how people work through antagonism toward each other, and Degroot finds online communication to be most effective. Similarly, Amitav Ghosh argues in his book, The Great Derangement, that humans in the Anthropocene will have to stop communicating in linguistic terms and start to think about the new epoch in and through images (Ghosh 83). As we explore new methods and strategies for effectively communicating in this new epoch, it is important to keep having these discussions and to adapt our methods of discourse on climate change.

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A few questions for consideration posed at the end of the panel: Degroot asked the unanswered question, “How do we communicate with climate change deniers?” and Professor Luciano inquired, “How do we broach the subject of climate change with children?” Both of these questions touch on a deeper issue–does the terminology we currently use to discuss climate change, amidst all its political connotations, allow for progress? Or must we invent a new way to describe this global phenomenon?

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Mary Galli is an M.A. candidate in English at Georgetown University. Her primary research interests include 19th-century British literature and its intersections with the law, the relationships between humans and animals, and the British Empire.

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